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Is Viscose Fabric Sustainable?

September 9, 2023Lifestyle

Is viscose fabric sustainable and eco-friendly? What is it made of? How long does viscose take to decompose? In today’s article, we’ll answer the most important questions to help you decide whether or not viscose has a place in your sustainable wardrobe 

The sustainability of viscose fabric 

Viscose, often referred to as “artificial silk,” is a versatile and widely used fabric in the fashion industry. Originally developed as an affordable alternative to natural silk, it made its debut in the late 19th century. Viscose is crafted from cellulose fibers derived primarily from wood pulp, making it a semi-synthetic textile. What sets it apart is its remarkable ability to mimic the luxurious feel and drape of silk while offering several distinct benefits.

Viscose fabrics are prized for their softness, smooth texture, and excellent breathability, making them ideal for warm-weather clothing. They also have a natural sheen that adds an elegant touch to various garments. Additionally, viscose is highly absorbent, wicking moisture away from the body, which contributes to its comfort factor. It can be easily dyed, allowing for a wide array of vibrant and enduring colors. Whether in the form of dresses, blouses, or linings, viscose fabrics have earned their place as a popular choice in the fashion world. Still, one question remains: Is viscose fabric eco-friendly and sustainable?

What is Viscose fabric?

Viscose fabric is derived from natural cellulose fibers, primarily sourced from wood pulp, bamboo, or cotton. It boasts a unique combination of qualities, making it a sought-after material. It has a soft and smooth texture akin to natural silk, along with a luxurious drape, making it comfortable and elegant to wear. This fabric is highly absorbent, wicking moisture away from the body, which enhances its breathability, especially in warm weather. Viscose is also renowned for its vibrant dyeability, allowing for a wide range of rich and enduring colors in clothing and textiles.

What Is Viscose Fabric Made Of?

 The manufacturing process involves dissolving these fibers in a chemical solution to create a thick, viscous liquid, hence the name “viscose.” This liquid is then extruded through spinnerets to form long strands, which are solidified into fibers through chemical treatments and drying.

The process begins by harvesting the plant material, typically wood pulp in the case of most viscose production. The wood is chipped, and the cellulose is extracted through a chemical process. The extracted cellulose is then treated with an alkali solution, such as sodium hydroxide (caustic soda), to break down the cellulose into a more soluble form known as alkali cellulose. Then, the alkali cellulose is then combined with carbon disulfide, resulting in the formation of cellulose xanthate, a highly soluble compound. This cellulose xanthate is dissolved in a diluted sodium hydroxide solution, forming a highly viscous, honey-like liquid, hence the name “viscose.” 

The viscose liquid is then forced through spinnerets, which are similar to showerheads with fine holes, to create long, continuous strands of viscose fibers. These fibers are then submerged in a diluted sulfuric acid bath. This process solidifies the viscose into a semi-synthetic fiber, known as “rayon,” which can be further processed into various types of rayon, including viscose fabric.

So, Is Viscose a synthetic or natural fabric?

Viscose isn’t a natural fabric. The transformation of wood pulp into wearable fabric in the production of viscose entails a comprehensive and chemically intensive procedure. This intricate process involves a significant alteration of the cellulose’s chemical composition.

Is Viscose fabric sustainable?

No, conventional viscose is not sustainable.

The sustainability of viscose fabric varies depending on how it is produced. There are two main methods of producing viscose fabric: conventional and eco-friendly or sustainable methods. In order to be sustainable, two main questions should be answered: Where does the wood pulp come from and how is it processed?

While wood pulp is indeed a renewable resource, there have been reports indicating that certain sources of wood pulp used in the production of viscose are linked to endangered forests. These findings give rise to a multitude of environmental apprehensions, notably concerning deforestation and the diminishing biodiversity in affected regions.

The benefits of Viscose fabric

First and foremost, it possesses a luxurious and smooth texture, closely resembling the feel of natural silk. This quality lends it a touch of elegance, making it a favored choice for various clothing items, including dresses, blouses, and linings.

Another significant advantage of viscose fabric lies in its breathability and moisture-wicking properties. It excels in keeping the wearer comfortable in warm weather by efficiently absorbing moisture and allowing air circulation. This attribute makes it a preferred option for summer clothing, providing a cool and refreshing experience.

Viscose’s versatility extends to its vibrant dyeability, allowing for a rich and lasting spectrum of colors. This feature is particularly appealing to designers and consumers who seek a wide range of aesthetic options.

Moreover, viscose is sourced from renewable cellulose fibers, primarily derived from wood pulp, rendering it a more sustainable choice compared to purely synthetic fabrics. It’s worth noting that the sustainability of viscose can vary depending on production methods, with eco-friendly practices, such as closed-loop systems, mitigating environmental impacts.

Is manufacturing viscose environmentally friendly?

It can be, but not always!

Traditional or conventional viscose production has been associated with significant environmental concerns. This process involves the heavy use of chemicals, such as carbon disulfide and sodium hydroxide, which can be harmful to both workers and the environment if not managed properly. It has been linked to air and water pollution and can contribute to deforestation if the wood pulp sourcing is unsustainable.

 However, In recent years, efforts have been made to produce viscose fabric using more sustainable and environmentally responsible methods. One such method is the use of closed-loop systems, where the chemicals used in the process are captured, recycled, and reused, reducing waste and pollution. Additionally, sustainable viscose can be produced from certified sustainable sources of wood pulp, such as FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified forests, which helps address deforestation concerns.

Is viscose biodegradable?

Yes, viscose iS biodegradable and studies have found it can even break down quicker than cotton. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t leave any trace behind. Most fabrics, including viscose, undergo a process involving the addition of synthetic compounds, treatments, and dyes before becoming a part of your wardrobe. Furthermore, the initial production of viscose involves the incorporation of various chemicals.

For instance, disposing of your old viscose t-shirt in your indoor compost bin is ill-advised, particularly if you intend to use the resultant compost for cultivating vegetables in your apartment garden. The presence of these chemicals raises concerns about the suitability of such compost for your gardening endeavors.

How long does viscose take to decompose?

Under ideal conditions, such as in a composting environment with proper moisture, temperature, and microbial activity, viscose fabric can decompose within a few weeks to a few months. However, in less favorable conditions, such as a landfill with limited oxygen and microbial activity, decomposition may take significantly longer, potentially several years. It’s important to note that the presence of dyes, treatments, or synthetic additives in the viscose fabric can affect its biodegradability. Some of these additives may slow down the decomposition process.

So, is there a sustainable viscose fabric?

Is modal rayon/viscose sustainable?

Modal fabric, often considered a ‘second-generation’ cellulosic fiber, represents a notable advancement over conventional viscose in terms of both material performance and sustainability attributes.

While generic modal production employs similar methods and chemicals, such as carbon disulfide, as traditional viscose, an Austrian company called Lenzing has taken a significant step towards sustainability by adopting a closed-loop manufacturing process for its modal fabric.

Closed-loop manufacturing, designed around a zero-waste concept, involves the efficient capture and recycling of the majority of chemicals and water used in the production process. This approach results in a substantial reduction in harmful environmental emissions and minimizes toxic waste generation.

Furthermore, this eco-conscious process contributes to an impressive 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions when compared to the conventional production of viscose.

However, it’s worth noting that despite these substantial improvements, Lenzing Modal is rated only at ‘D’ in the Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibers. This rating places it ahead of materials like cotton, wool, conventional viscose, and bamboo viscose, but it still falls within the middle tier, alongside virgin synthetic fibers.

Is lyocell viscose sustainable?

Lyocell fabric represents the evolution of cellulosic fibers into their third generation.

TENCEL™ Lyocell, another innovation from Lenzing, stands out as a frontrunner in sustainability within this category. It has earned a notable ‘Class B’ rating in the Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibers, positioning it two classes ahead of modal and an impressive three classes ahead of bamboo and generic viscose.

The sustainability of TENCEL™ Lyocell stems from multiple factors. Firstly, it utilizes eucalyptus as a raw material, sourced from sustainably managed forests. Secondly, its production process adopts a closed-loop system, where over 95% of water and chemicals are efficiently recycled. Furthermore, it replaces sodium hydroxide with an organic solvent, further reducing its environmental impact.

Excitingly, the world of cellulosic fibers continues to evolve, with innovative alternatives on the horizon. Researchers are exploring unconventional sources like milk, orange peels, and even coffee grounds, ushering in a new era of sustainable materials.

While these experiments sound almost edible, the real question is whether they will meet the standards for wearability. Nonetheless, these advancements underscore that viscose, and its derivatives like Lyocell, hold tremendous potential for improvement. It’s just a matter of technology and consumer demand aligning to drive further progress.”

Is bamboo viscose eco-friendly?

Bamboo, as a plant, certainly boasts impressive eco-credentials. It’s among the most sustainable flora globally, owing to its rapid growth, minimal water requirements, and the ability to sequester substantial amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.

However, the transition from bamboo cellulose to wearable fabric parallels the chemically intensive process associated with conventional viscose, which raises environmental concerns due to the release of toxic chemicals.

For enthusiasts of bamboo, there is a silver lining in the form of bamboo lyocell, crafted through a closed-loop manufacturing process.

Best Sustainable Brands for Viscose Fabric Clothes

1. Eileen Fisher

 Eileen Fisher stands as a pioneering brand, setting the standard for transparency and ethical practices. Their impressive collection of viscose and rayon styles primarily originates from responsibly managed, legally harvested forests, reflecting their commitment to sustainable sourcing. Notably, the brand is also actively championing research and development in recycled cellulose materials. Eileen Fisher’s range of cellulosic offerings spans cardigans, pullovers, dresses, t-shirts, comfortable pants, and even includes luxurious velvet tops, dresses, and jackets.

2. Tagma Designs

TAMGA offers an amazing collection of feminine clothing featuring vibrant and colorful designs. Whether you’re relaxing at home in their luxuriously soft robes or preparing for a night out in one of their elegant evening dresses, you’ll be captivated by the exquisite feel and appearance of their fabrics and designs.

What makes TAMGA truly exceptional is their commitment to ethical production in Indonesia, where everything is crafted from sustainable materials such as TENCEL, EcoVero, and French Linen. This dedication to both style and sustainability ensures that every piece you choose reflects your values and fashion-forward sensibilities.

3. Amour Vert

Amour Vert, yet another remarkable sustainable brand, employs Ecovero for its stunning, vibrant prints and designs. The brand’s commitment to sustainability extends to a diverse array of eco-conscious fabrics, including TENCEL, Organic Cotton, and Hemp, with a delightful addition of Ecovero pieces.

What sets Amour Vert apart is its dedication to local manufacturing, with a striking 97% of their clothing produced right here in the United States. Moreover, their sustainability ethos extends to their packaging, which is thoughtfully designed to be eco-friendly and compostable, aligning perfectly with their mission to leave a positive environmental footprint.

Conclusion: Is viscose sustainable and eco-friendly?

While viscose holds potential as a sustainable fabric, its sustainability depends on responsible production and consumer choices. On the positive side, its renewable cellulose origins and its ability to mimic the luxurious feel of silk while being more affordable make it an attractive option. Moreover, advancements like closed-loop manufacturing processes, as seen in TENCEL™ Lyocell, have significantly improved its eco-credentials, reducing water and chemical waste and greenhouse gas emissions. However, not all viscose is created equal, and its sustainability can be compromised by conventional production methods that rely on toxic chemicals and unsustainably sourced wood pulp. It’s crucial for consumers to consider the source of the fabric, look for certifications like FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), and investigate whether closed-loop systems were employed in its production.

About Author

Konstantina Antoniadou

Freelance sustainability and fashion writer with an ongoing curiosity to explore new innovative technologies, and report on trends in “green” industries.