Viscose can be a broadly used term, so, it makes sense that you might be unsure of what viscose is and the impact it has on the environment and on sustainability.
In this guide, we look at whether Viscose is eco friendly or sustainable for use in products like clothing, fabric and textiles, and across different factors.
We also give examples of types of commonly used viscose.
Firstly, What Is Viscose?
Viscose is a type of rayon like lyocell or modal.
But, viscose is also different to lyocell or modal in a few ways.
Modal for example is treated slightly differently after spinning to make the filaments stronger.
Lyocell uses a slightly different production process – it uses a different solvent to extract the cellulose from the wood: sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) is replaced by a non-toxic organic compound with the catchy name N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide (NMMO for short).
Viscose is a type of regenerated cellulose fibre, and a type of rayon.
It is usually made from plants or wood pulp, using the viscose process/method (cellulose xanthate).
The viscose process dissolves pulp with certain chemicals or solvents (such as aqueous sodium hydroxide in the presence of carbon disulfide).
This viscous solution is called viscose.
The cellulose solution is used to spin the viscose rayon fiber, which may also be called viscose.
Lyocell is the generic name for the fibers produced by Lenzing, which are not produced by the traditional viscose process [used in making viscose] but rather by solvent spinning.
Is Viscose Eco Friendly & Sustainable?
Obviously it depends on the type of viscose.
There’s probably two main factors that determine how eco friendly and sustainable a particular type of viscose is:
What source the cellulose comes from, and how it’s is grown – for example, viscose might come from soy, bamboo, and sugar cane to name a few
What chemicals are used for production/manufacturing, and the method and procedures involved in the manufacturing
Using a traceable and certified responsibly grown wood pulp source, and using some type of closed loop system in the fibre processing/manufacturing stage, would be great for sustainability.
But, in general, viscose processing doesn’t always use a closed loop system to capture and re-use solvents/chemicals, or capture wastewater.
Not only is water contaminated and wasted (which can waste freshwater resources), but these chemicals and solvents can find their way into the external water and soil environments, and also impact wildlife living in these environments.
A regular viscose may not be traceable through the supply chain or identify how the fibres were processed (or with what chemicals).
Some sources indicate that for overall sustainability, it might be worth looking at GOTS certified cotton, recycled cotton, 100% natural linen, and companies that are very transparent with their supply and production processes, or have a range of recognized sustainability certifications across various stages of their supply/production process (growing, production, dying, bleaching, finishing, weaving, and so on), with TENCEL’s lyocell and modal fibres being one potential example of this.
But, there’s also the consumer usage, maintenance and waste/recycling stages to consider as well.
Some bamboos and hemps could be reasonably sustainable when sustainably/responsibly grown, and combining that with closed loop processes, naturally derived production chemicals, and similarly more natural/organic and eco friendly post-growing processes and chemicals used.
An Example Of Viscose – Bamboo Viscose
Bamboo viscose is really the same thing as Bamboo rayon.
Once a bamboo stem is grown and cut, it can be processed in two main ways – mechanical processing, or chemical processing.
Mechanical processing is usually slower and more costly, so it hasn’t been used as heavily in recent times.
When the bamboo is processed in this way – it is not rayon, or viscose.
Chemical processing where solvents/chemicals help extract the short bamboo fibres from the bamboo stem, is usually cheaper and quicker.
When the bamboo is processed in this way, it makes a bamboo rayon viscose, and bamboo rayon is produced.
The chemical processing of bamboo, without the presence of a closed loop system, or a way of capturing waste water and chemicals and solvents used in the production process, can be damaging to the environment, and not as sustainable as mechanical processing.
The US actually changed their labelling standards in 2010/11 so consumers knew when they were getting ‘bamboo rayon’ (which comes from bamboo viscose) as opposed to naturally grown and processed bamboo (mechanically processed bamboo).
How To Know If You Are Getting Eco Friendly & Sustainable Viscose
You can probably do two things:
1. Look at the label of the product you are buying and see the fibres listed (you may even see a fibre mix such as rayon/viscose and silk)
2. Look at the brand, and have a look on their website to see how they both grow their cellulose source (such as wood), and how their viscose processing works.
Check also for any certifications, names of suppliers, traceability of materials and supply chains, and any detailed information of the entire sourcing, manufacturing, finishing and transportation process