In my series of posts “A brand, a day” I often recommend clothes made from viscose. It’s a fine and soft material, made from wood pulp, which is a good alternative to silk. Actually, silk is the fibre that silkworms weave to make cocoons and the only way to obtain silk is to boil or gas the worms alive inside their cocoons. So vegans don’t wear it.
Although viscose is completely cruelty-free, many fellow vegans raise concerns about the manufacturing process of viscose, which is thought to be detrimental to health and the environment.
Reality is complex and changing. Viscose is made from manufactured fibres, which require extensive processing to become the finished fabric.
The story begins with the raw material cellulose, derived mainly from wood pulp or cotton. The garment supply chain works as a commodity market that unfortunately comes without any transparency. Buyers know countries where cellulose pulp comes from but no more on its traceability. In April 2014 the newspaper The Guardian published an article on deforestation for fashion, explaining that around 30% of the rayon and viscose going into clothing comes from dissolvable pulp sourced from endangered and ancient forests, especially in Brazil and Indonesia. Thanks to the non-profit Canopy the issue has been raised with fashion brands.
Fortunately, more and more renewable cellulosic plants such as beech trees, pine trees, and bamboo are now used for manufacturing viscose.
But it is a fact that, as customers, we don’t have access to the information and we don’t know where the pulp comes from in the clothing we purchase.
The viscose process by itself consists of breaking down cellulose mechanically and chemically, and reforming it into fibres.
Caustic soda used in this process is one of the most widely used chemicals in the world. It’s used in the production of most cotton fabrics, including organic cotton, during wet processing. It’s approved for use on fabrics under the Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS). The chemical is not harmful to health however, the chemical is toxic for wildlife and the waste should not be discharged into groundwater.
Conversely, carbon disulphide can affect the health of people working on the process by causing nervous system damage with chronic exposure. Worker deaths in accidents caused by toxic sprays are numerous. And in addition, carbon disulphide is devastating for the environment.
Then comes the weaving of viscose fibres into fabric. If done conventionally, once again the environmental burden is devastating in terms of chemical and water use.
I’m not an expert and I won’t thoroughly detail the technical process but I can at least confirm that the standard viscose production process is not environmentally friendly at all.
However, the process is improving. As for the pulp sourcing, the chemicals used are gradually being replaced by less toxic products. For example, I read that the Austrian company Lenzing manufactures new fibres, Tencel and Modal, using non-toxic solvent and dissolving cellulose in an organic component rather than sulphuric acid. In addition, the company advertises that the final fibres are biodegradable and can decompose in soil or in wastewater treatment plants. So Tencel and Modal are not only cruelty-free but also appear to be environmentally friendly.
Furthermore, I’ve heard of markets of recycled viscose where vegan designers are sourcing their fabric. This helps to reduce the need for more primary production.
So things are changing. Viscose is cruelty-free. Its process is improving to become more sustainable. It’s not entirely perfect yet, but more and more stakeholders, from foresters to manufacturers, brands and designers, are caring about the environment. As consumers we also have a responsibility to ask for more transparency, check labels and certifications, and purchase from brands that clearly demonstrate their commitment for a healthier world.