Five years ago, I visited the Green Eileen pop-up (now Eileen Fisher Renew) to see what creative things the designers were doing with old Eileen Fisher pants, blouses, and sweaters that customers brought back to the store. On one rack was a row of overdyed viscose tanks. They look as good as new, with a high-quality drape and hand-feel.
I remember one of the designers talking about viscose and saying, “We’re trying to figure out an alternative.” At the time, I didn’t fully understand why. I just knew that something was up with rayon that made it a poor choice for a brand like Eileen Fisher, which is trying to reduce its negative impact on the environment.
Meanwhile, when I visited a Reformation store in LA, I saw a label crowing about this “natural” and “biodegradable” fiber that was “woven in a mill free of harmful substances such has heavy metals, dyes, and formaldehyde.”
So if you’ve decided to swear off polyester because it’s a petroleum product, you might be thinking rayon, a soft and silky fabric that is made of a natural, renewable resource — plants — is the solution.
Sorry! It actually might be worse for the environment. And there are two major reasons why:
- The way it’s made (often with toxic chemicals)
- How the plants are sourced (often in a way that destroys old-growth rainforests)
The whole concept of rayon seems deliberately designed to confuse consumers so much that we just give up and stop caring. So far, it’s a strategy that has worked. But I’m here to try to clear this up for you.
The Fabric That Makes Textile Workers Go Insane
To understand rayon, you need to understand what cellulosic fiber is. Cellulosic is an umbrella term for anything made from plants, which includes cotton, linen, hemp, rayon (a.k.a. viscose), and lyocell. Cotton, flaxseed, and hemp are already fairly soft, fibrous plants. They only have to be minimally processed and woven before being sewn into garments, the way they have been for thousands of years. They are considered natural fibers.
But rayon (also known as viscose — viscose is the most common type of rayon and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably) is not a natural fiber. It’s a generic term for fabrics that are made from plants using a modern, chemically-intensive process. It was invented almost 150 years ago, and since it started being widely commercially produced in the 1920s, it has become more and more popular. The global output of viscose rayon is projected to reach $28 billion in 2025.
Most rayon is made from plants that you could never imagine as fabric: bamboo and trees. These tough plant materials are broken down through a chemical and mechanical process involving sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide, and made into a viscous (ah, that’s where that name viscose came from) liquid. That is then spun into threads using sulfuric acid. (Reformation’s assurances that the mills it sources from don’t use dye, heavy metals, or formaldehyde is a complete and utter non sequitur. Those chemicals are in the dye houses.)
Anway, rayon’s industrial process is why it is considered a semi-synthetic fiber, or a man-made cellulosic fiber. It’s also why there are no rayon producers in the US — Rayon production is generally too toxic to comply with the EPA’s standards. While rayon fabric is safe by the time it reaches consumers, rayon factory workers are at high risk of neurophysiological effects, nerve damage, heart disease, and stroke.
And that’s inside the factory. Once you have a factory dumping these chemicals into the waterway, the whole community can be poisoned. That’s still happening in Asia, according to a report that came out in 2017 by the Changing Markets Foundation. In Indonesia, rayon factory workers have been found washing the chemicals off of rayon textiles right in the river. In China, there’s abundant evidence of rayon production poisoning workers and the local bodies of water, even turning a lake black. In India, a plant is dumping into a tributary to the Ganges, poisoning local families, causing the mental faculties of children to degenerate before they reach their teens.
Because of the high concentration of the rayon industry – 75% of it is dominated by 10 companies — it’s highly probable that any conventional brand you can think of has sourced rayon from the type of dirty factories implicated in the report.
One fabric that is often marketed as inherently eco-friendly is bamboo, because it grows quickly without the use of pesticides or herbicides. But it has come under fire repeatedly for being misrepresented. The FTC has fined Nordstrom, Bed Bath & Beyond, Backcountry, J.C. Penney , Amazon, Macy’s, Kmart, Sears and more for labeling rayon made from bamboo as simply bamboo fabric. That’s sort of like putting high fructose corn syrup in a food product and listing it as “corn.” Yes, it was once corn, but it’s since been transformed into a manmade product that has serious negative implications.
There’s also modal, a type of rayon. Lenzing bills its trademarked Lenzing Modal as a more eco-friendly and softer version of rayon, because it uses closed-loop processing that doesn’t output toxins into the environment. However, there is another problem with modal, rayon, and viscose that we need to discuss…
The Palm Oil of Fabric
Palm oil, if you don’t know, is an extremely popular food and beauty ingredient. It’s so popular that rainforests are burned and cleared in Indonesia and elsewhere in order to plant palm oil plantations.
And now that is also happening because of rayon. More than 200 million trees from Indonesia, Canada, and Brazil are logged every year and turned into cellulosic fabric, according to research by the nonprofit organization Canopy. In Indonesia, endangered animals and native people are being forced off the land, so that the local pulp mills can be steadily supplied with trees. And tragically, the typical process for dissolving pulp for rayon wastes about 70% of the tree!
Modal, that non-toxic viscose/rayon fabric, is made from different types of softwood such as beechwood, which is great if it’s sourced from well-managed European or North American forests. But Canopy found that modal has also been linked to deforestation. Forests in China are also being logged and replaced with bamboo plantations for bamboo rayon.
There’s no way to know as a consumer where your modal clothing is coming from — wildcat Asian plantations or well-managed European and North American forests. So as a designer, you should source from the reputable brands Lenzing and Aditya Birla, who have been certified by CanopyStyle as having a low risk of sourcing from endangered forests. That covers a little less than a third of global viscose production. The rest is rather iffy.
What Is the Eco-Friendly Rayon Choice?
There is hope. As of 2020, 259 brands including Levi’s, Ralph Lauren, H&M, Zara, Eileen Fisher, Stella McCartney, VF Corp (owner of Timberland, North Face, and Wrangler, among many others), have committed to cleaning up their rayon supply chains. This is due to the excellent work by CanopyStyle, a subsidiary of the nonprofit Canopy, who turned to fashion’s supply chain after working on paper sourcing.
There is also some interesting innovation in the works to shift the raw material away from forests altogether. More large brands are now picking up Infinited Fiber, a Finnish startup that makes a manmade cellulosic fiber from sustainabily-managed Scandinavian forests in a safer, less toxic process. The Swedish startup Renewcell processes old cotton textiles into feedstock for rayon production. (I profiled both in a story for Craftsmanship Quarterly.)
What about the toxicity of rayon production? There’s a fabric for that. Tencel, a trademarked fabric also by Lenzing, is a type of rayon generically called lyocell. (Lyocell is to Tencel as tissue is to Kleenex.) Tencel is silky soft and absorbent, and is produced using amine oxide, which is purported to be safer, in an entirely closed-loop process. So the chemical isn’t discharged into the water. It’s made of certified sustainably-sourced eucalyptus. Fast-growing eucalyptus tree varieties are adaptable to almost every continent and climate, and often can be grown on land that couldn’t otherwise be farmed. Glyphosate, a dangerous chemical and known carcinogen, is commonly used in eucalyptus plantations, but it’s not required, and neither are insecticides.
Just keep in mind, Tencel has a certain feel and look, and can’t replace all of rayon’s uses. Eileen Fisher has reduced its use of rayon and does offer some Tencel products, but still relies on viscose for a lot of its clothing. You can look for rayon that has been OEKO-TEX certified, which means it was produced in a facility that takes the necessary safety and environmental precautions.
Rayon is indeed made from plants, but it’s not necessarily eco-friendly because of its toxic production and the deforestation associated with it. Viscose is the same thing as rayon. Modal‘s production isn’t as toxic but can still lead to deforestation. Tencel (a branded type of lyocell) is the type of rayon that is the most eco-friendly.
Personally, if I have a choice, I choose cotton or silk over rayon or viscose. But that is a personal preference due to comfort as well. It’s up to you what works best for your style needs.
Beyond Conscious Consumption
It’s important to think beyond just your own purchasing decisions, to consider how you can help change the system so that sustainability isn’t the elitist choice, but the default. If you care enough to purchase Tencel instead of other semi-synthetic fibers, then you should also:
- Donate to Canopy and the Rainforest Action Network.
- Email your favorite brand who uses rayon viscose and ask them what they are doing to phase it out or clean up their supply chain. I’ve heard from someone who was on the social responsibility team at a large fashion company that those emails get forwarded to them, and they use them to present their case for sustainability to the executive team. So, these emails make a difference!