IS VISCOSE A SUSTAINABLE FABRIC?
There is something magical and almost spiritual about forest. I think I have had a special connection with the forest my whole life. It was literally my playground when I was growing up, as our house was just on the outskirts of the city. By chance, now I also live right next to a beautiful broad-leaf forest, and every time I feel like recharging or getting some real “fresh” air, I take a walk there and I immediately feel like part of the nature.
This feeling is not accidental because forests are truly made to welcome and foster life on this planet. Did you know that more than 80% of all species living on land reside in forests? Forests are often referred to as “lungs of the planet” and are absolutely critical to slowing down the climate change as they absorb CO2. Protecting forests is our duty and our very survival depends on it. Yet we are still witnessing the world’s ancient and endangered forests being logged at an alarming rate, driving up the global warming, causing a major biodiversity loss and depriving indigenous communities of their lands.
The reason we need to talk about forests when talking about fashion’s impact on the environment is because each year about 150 million trees are cut down to make our clothes. If you are not familiar with what’s called “man-made cellulosic” (or MMC) fibers, then it might not be so obvious that some fabrics are actually made from trees.. or more precisely from wood pulp. The main MMC fiber is viscose / rayon and it represents 80% of all cellulosic fibers. It is relatively inexpensive to produce and is made mainly from trees like beech, pine and eucalyptus. Others fibers in this category are: acetate, lyocell, modal and cupro (though cupro is made from cotton linters, not wood pulp).
These regenerated cellulosic fibers are plant-based, howver they are classified not as “natural” fibers but as “semi-synthetic” because making them requires a rather intensive chemical process of dissolving wood pulp. They can biodegrade better than synthetics, but it doesn’t always mean they are better for the environment. Over the last 20 years the production of MMC fibers has doubled, primarily due to an increased demand for viscose, and so did the demand for more wood pulp. This is why it is very important in the fashion supply chain to know and monitor where and how this wood is sourced, making sure that no ancient and endangered forests are used. The industry also needs to ensure a cleaner chemical and ideally closed loop process in viscose production.
Now, let’s take a closer look at the issues and the positive developments in the regenerated cellulosic fibers category.
THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS OF REGENERATED CELLULOSICS:
- Deforestation- the need for clothing continues to increase as the world population grows, and the popularity of viscose especially with fast fashion brands has skyrocketed over the last 20 years. As mentioned above, each year more than 150 million trees are logged for viscose production. At this rate, there is an urgent need to look for more sustainable forest management practices and to find alternative feedstock for viscose production.
- Ancient and endangered forests like The Amazon, Canada’s Boreal forests or Indonesia Tropical forests, are also being logged to make our clothes. These forests are defined as intact forest landscape mosaics that are naturally rare types and ecologically critical for the protection of biological diversity. Today only less than 20% of these forests remain intact and healthy enough to maintain this biodiversity. It is very sad to realize that fabrics like viscose made from endangered forests are threatening critical habitat for orangutans, bears and eagles. We need to completely eliminate sourcing wood from ancient forests not only for viscose production, but for all industries globally.
- Chemicals – the process of making regenerated cellulosics is very chemically heavy. If the production emissions and waste disposal are not properly regulated it imposes a high risk of environmental pollution and human exposure to harmful chemicals. Regular viscose and modal fibers production emissions include sulphur compounds, such as carbon disulphide and hydrogen sulphide – very harmful chemicals to the environment and people. Carbon disulphide has been linked to coronary heart disease, birth defects, skin conditions and cancer, as well as serious mental illnesses. This often impacts not only the factory workers but the entire communities living near viscose production plants.
POSITIVE INDUSTRY DEVELOPMENTS:
- Eliminating the use of ancient and endangered forests from viscose production – the biggest NGO working exactly on this is called Canopy based in Vancouver, Canada. In 2013 CanopyStyle initiative was launched and joined by several leading viscose producers as well as fashion brands. The great news is that as of 2018 (just after 5 years of collaborating with Canopy) the number of viscose producers who implemented endangered forest sourcing policies increased from 3 to 12 which represents 80% of the global viscose production! In the first year of CanopyStyle initiative, 30 fashion brands committed to completely cut out the use of wood coming from ancient forests in their supply chain. Today, in just 7 years this number has grown to more than 320 brands including the biggest fashion players like Levi’s, H&M, Inditex, Esprit, Eileen Fischer, Patagonia, Stella McCartney, Gucci and the latest to join Amazon.com! Find the full list of companies working with Canopy here. Watch this great 5 minute video to help you understand the scope of this program:
- Sustainable viscose certifications – beyond sourcing from non-endangered forests it is important to source from sustainably managed forests. FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) and PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification) are the two main standards ensuring such practices. Both organizations are currently working with key fashion industry players to achieve a complete certified textile supply chain process – from the forests to the finished garments.
- Reducing chemical emissions – the industry is working towards a cleaner, closed-loop production of manmade cellulosic fabrics. Led by Changing Markets Foundation and their “Roadmap towards responsible viscose and modal fibre manufacturing”, this transition already involves some of the biggest players like Inditex, ASOS, H&M, Esprit, C&A and more. They have committed to integrate the Roadmap requirements into their sustainability policies, thus pressuring viscose manufacturers to change their processes. The big results are yet to see, but for now i would say that there 2 fabrics could certainly be used more by fashion brands if they want to reduce the impact of conventional viscose:
- Lenzing’s ECOVERO™ is considered to be eco-responsible viscose, it comes from FSC certified wood, recycles nearly all of the chemicals used in its production and has EU Ecolabel which assures a significantly lower environmental impact. Used by Esprit, J.Crew, and Armedangels brands.
- Lyocell is almost 100% closed-loop and uses an organic solvent instead of chemical sodium hydroxide to dissolve pulp, therefore is considered a more sustainable fabric choice.
- Using recycled feedstock instead of new wood pulp – more and more innovations in the regenerated cellulosics category are developed around circularity and using waste both from textile and non-textile industries. Here are few examples of existing and in-development technologies:
- Tencel Refibra™ by Lenzing is the first lyocell fiber made with recycled materials offered on a commercial scale. It is made from 20% pre-consumer cotton scraps and remaining from responsibly sourced wood pulp.
- Bemberg is a cupro fiber made from 100% cotton linter (a residue) of the cotton processing. It is also OEKOTEX certified, biodegradable and compostable. Interesting fact: there is only one producer of cupro in the world – Asahi Kasei – a Japanese company with very high sustainability standards. So you can trust this fabric is indeed produced in a responsible and eco-friendly way.
- Orange Fiber is an Italian startup which has developed a process to extract cellulose from the by-products of the citrus industry to produce new fabrics. Their latest collaboration was SS2017 capsule collection with the Italian luxury brand Salvatore Ferragamo.
- Re:newcell – this Swedish company created a technology that dissolves used cotton and viscose textiles into a new, biodegradable material they call Circulose pulp. It also reuses all the chemicals in the process, making it closed-loop. The technology is still in development but their latest collaboration with Levi’s Wellthread™ line manifests that garment-to-garment recycling and circular denim design are possible!
So here we are, still a long way to go until viscose becomes a truly sustainable fabric, but perhaps a few steps closer to keeping the worlds ancient forests out of our closets!