What Is Viscose Fabric And Is It Sustainable?
Viscose: fabric for the future or shady material that belongs in fashion’s dark past?
Originally developed as a cheap alternative to silk, viscose has been mainstay in the fashion industry for decades.
But what is viscose fabric? Does it deserve a place in our sustainable fashion wardrobe?
Viscose borrows its name from the manufacturing process, at one point in which it’s a “viscous”, honey-like liquid before it solidifies.
Unlike honey though, things aren’t so sweet when it comes to sustainability. In fact, conventional viscose fabric is an ecological nightmare.
However, in a similar vein (err…thread) to bamboo fabric, it’s possible to produce viscose in a cleaner, greener way. Whether or not manufacturers choose the greener option is another matter.
Let’s unravel the facts to find out what the future holds for viscose material.
1. WHAT IS VISCOSE FABRIC?
If you’ve found yourself reading clothing labels and wondering “what is viscose material?” you’re not alone.
As conscious consumers, we want to know what materials our clothes and homewares are made from, how they’re made, and whether they cut the mustard sustainability-wise.
What material is viscose?
To avoid confusion, let’s begin by clarifying that viscose and rayon fabric are one and the same, despite the fact that you’ll see “viscose rayon fabric” on some garment tags.
The terms are used interchangeably, with “rayon” being the most oft-referred to in the US while “viscose” is the name of choice in Europe.
Viscose / rayon is the general term for a regenerated manufactured (AKA semi-synthetic) fiber, made from plant-based cellulose using the viscose process.
Other regenerated cellulose fabrics include bamboo, cupro fabric, modal, and lyocell fabric.
Viscose preceded all these.
The grandfather of manufactured fibers, viscose was originally developed as an artificial alternative to silk.
2. WHAT IS VISCOSE FABRIC MADE OF?
Is viscose a natural fabric?
As with most cellulose fabrics, viscose uses the pulp from wood or woody plants as the initial raw ingredient.
Don’t confuse this as meaning viscose is a natural fabric though.
The wood pulp used in the production of viscose has to go through a lengthy, chemically-intensive process to turn it into a wearable fabric. This process changes the chemical structure of the cellulose and is far from natural.
Is viscose synthetic?
Unlike true synthetics such as polyester and nylon which are 100% manmade, viscose is not a completely synthetic fabric either because the raw materials are of natural origin.
Because it falls somewhere in the middle, viscose joins the ranks of semi-synthetic fabrics.
3. IS VISCOSE SUSTAINABLE?
So is viscose eco friendly?
We’ll start by saying with certainty that conventional viscose is bad news for the environment.
There are two main issues to consider when looking at viscose sustainability.
First, where does the wood pulp come from and how is it processed?
Reports have found that some wood pulp used for viscose production is sourced from endangered forests. This raises numerous environmental concerns related to deforestation and biodiversity loss.
Even if the wood is responsibly sourced, there’s still the glaring issue of how it’s processed.
Here’s what the production of viscose fabric looks like:
- Cellulose is extracted from the wood pulp and dissolved in caustic soda (sodium hydroxide, a toxic chemical).
- It’s formed into sheets and processed using carbon disulfide (another toxic chemical).
- It’s then dissolved again before being filtered and extruded through a spinneret to create strands.
- These strands are submerged in a sulphuric acid bath (also toxic) to be softened and able to be spun into yarn.
With all those toxic chemicals named and shamed it begs the question: is viscose fabric toxic?
While not necessarily toxic to those exposed to the fabric’s final form, viscose production poses some pretty serious risks to the environment and workers.
The chemicals used in the viscose manufacturing process are hard to dispose of safely and water contamination has been a major concern.
The chemicals also put workers at greater risk. Both caustic soda and sulphuric acid can damage skin and eyes and carbon disulfide harms the eyes, kidneys, blood, heart, liver, nerves, and skin.
Although viscose was initially manufactured in the US and Europe, since the 1990s, it has moved overseas to countries like India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and China, where regulations surrounding environmental and worker health are not so stringent or enforced.
Out of sight, out of mind, as it were.
Despite all this, does viscose have any redeeming features?
Is viscose biodegradable?
Interestingly, viscose is biodegradable and studies have found it breaks down quicker than cotton.
However, just because something is biodegradable, doesn’t mean that it breaks down cleanly.
Unfortunately, the majority of fabrics have been combined with or treated and dyed with a variety of synthetic substances before ending up in your wardrobe, and viscose is no exception.
Not to mention all those chemicals that go into making the fabric in the first place.
Case in point: You shouldn’t go chucking your old viscose t-shirt in your indoor compost bin—especially if you’re planning to use the resulting compost to grow veggies.
Ok, so it’s not quite redeemed, but is there such a thing as sustainable viscose?
What is sustainable viscose?
Thankfully, fabric technologies are advancing all the time, and developments in the viscose manufacturing process mean things are looking up.
Two newer semi-synthetic fibers leading by example are modal and lyocell.
Sometimes referred to as a “second-generation” cellulosic fiber, modal fabric is a step up from conventional viscose in terms of fabric performance and sustainability credentials.
Although generic modal production uses the same methods and chemicals as viscose production, the Austrian company Lenzing produces its modal through a closed-loop process.
A zero waste concept, closed-loop manufacturing means that the majority of chemicals and water used in the process are captured and recycled again and again, significantly reducing harmful environmental discharge and toxic waste.
This also offers an 80% reduction in greenhouse emissions compared to traditional conventional viscose production.
Despite the improvement, Lenzing Modal is only ranked D in the Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres. This puts it ahead of cotton, wool, conventional viscose, and bamboo viscose but it’s still only a middle rating, sitting alongside synthetic fabrics like virgin polyester.
Things can only get better right?
Enter lyocell. Lyocell is the third generation of cellulosic fibers, following on from viscose and modal.
Tencel™ lyocell, again made by Lenzing, is the most sustainable. It’s in class B of the Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres, two classes ahead of modal and three classes ahead of bamboo viscose and generic viscose.
Things are moving in the right direction.
Not only does Tencel™ use a raw material (eucalyptus) from sustainably managed sources, the production process is a lot more sustainable, too.
It uses a closed-loop process that recycles almost all (upwards of 95%) the water and chemicals. Sodium hydroxide is replaced with an organic solvent.
Things are set to get better still with new, innovative cellulosic fibers being explored.
There’s currently a move away from wood-based pulps towards experiments with everyday items such as milk, orange peels, and even coffee grounds.
They sound good enough to eat but will they be good enough to wear? We’ll have to wait and see.
Regardless, these innovations prove that viscose is among a class of fibers that holds a lot of potential for improvement. It’s just a matter of the technology (and demand) catching up.
What about bamboo viscose fabric?
Without wishing to rain on the sustainable fabric parade, it’s important to mention bamboo viscose fabric.
There’s been some confusion over the sustainability of this relative newcomer to the fabric scene.
Bamboo certainly starts out eco-friendly. It’s one of the most sustainable plants in the world because it grows so quickly without needing a lot of water or chemical inputs, while also sequestering more carbon from the atmosphere than most plants.
However, as with conventional viscose, the process of turning the bamboo cellulose into fabric is chemically-intensive with toxic chemicals polluting the environment.
The good news for bamboo lovers is that there is bamboo lyocell fabric out there. As with Tencel™, this is made using a closed-loop process and it’s a fabric we can embrace for our ethical wardrobe.
4. WHAT IS VISCOSE USED FOR?
Although it was originally developed as a cheaper alternative to silk, consumers soon caught onto the fact that it didn’t measure up that well against real silk.
Whilst there are manufacturers still making silk-like garments from viscose it’s now more commonly used as a substitute for cotton.
This makes it ideal for ethical dresses, shirts, pants, sustainable lingerie, sustainable bedding, eco friendly towels, and tablecloths: anything you usually find made with cotton but intended to have the more drapey qualities of silk.
Viscose also blends well with other fabrics.
You can find cotton viscose fabric, linen viscose fabric, and polyester viscose fabric on numerous vintage clothing labels.
5. VISCOSE FABRIC PROS AND CONS
The main viscose fabric benefits are that it is comfortable to wear and drapes in a similar way to silk—as well as being inexpensive.
It’s also an easy fabric to dye so you can find viscose clothing in a whole range of colors.
The cons, in addition to its monumental environmental impact, include its lack of durability (especially when wet) and tendency to fade easily.
6. PROPERTIES OF VISCOSE FABRIC
Let’s check out some more viscose fabric characteristics to understand its appeal.
What does viscose fabric feel like?
Viscose feels very similar to cotton being lightweight and soft against the skin, but it’s less rigid than traditional weight cotton.
In this way, it feels somewhat silky in the way it drapes.
Is viscose breathable?
One reason viscose material is so popular is that it breathes well.
If you’re looking for a lightweight summer fabric, viscose is a good option.
Is viscose fabric stretchy?
Alone, viscose fabric isn’t stretchy, although you may find it blended with other fabrics that do offer some stretch, such as elastane or spandex.
Because it has no inherent stretch, one of the disadvantages of viscose fabric is that it doesn’t hold its shape very well and can get baggy after wear.
Does viscose fabric wrinkle?
Viscose fabric does wrinkle if not dried and stored properly. See below for tips on ironing.
7. VISCOSE VS OTHER FABRICS
Viscose vs cotton:
Although cotton and viscose can be used to make the same things and feel pretty similar, the two fabrics are worlds apart.
Cotton is a natural fiber and has the potential to be uber sustainable. Organic cotton is one of the most sustainable fabrics out there (though it’s worth noting traditional cotton is one of the least sustainable).
Viscose, as we explored earlier can either be clean and green or downright dirty.
In terms of fabric properties, cotton is a clear winner in several areas. It’s much stronger than viscose and gets even stronger when wet.
In contrast, viscose is easily damaged when wet. This makes cotton the easier fabric to care for.
Viscose vs polyester:
There are a lot of similarities between viscose and polyester. Both fabrics are breathable, moisture-wicking, and non-stretchy.
The biggest difference is that polyester is a 100% synthetic fabric (generally made from fossil fuels) whereas viscose is a semi-synthetic.
8. HOW TO CARE FOR VISCOSE FABRIC?
How to wash viscose fabric
Start by checking the care label for instructions. It’ll let you know whether your viscose garment can be washed or needs to be dry cleaned, as it may differ depending on what materials it’s blended with.
If it can be washed, treat it as a delicate item.
Handwashing using cool water is the safest method. Soak your viscose garment for up to 30 minutes and then gently rinse and press out the water.
If the label says it can be machine washed, use the delicate cycle at a cool temperature and make sure the spin is set to low.
Don’t put viscose clothing in the dryer, because, for those asking, “does viscose fabric shrink?”, yes.
Viscose material will shrink if washed at a high temperature or put in the dryer. Always lay the garment flat to air dry.
How to iron viscose fabric
Because viscose doesn’t react well to heat, the safest method to get rid of wrinkles is steaming.
Hover your iron over the item using the steam setting or hang the item in the bathroom while you have a hot shower.
Final Thoughts On Viscose Sustainability
As with most sustainable fashion considerations, weighing the pros and cons of viscose (and other fabrics) can feel like you’re wading through treacle.
From the raw materials to end-of-life outcomes, it’s a tricky business.
With viscose especially, it’s all a bit, well…viscous.
While conventional viscose is a sustainable fashion no-go, with the right processes in place, responsible viscose production is possible.
When buying sustainable viscose, look out for transparent brands that source wood pulp from sustainably managed forests and produce viscose via a closed-loop process.
Keep an eye out for new viscose-esque semi-synthetics coming into the market, too.
We’ve seen how vegan leathers are revolutionizing the fashion industry with plant-based wonders like Piñatex (made from pineapple leaves) and there are some equally interesting cellulosic newcomers beginning to bud.
Share this article with your sustainable fashion companions and spread the word about this sticky (or silky) subject.