Viscose is a semi-synthetic fibre made out of tree and bamboo cellulose (wood pulp). Originally created as a form of artificial silk, viscose is now widely used to make clothes, often in combination with other materials, but sometimes by itself. It is also used for other products, including some bedding, towels, drapes, and cleaning cloths.
Viscose and Rayon – What’s The Difference?
Viscose is a type of Rayon produced using the Viscose process (hence the name). Confusingly, Viscose is sometimes used as a synonym for Rayon (particularly in Europe), making it easy to confuse Viscose Rayon with other types of Rayon, such as Modal and Lyocell. These are similar materials produced using different processes (the Model and Lyocell processes from which they take their names).
Although the differences in type of Rayon are subtle, it’s important to distinguish between them because the sustainability of the manufacturing process varies significantly. Viscose is cheaper to produce but much less sustainable than some other types of Rayon, such as Lyocell (Modal not so much).
How Is Viscose Made?
Viscose Rayon is made using the cellulose (the carbohydrate that makes up the main walls of plants) of fast-growing trees and bamboo (one of the fastest-growing plants in the world). The wood pulp cellulose is extracted and dissolved in sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) to remove impurities and then treated with a number of chemicals, including carbon disulphide and sulphuric acid.
This process produces Rayon filaments that can then be spun into fibres that can be cut and used to create a wide range of clothes and other products.
Why Is Viscose Used In the Fashion Industry?
Rayon fibers have many advantages – they are breathable, soft, comfortable, and it dye easily – but one of the main reasons manufacturers choose the Viscose rayon process over other manufacturing methods is because it is a cheaper way of creating fabric. For a lower cost, the viscose process produces fabric that has the same qualities as that produced by more sustainable (and expensive) methods. Additionally, compared to cotton and silk, more viscose rayon can be produced per hectare (by a factor of up to 10), which is a significant benefit when considering the needs of a growing world population.
Is Viscose Sustainable?
Because it’s made from plants, many consumers assume that viscose is a sustainable material. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case. While the underlying materials used – the tree and bamboo cellulose – are themselves sustainable – viscose is made using many chemicals to ensure it can withstand multiple washes using a process that is both water and energy-intensive.
The factories that make viscose, often found in countries such as India, Indonesia, and China, have, in many cases, caused severe environmental damage to the surrounding area through both water and air pollution. Carbon disulfide, for example, has been linked with cancer, skin conditions, birth defects, and heart disease.
These same factories are supplying many high-street brands, whose demand for fast and cheap fashion pushes factories to use quick, unsustainable processes. This high level of demand has led to areas of forest being destroyed to be replaced with tree or bamboo farms to produce new materials for the viscose industry.
When compared to cotton, growing bamboo or wood for viscose rayon does have the advantage that is requires less water, fewer pesticides and fertilizers, and produces more fiber per hectare. However, while this might appear to reduce chemicals and deforestation (compared to cotton), the other damaging affects of the chemicals involved make it, overall, less sustainable than most other materials.
What About Other Forms of Rayon?
Modal is another fabric made from wood pulp (cellulose fibers). It is made using similar techniques to viscose but with a few differences that help make it stronger. The modal process is still chemically intensive and has also resulted in deforestation, so it isn’t much of an improvement over viscose.
Lyocell is another method of producing fabric from cellulose fibers, but it uses a different solvent. Instead of sodium hydroxide, lyocell uses a non-toxic compound called NMMO (N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide). Because this organic compound is easier to filter, the process is a closed loop – which means the chemicals are recollected and reused again and again without any being released into the environment in wastewater.
Unfortunately, although the Lyocell process is considerably better for the environment, it is also more expensive – so some firms prefer the cheaper, less sustainable alternatives like viscose.
You may also have heard of TencelⓇ, which is a specific brand of Lyocell and Modal fibers produced by an Austrian firm called Lenzing. Tencel fabric is made using as an environmentally-sound method as possible, using renewable energy, pulp from sustainably managed plantations, and using a closed-loop process that recaptures more than 99% of chemicals. As far as rayon materials go, Tencel is basically the best and most sustainable product you can get.
Viscose Buyers Guide
If you want to purchase viscose sustainably, you need to be careful where you buy it from. Many factories are using unsustainable practices, but there are exceptions. We recommend you only purchase from brands that have visibility into their supply chain and are guaranteeing that their materials come from truly sustainable sources. Where possible, we recommend sticking with Lenzing Tencel or Modal over viscose.
You might want to consider one of the following three brands:
NeuNomads offer a wide range of luxury staples at affordable prices. Their raw materials are sustainably produced by Lenzing and then treated with non-toxic (GOTS and OEKO certified) dyes at their solar-powered production facility.
Neu Nomads are committed to empowering women – from designers to factory workers – by offering above-living wages. Their products are produced sustainably, offered at fair prices, and shipped using 100% recycled packaging.
Pictured: Sayulita Kaftan in Crimson Red (100% Tencel™ Modal)
Full Range: Dresses, tops, pants, & shorts
Thought use a wide range of natural and sustainable materials in their range, including bamboo (Tencel, modal, and viscose), hemp, organic cotton, and wool. Their materials are sustainably sourced and shipped slowly to reduce their environmental impact.
Pictured: Marrina Bamboo Dress in Dark Navy (64% Modal 36% Viscose derived from Bamboo)
Full Range: Dresses, jumpsuits, coats, knitwear, leggings, loungewear, skirts, nightwear, underwear, menswear
Founded by designed John Moore and Kelly Slater (11-time World Surf League Chamption), Outerknown’s goal is to make clothing that respects the environment. They use sustainable materials including Tencel, Hemp, & Econyl to create a wide range of ethical pieces for both men and women.
Pictured: Neptune Tank Dress in Pitch Black (45% Tencel™ Lyocell, 55% Hemp)
Full Range: Dresses, jumpsuits, tees, sweatshirts, bottoms, outerwear, jeans, shoes, accessories, menswear
Viscose Care Tips
Unlike cotton, viscose gets weaker when made wet (cotton gets stronger). Machine washing and machine drying will damage viscose clothes, and viscose is normally labelled as dry-clean only. You can hand wash unstructured garments (simple tops, scarves, etc.) in cold water, but you do so at your own risk. Never wring out viscose fabric when it is wet – this will damage it.