RAyon is a soft, silky fabric that is perhaps the most confusing of all fabrics. It is sometimes called viscose, modal, lyocell, tencel, acetate or bamboo. It feels denser and more fluid than cotton or linen, but it depends on how it is spun and spun.
The best way to understand rayon is to consider it an umbrella term for fabrics made from cellulose, the building block of most plants. It can be extracted from straw, cotton waste and other natural materials, but in the case of rayon, it often comes from pine, eucalyptus or beech wood pulp.
It is often marketed as an eco-friendly fiber because it is made from natural, renewable materials (trees). But, like most sustainable materials, its credentials have some dark clouds.
According to the non-profit Canopy, 200 million trees are cut down each year to make clothing. About half of the 6.5 million metric tons of rayon produced each year comes from old and endangered forests.
Forests are integral to the fight against global warming because carbon is stored in the woody biomass of tree trunks and branches, and in the roots, shrubs, and soil that form the forest floor. Given the immense beauty of forests, and the plants, animals and birds they provide homes to, the connection between Ryan and deforestation is a particularly poignant truth and one of fashion’s best-kept mysteries.
Amanda Carr, senior lead at the CanopyStyle campaign, says investment in the forest-based textile supply chain has an opportunity to shift the focus away from solutions and problems. “It’s like we’re standing on the edge of a cliff and we have the opportunity to build a fence at the top versus the hospital at the bottom.”
The hazardous waste has turned the river water dark red
Rayon production has almost doubled over the past three decades and its percentage of the global fiber market is increasing (in 2019 it was 6.4%). Carr says Canopy is working to ensure this growth is not facilitated by further deforestation. Their work is at least partly responsible for many fashion brands describing their rayon, viscose or modal products as FSC or PEFC certified – meaning it comes from sustainably managed forests or plantations.
Rayon’s carbon footprint is further complicated by the process of turning wood into fabric. Unlike cotton, wool or silk, which are naturally smooth, elastic and ready to be spun, turning trees into textiles can be highly toxic to both workers and the environment.
Ryan also has some links to some of the world’s darkest history. During World War II, the Nazis forced prisoners to work in rayon factories. There are chemicals (sulfuric acid) burning holes in their uniforms, which injure the skin where they touch, while the emissions cause neurological side effects such as blindness and psychosis.
These problems persist into the 21st century. A 2017 report by the Changing Markets Foundation found visible and highly odorous pollution at production sites in India belonging to the Aditya Birla Group, the world’s largest viscose producer.
The river water was dark red with hazardous waste; An independent laboratory test revealed that the air contained 125 times WHO-recommended levels of carbon disulfide; The surrounding villages had no access to safe drinking water and in one horrific incident, 60 villagers fell seriously ill and lost their ability to walk. The Aditya Birla Group denied that these problems were connected to its operations.
However, similar problems have been reported in China and other parts of India and Indonesia – and the issues are not limited to one company.
The Changing Markets Foundation report made several recommendations on how to make viscose rayon production more sustainable, with particular attention to air pollution, water pollution, solid waste disposal, energy sources, energy consumption and worker health and safety. The foundation suggested implementing closed-loop generation to ensure exhaust air is compressed and captured to remove waste from chemicals and recycle them whenever possible, and to recycle carbon disulfide emissions.
By 2020 the Aditya Birla Group announced that it aims to have all its manufacturing sites compliant with EU BAT standards and certified by the end of 2022.
“50% of global viscose production is made by responsible producers committed to responsible production,” says Kathleen Redman, innovation platform director at Fashion for Good. She pointed to Spinova and Infinite Fiber Company as examples of companies implementing best practice chemical management. One of the world’s largest viscose producers, Lenzing has trademarked Tencel which is also made using closed loop processes.
The report concluded that viscose has the potential to become a sustainable fiber if production is improved; Along with responsible sourcing of raw materials.
Voluntary certifications are not enough
So, what does responsibly sourced raw materials look like? Certifications are widely regarded as good, if imperfect, tools for setting standards in different countries for responsible forest management. Most importantly, they guarantee traceability to ensure that the source of the rayon was not an ancient or endangered forest.
Pointing to the fact that trees and forests are an important buffer against a warming planet, Carr says Canopy’s priority is to ensure viscose rayon is not sourcing in ancient or endangered forests.
But she notes that certifications are limited by scale. Each is applied from a local perspective, and often ecological considerations or planetary needs demand a more global or regional perspective. “This is not the type of scheme that meets voluntary certifications implemented by individual corporations,” she says.
The next step is to find sourcing solutions to completely replace fiber from forests.
Turning old clothes into new
Any plant-based material can serve as a source of cellulose and decompose to form fibers, so in theory all natural textiles and even agricultural waste can be regenerated into viscose rayon.
According to Textile Exchange, the market share for ‘recycled’ cellulose fibers is very small, but a lot of research and development means it is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. Recent technological developments have made it possible to convert some textile waste into new materials.
This process can be more efficient than converting trees because of the high cellulose content of some fibers such as cotton. According to Canopy, it takes an average of 2.5-3 tons of trees to make 1 ton of viscose pulp, but only 1 ton of recycled cotton or rayon is needed to make 1 ton of viscose pulp. With this in mind, Rademan says, “Instead of relying on virgin resources like trees, it makes more sense to try to value the resources we already have through textile-to-textile recycling.
Considering the amount of textile waste sent to landfills every second, the idea that we can turn old clothes into new clothes with better performance properties than synthetics is very interesting. Viscose is better on the body than synthetics; It breathes against the skin and does not complex with oil or sweat, which makes it comfortable to wear. And it doesn’t shed plastic microfibers in the water every time you wash it.
While we are in the early days of these solutions, with the large-scale infrastructure required for collection, sorting and recycling, there are already innovations operating in this space. Lenzing’s Refibra line is made from approximately 30% recycled cotton.
Seattle-based company Evranu launched NuCycle, a garment made from recycled textile waste, in April this year. And in May, fast-fashion giant Inditex invested €100 million in Infinite Fibre, a Finnish startup that also creates clothes from textile waste.
Despite viscose rayon’s dark and complicated history, which in many ways extends to the present, it may have a promising future.
If we can remove trees and forests from its source, replace them with textile waste, and create more new products for closed-loop and non-toxic production, viscose rayon can earn the eco-friendly reputation it already has.