What is Rayon Fabric and Is It Sustainable?
Rayon: all the rage or worth removing from our sustainable fashion wardrobes?
Also known as viscose, this semi-synthetic fabric has sometimes been touted as one that’s good for our planet—and it’s certainly one of the most common, as the third most popular textile fiber in the world.
More importantly, is rayon eco friendly really?
In this article, we’ve explored the ins and outs of this cellulosic fabric and how it might not be as “natural” as some brands claim. Use the quick links to jump to different topics.
WHAT IS RAYON FABRIC?
First of all, let’s clarify our terms. When perusing fabric tags, you may find yourself wondering, “What material is viscose rayon?”
This one’s easy: rayon = viscose and viscose = rayon.
While these are one and the same and viscose and rayon can be used interchangeably, you’re more likely to see “viscose” on the label of luxury garments, or if you’re shopping in Europe.
Rayon or viscose fabric ends up in a lot of our clothes, especially silk alternatives.
In fact, it was first known as “artificial silk” shortly after being discovered by English chemist Sir Joseph Swan in 1855.
By the 1920s, rayon was readily available in clothing production but was still confused with the similar acetate fabric. It wasn’t until 1953 when the Federal Trade Commission distinguished the two that the name “rayon” became a household one.
Pros and cons of rayon fabric properties
Rayon is used as an affordable silk alternative because it’s a breathable and moisture-wicking fabric that is stretchy and soft to the touch.
Rayon is also comfortable and non-irritating, it’s commonly found in blouses, trousers, dresses, skirts, t-shirts, and interior decorations like bedspreads, upholstery, and blankets.
It also accepts dyes well, yielding a bright and beautiful material for lingerie and luxury garments. Though, while rayon dyes easily, it’s notorious for fading relatively quickly.
What is rayon made of?
The semi-synthetic fabric is made from wood pulp or plant cellulose, which is why it is considered a “cellulosic fiber” in the same class as lyocell, modal, bamboo, cupro, and acetate.
“Ahh,” you say, “a natural material—it must be sustainable then?”
Not so fast. Let’s rewind on rayon and first see how the fabric is made.
HOW IS RAYON FABRIC MADE?
Rayon may start out as wood pulp, but the natural ingredient doesn’t stay “natural” for long.
Rayon’s alternative identity viscose comes from the fact that it becomes a viscous liquid during manufacturing. How else could we turn wood into something akin to silk?
This process is long and far outside the realm of nature.
How is viscose fabric made?
1. Cellulose is extracted from wood pulp (typically from beech or pine trees or bamboo).
2. The cellulose is dissolved in caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) to convert it to its impurity-free alkali form.
3. The cellulose is squeezed between two rollers to form a sheet, which is then crumbled into “white crumb.”
4. Exposure to pure oxygen and the addition of carbon disulfide transforms the substance into “yellow crumb.”
5. After being dissolved again, the yellow crumb ripens and is filtered.
6. A spinneret transforms the solution into fibers.
7. A soak in a sulfuric acid bath turns the fibers into filaments that can be spun, drawn, and washed.
Whoa, that doesn’t sound very eco friendly, does it? What about ethics?
IS RAYON FABRIC ETHICAL?
All those chemicals sound pretty scary, so what does this mean for rayon textile workers?
If you think back to high school chemistry class, you might recall that caustic soda and sulfuric acid aren’t the most gentle of chemicals.
Caustic soda is corrosive and can lead to eye damage.
Sulfuric acid (aka battery acid) is officially classified as a hazardous substance that can also cause skin and eye problems, and lead to reproductive complications, lung damage, burns, and more.
According to the National Institutes of Health, it’s a human carcinogen when inhaled in a mist (i.e. used occupationally).
There’s one other chemical used in rayon manufacturing that is perhaps the most concerning: carbon disulfide.
The colorless liquid has been used in the production of rayon for as long as it’s been around, about 150 years of evidence showing how harmful it is for workers.
Carbon disulfide is necessary to remove the cellulose to allow it to be further transformed into rayon, but it also has a unique and undesirable effect on humans.
Which is the production of a toxic degenerative brain disease causing adverse effects on the nervous system. This may manifest chronically in subtle personality changes, dizziness, anxiety, anorexia, vision changes, and Parkinsonian paralysis.
Outside of the nervous system, it may also produce acute complications for the kidneys, blood, nerves, heart, liver, eyes, and skin.
It can even lead to mental deterioration and insanity to those exposed long term (i.e. garment workers).
In Fake Silk: The Lethal History of Viscose Rayon, Paul David Blanc writes:
“Throughout most of the 20th century, viscose rayon manufacturing was inextricably linked to widespread, severe, and often lethal illness among those employed in making it.”
Things haven’t necessarily improved.
IS RAYON FABRIC SUSTAINABLE?
Here’s another complication of carbon disulfide. Even if workers are adequately protected from its harmful effects, the environment isn’t.
For every gram of viscose rayon that’s produced, up to 30 grams of carbon disulfide is used and released into the environment. It should come to no surprise that the majority of the carbon disulfide found in the environment comes from the production of rayon.
When it enters the environment, it makes its way into drinking water, animals, and indirectly humans.
Then there’s the fact that rayon has to be made in large factories equipped with storage for chemicals and heavy manufacturing machines. Most of this takes place in China, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan.
In fact, the chemical-heavy process is why rayon isn’t produced in the U.S.—because it’s too toxic for EPA standards.
Not only does the extraction of pulp for cellulose waste around 70% of the tree, but reports have found that some of the wood pulp is being sourced from endangered forests, and is leading to deforestation and other issues (i.e. biodiversity loss).
An estimated 30% of the world’s rayon comes from endangered and ancient forests. No rayon jumpsuit looks good enough to justify those losses.
Is rayon biodegradable?
There’s one big benefit to rayon from an ecological standpoint: it’s biodegradable.
A recent study found that not only is rayon biodegradable, but it’s actually more biodegradable than other fabrics (namely, cotton).
However, just because something is biodegradable doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe to dispose of in your garden heap.
One thing to consider for those planning on tossing a torn rayon shirt into the backyard compost—is whether it has been processed with toxic chemicals. Consider this when spreading your finished compost on your veggie beds.
Some good news, please?
Because all of this conscious commotion has urged some producers of the fabric to change their ways.
But the question still remains “can rayon ever be eco friendly?”
With a growing number of companies using this material, it’s getting there. Many of the top viscose producers have already made commitments to meet EU BAT (Best Available Techniques) criteria—the most comprehensive standard for the production of viscose.
It measures things like carbon disulfide requirements, freshwater, and energy consumption, caustic soda use, emissions, and more.
This actually leads to two types of rayon fabric we would be okay wearing.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF RAYON FABRIC
Lyocell and modal rayon
Lenzing has led the way for the responsible production of rayon.
Regular readers of Sustainable Jungle are probably familiar with those names, but you might know that they are technically a class of rayon. The main difference being that lyocell is created by a solvent spinning technique that causes no significant chemical change to the fibers.
While Lenzing isn’t the only company to produce modal and lyocell, they are considered the most sustainable. What sets them apart from other producers is their use of a closed-loop system, where nearly all the water and chemicals can be recaptured for reuse instead of being discarded into the environment.
Not only are lyocell and modal (especially TENCEL™) better from an environmental standpoint, but they are also stronger, more absorbent, and more durable. They also have more elasticity and can handle moisture better than regular rayon—but generally they come at a higher price.
Info about brand…
What material is bamboo rayon?
Now we’ve got to break the good fabric news with one type of rayon that is commonly misrepresented as being sustainable: bamboo rayon.
Bamboo certainly starts out eco friendly. The base grass is one of the most sustainable plants in the world because it grows quickly without needing a lot of water, pesticide, and herbicide inputs. Fast growth means it consumes more carbon dioxide (and produces more oxygen) than most other plants.
However, it too requires a tremendous amount of chemicals to process into rayon.
And as you may recall from our article on bamboo fabric, around 50% of the chemicals used to create bamboo rayon are released into the environment…
That’s definitely not a good look for our planet.
What material is cotton rayon?
Cupro (cupra) rayon is made with either a byproduct of the cotton industry (cotton linter) or recycled cotton garments.
We’re certainly not falling head over heels for cupra rayon BUT if you’re looking for a vegan silk alternative and have found a brand that’s transparent about the closed-loop process they use to produce it, then this fabric might be for you (if you promise to wear forever!).
RAYON FABRIC VS COTTON
Rayon is sometimes used as a cheaper substitute for cotton. While they may be found in similar products, like underwear, activewear, and some industrial items, there are some differences worth noting.
- The colorfastness of rayon isn’t as strong as cotton and colors might fade quicker.
- Cotton is far more durable than rayon. It’s also stronger, especially when wet (whereas rayon loses some of its strength when wet).
- Rayon is also very flammable, whereas cotton isn’t as prone to catching fire.
- Rayon can mimic silk—cotton would have a hard time resembling a fancy silk dress.
We mentioned earlier how rayon biodegrades more easily than cotton, despite the fact that cotton is natural and rayon is semi-synthetic. Does that mean it’s more or less eco friendly than cotton?
That depends on both the cotton and the rayon. TENCEL™ Lyocell rayon would certainly be considered more eco friendly than traditional cotton (the dirtiest crop in the world), while organic cotton still trumps even the most sustainable rayon.
If choosing between traditional cotton and traditional rayon, well… is there an Option C?
HOW TO CARE FOR RAYON
Heat is rayon’s arch-nemesis. It may cause it to shrink or become misshapen. That said, avoid ironing—except on low-low heat.
Wash in cold water (or dry clean) and use a mild detergent (like any one of these natural laundry detergents).
Do not machine dry.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON RAYON FABRIC
How eco friendly is rayon?
Let’s just say there’s a reason we left it off our list of sustainable fabrics.
Aside from TENCEL™ modal and lyocell, rayon scores low on the Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres. In fact, it’s classified as a Class E fiber, which is the lowest rank in terms of human toxicity, ecotoxicity, greenhouse gas emissions, and energy, land, and water use.
So, if we are going to wear viscose, we’ve got to be sure it’s produced in a transparent closed-loop process, like what you get with Lenzing’s modal and lyocell.
Alternatively, we’ll stick to second-hand rayon based fabrics from some of our favorite online thrift stores.
On the whole, the sustainable place for rayON is rayOFF of our bodies. The toxic chemicals and depleted forests are reason enough to say “no” to this fabric until some serious improvements are made—regardless of how perfectly that dress drapes.