How sustainable is viscose really?

With the growing attention being given to eco-friendly items and textiles, it goes without saying that we need to discuss viscose. A textile made from trees and often used as a replacement for the eco-unfriendly and non-vegan alternative that is silk, viscose has been around for over a century. Because it is originally rooted in plants and is therefore a better alternative to plastic-containing synthetic fibres, viscose tends to be seen as a good option that is eco-friendly, a sustainable material, and better for the earth. But is it really? Let’s take a look.

What Is Viscose?

First, let’s establish what viscose is. Viscose is simply a material which is created from tree fibers, more specifically cellulose. Unlike synthetic fibers, which use short-life plastics and are therefore unsustainable, viscose is created from a plant and is therefore a more sustainable option. Similarly, viscose provides a similar feel to silk without using animal products, therefore providing ethical vegans with a solid alternative to an otherwise very luxurious-looking material.

Properties of Viscose

Viscose has many properties that make it a great material. For example, it is highly absorbent, making it a great fabric for workout clothing. It is additionally lightweight and breathable, hence good for the hot summer months and to be used as training gear. Ultimately, nothing is worse than training in a top that keeps sticking to you because of the missing water absorption factor! It is soft, maintains its shape well and can be dyed easily, therefore keeping the production costs low. Hence, viscose is not only sustainable and eco-friendly, but it is an affordable textile to be wearing and using.

How Is Viscose Made?

Viscose, although more sustainable, is also arguably not as sustainable as materials such as cotton because of its heavy processing that requires many chemicals and energy. As such, although it is indeed a good option, it is not the best option. Here are the production steps. First, the plant, usually a tree, is broken down into wood pulp. Chemicals are added, including sodium hydroxide, which creates a brown wood pulp substance. Second, the pulp is washed and cleaned, and bleach is then added to it. Third, carbon disulfide is then added to the pulp to allow for the creation of fibers, and sodium hydroxide is once again added to create viscose. This new viscose solution is then added to a spinneret or a machine that creates regenerated cellulose– filamenets that are almost like yarn. The fifth step is then to spin the regenerated cellulose into yarn, which is then woven and/or knit into fabric that can be used to create specific items. Thus, it is highly processed. Nonetheless, it is much more ecofriendly than plastic-containing fibres that take hundreds of years to biodegrade!

Are There Existing Certificates?

Yes, there are! FSC-certified viscose is the most common certification available for this material. Viscose, being a type of rayon fiber, can be sourced either sustainably or unsustainably. FSC-certified viscose means that the material was sourced sustainably, or in a way that is renewable and non-exertiable. To get this certification, sources need to be adequately monitored and assessed as either sustainable or not. Every single party in the value chain, from the yarn manufacturer to the trader needs to be FSC-certified for a viscose clothing piece to be certified!

Deadstock or Newly-Sourced Viscose?

Deadstock fabric is an old fabric that wasn’t sold initially. For example, perhaps there was some damage, or maybe the seller ordered too much of a certain colour. Otherwise, perhaps there are scraps on the floor from the factory’s cutting and sizing. Deadstock, in this concept, refers to the kind of textile that then goes to eco-friendly brands instead of going straight to the landfill. It is therefore a way to save up on textiles and make sure that all resources are being used up. Deadstock can, however, be lower in quality, which is something to be aware of and careful with!

On the other hand, newly-sourced viscose is simply viscose that was created for that specific purpose (to create an item with this specific textile).

So, is it sustainable?

Unfortunately, viscose cannot be said to be very sustainable. Although it uses fewer resources that are short-lived, including plastics and microplastics, the process of creating viscose is extremely polluting. It releases toxic chemicals both in the air and in water systems which can therefore hurt surrounding communities. Similarly, some of the chemicals used have been shown to be toxic for human beings, including carbon disulphide, which is connected to heart disease, skin conditions, and cancer. As such, those working in factories are more prone to such conditions.

Viscose can absolutely be a better option but it's important to acknowledge, that it's also not the most sustainable choice of fabric. You want to learn more about the alternative called Tencel?