Viscose gets a bad rap for being less sustainable than other types of rayon, but its cheap production and silky smooth feel make it a fabric worth looking into further.
To help you fully understand all of viscose fabric’s assets and drawbacks, I’ve researched everything you need to know about viscose.
What Is Viscose Fabric?
Originally marketed in the late 1800s as an artificial silk, viscose is a semi-synthetic fabric, meaning it’s made from a mixture of synthetic and natural materials. The latter of these is the pulp from a tree, which is turned into a viscous material during the production process, hence the name. First produced in 1905, viscose rayon is seen as an affordable alternative to silk and is put to many of the same uses.
When used to create various clothing items—most commonly activewear—viscose can be used by itself or blended with another fabric, such as cotton or linen. Because it’s semi-synthetic, the fabric blends the benefits of natural materials—a soft feel and breathability—with the durability and longevity of a synthetic fabric.
A low-cost fabric, viscose rayon resembles cotton in many of its properties, predominantly its silky smooth feel and affordability. But it doesn’t need the same maintenance requirements as cotton, and, in fact, can be washed more easily, with cotton needing more care to prevent shrinkage.
Viscose also boasts being more environmentally friendly than many of its alternatives, especially polyester and nylon. Manufacturers behind viscose fabric use a “closed-loop” production process, which reuses 95% of the water and chemicals in viscose rayon’s production and prevents excessive water usage and pollution from toxic chemicals.
Pros of viscose rayon
Viscose rayon fabric has been popular in fashion for quite some time. Originally seen as a low-cost alternative to natural silk, its affordability was one of its main appeals. It boasts several other benefits, however:
- Viscose is breathable, so it dries well for use in activewear and similar clothing.
- Viscose is a versatile fabric that blends well with other textiles.
- Despite its low cost, viscose mimics a luxurious feel with its smooth and silk-like touch.
- Viscose has excellent color retention, which clothing designers and consumers alike find appealing.
- Viscose absorbs moisture well.
- Because it’s so breathable, viscose keeps wearers cool during warm days.
Cons of viscose rayon
That doesn’t mean viscose rayon has no drawbacks. It has several downsides, in fact:
- Viscose is known to shrink a bit during the cleaning and drying process.
- Unfortunately, viscose is prone to wrinkling.
- Viscose loses strength when wet, making it easy to tear.
- Sweat and other bodily oils it absorbs will affect its color and cause staining if not properly cleaned.
- Viscose production uses several toxic chemicals that may pose health risks to factory workers.
Proponents of viscose argue that, with the right care routine, these criticisms are moot. Taking care when washing and drying viscose rayon will ensure it doesn’t shrink or tear, while washing regularly eliminates the staining issue.
What Is Viscose Fabric Made From?
Viscose fabric’s natural fibers are made from cellulose fibers. According to Good on You, cellulose comes from wood pulp harvested from trees and plants, including “eucalyptus, beech, and pine, as well as plants such as bamboo, soy, and sugar cane.” These regenerative plants ensure that the growth and harvesting of their pulp is more environmentally friendly than fabrics manufactured using purely synthetic fibers, especially those made from fossil fuel materials.
How viscose is made
Once the pulp has been harvested from its source, it’s dissolved into a solution, which is subsequently washed, treated, and bleached using chemicals, typically sodium hydroxide. The solution that this creates is treated with carbon disulfide to create fibers and regenerated viscose. These are subsequently spun into a yarn that’s ready to be used in the production of clothes, bed sheets, and other products.
This viscose process uses a closed-loop system, which collects and reuses 95% of the chemicals and water used in the fabric’s production, preventing water waste and chemical pollution. Proponents use the closed-loop system to claim that the fabric is environmentally friendly. By default, this system collects the water, chemicals, and other waste generated and used in the production process and cycles it back into creating another version of the same product.
What Is Viscose Used For?
The various advantages of viscose fabric means it can be put to multiple uses, with its popularity soaring among sustainable brands that see it as a convenient and effective option.
Viscose rayon has been known for its silky feel since it was first invented, resulting in its status as an affordable silk alternative. Bolstered by its breathability, light weight, and water absorption, it’s a popular option for clothes, specifically casual and activewear, and is regularly used in dresses, T-shirts, and blouses.
To date, multiple popular sustainable fashion brands have adopted the fabric into their product lines:
- Marks & Spencer
- Asia Pacific Rayon
- Aditya Birla Group
The silk-like feel and airy nature of viscose makes it an effective option for window drapes and upholstery. Viscose’s attractive draping look and durability make it an appealing fabric for “tablecloths, furniture slipcovers, and bed sheets,” as well, according to Home Questions Answered.
When blended with silica, viscose fabric makes an excellent mattress flame retardant. While concerns abound about silica making contact with the skin, introducing the rayon fabric avoids this by having the silica inside the rayon and the mixture is then placed inside the mattress cover.
All three types of rayon are known to be excellent water absorbers, making them recommended options for mattress protectors, especially when blended with cotton and polyester. When added to a protector, rayon fabrics act as a way of waterproofing it.
Non-fabric uses for viscose
Near the turn of the 20th century, European scientists developed a way for cellophane film to be made out of viscose. According to bionity.com, the cellulose fibers used in the production of cellophane come from “celery, wood, cotton, or hemp” and “are dissolved in alkali and carbon disulfide.”
Another surprising non-fabric use of viscose is in the production of sausage casings, also called cellulose casings. Just like with viscose fabric, viscose sausage casings are made from wood pulp. They aren’t edible, however, and must be removed prior to eating.
Viscose Fabric’s Environmental Impact
Viscose’s production process may make it seem as though it’s environmentally friendly. After all, the materials used in its creation can be sustainably forested and harvested, while the closed-loop system minimizes the chemicals and water needed in the fabric’s creation. While both of these are certainly a step in the right direction (when certified by various third parties, that is) viscose does have a few environmental downsides, including chemical pollution, deforestation, and excessive water use.
The most notable culprit is the chemical used in viscose rayon’s production: sodium hydroxide. The US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) lists sodium hydroxide in the Toxicity Category I, “indicating the highest degree of toxicity.”
Among toxic chemicals, sodium hydroxide is infamous for some of its more dramatic effects. Known to be toxic to fish and other wildlife, sodium hydroxide also affects human health. As it doesn’t vaporize, it can be breathed in and affect a person’s digestive system and lungs, and it can also cause burning upon contact. Sodium hydroxide is particularly dangerous if ingested and, according to the ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) can cause “stridor, vomiting, drooling, and abdominal pain,” and even “perforation of the gastrointestinal tract and shock.”
Employees working with the chemical—also known as caustic soda—are regularly exposed to such risks, which is why many critics are unconvinced of viscose’s sustainability.
Carbon disulfide is another chemical used in the production of viscose. Like sodium hydroxide, carbon disulfide poses the most significant risk to factory workers, though according to the EPA it’s been detected in drinking water as well. The health effects of inhaling or ingesting carbon disulfide are numerous, some gruesome, from acute effects, such as nausea, mood changes, and delirium, to chronic effects such as leukemia, reproductive failure, and permanent nervous system damage.
Viscose, like other rayons, relies on trees for materials used in its production. While the fabric is praised for being environmentally friendly, its impact on deforestation tells a different story. In Borneo, for example, a viscose manufacturer received warnings from the Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace for practices that led to deforestation. That’s despite the organization’s parent company, Royal Golden Eagle Group, having committed to eliminating deforestation from their practices.
Similar violations and concerns can be found worldwide, although measures are in place to try to tackle this, such as companies pledging zero deforestation and sustainable forest management practices. Multiple organizations, such as the Forest Stewardship Council, certify companies that engage in such sustainability practices. Brands with this certification can be trusted as more environmentally friendly.
Viscose rayon needs between 50% and 100% of the water needed to produce clothing of other fabrics, making it one of the largest drivers of water usage in the textile industry. Most of this is used during the wood production and dissolving stages of viscoses’ creation.
Though that makes viscose appear as though it’s not environmentally friendly, the closed-loop system outlined above minimizes the amount of water brought in from outside sources; 95% of the water used in the production of one batch of viscose rayon is collected and reused in the following batch, making its water consumption debatable.
How Does Viscose Fabric Compare to Other Fabrics?
It’s no surprise that viscose rayon is frequently compared to multiple other fabrics considering its origin as an artificial silk. But viscose is similar in many ways to several other fabrics, including cotton, thanks to its similar feel.
Let’s look at how viscose compares to each of these to determine whether it’s a more sustainable option or simply a flash in the pan.
Modal and Lyocell
Perhaps the most obvious fabrics to compare viscose to are modal and Lyocell because they are both also rayons, making the three textiles part of the same family. Despite similarities in the source materials and production processes, as well as the resulting feel and properties, there are numerous differences between viscose rayon and its rayon brethren.
Modal, for example, has an extra step in its manufacturing process, during which time it’s stretched out. That makes the resulting fabric feel lighter and airier.
When it comes to Lyocell, however, the main difference is in the chemical used in the fabric’s production. While viscose uses sodium hydroxide, a harmful chemical, to turn wood pulp into natural fibers, Lyocell rayon uses N-methylmorpholine N-oxide (NMMO) instead, making it a more environmentally friendly fabric.
One name repeatedly brought up in conversations about Lyocell rayon is TENCEL, leading consumers to believe that it’s a separate product. It is and it isn’t. TENCEL is a brand name and type of rayon that specializes in developing sustainable rayon fabrics. Since its establishment, it’s focused on ensuring its environmental impact is as low as possible through using a closed-loop system and sustainable forest management practices. These measures make it one of the more recommended brands associated with rayon fabrics.
Viscose fabric can be compared to bamboo in multiple ways, particularly its soft feel and low environmental impact.
The reality, though, is that the environmental friendliness of either material depends on the manufacturer, with some using sustainable forest management practices while others don’t. Both bamboo and viscose fabric have responsible and irresponsible manufacturers in this regard.
The two are often blended to create bamboo viscose, often referred to as bamboo rayon, which blends many of the benefits of bamboo as a sustainable material with the environmentally friendly aspects of viscose’s production process, namely, its closed-loop process. The resulting fabric appears to be more eco-friendly than either bamboo or viscose rayon by themselves.
A synthetic fabric, polyester is pretty terrible for the environment.
Polyester is made from nonrenewable resources such as petroleum, natural gas, and coal, whereas the source material for viscose—trees and plants—are renewable, i.e., you can plant more.
Furthermore, when washed, polyester releases microfibers—small pieces of plastic—into the environment, which then pollute waterways, releasing chemicals into the ecosystem that kill fish and other marine life.
Polyester is also not biodegradable—viscose rayon is—making viscose the more environmentally friendly product. Discarded polyester garments will stay in landfills for centuries.
Viscose rayon’s closed-loop production process also makes it more eco-friendly than polyester. A great many chemicals are used to create polyester, but with viscose, fewer chemicals are released into the environment.
Viscose is also known to be more water absorbent, making it seem better for activewear and similar products. Polyester does have some benefits compared to viscose fabric, namely that it’s more durable, is less likely to pile, and doesn’t wrinkle as much, which is why it’s still one of the most popular synthetic fibers.
Viscose and cotton are both common in fashion because of their similar soft feel and affordability, as well as being cool and breathable and blending well with other materials. They offer no apparent similarities beyond that, however, with cotton products being all natural, as long as the cotton is produced organically. Nonorganic cotton uses a lot of chemicals and water, and it’s actually considered less eco-friendly than viscose.
Viscose rayon has been compared to silk since first being introduced back as silk’s cheaper alternative in the late 1800s. Both have a soft and smooth touch, although viscose is definitely the more affordable alternative. Viscose fabric is also more breathable and easier to wash, although silk is known to be more environmentally friendly since it’s a natural fiber from “a renewable resource, can biodegrade, and uses less water, chemicals, and energy than many other fibers,” according to the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
What Is Viscose Fabric? Wrapping Up
Viscose rayon is a much-hyped fabric that boasts multiple benefits, although it’s not without its critics. Many of these same criticisms are true of other fabrics, however. In some ways viscose fabric comes in slightly better than a few other popular textiles.
The best ways to ensure you are using fashion sustainably are to shop thrift stores as often as possible, wear your clothes for many years before discarding, and research the companies you buy from to make sure they use eco-friendly manufacturing methods.
Is viscose fabric a good material?
Whether viscose rayon is a good material depends on perspective. It’s a durable, breathable, and soft fabric, making it a recommended option for clothes and similar products.
On the other hand, viscose production uses toxic chemicals, some of which are released into the environment or pose a danger to factory workers. The negative ecological aspects of the fabric, especially when unregulated, can lead to the death of aquatic wildlife.
Is viscose better than cotton?
Both viscose fabric and cotton have multiple benefits. Unless cotton is certified organic—i.e., uses environmental best practices—then viscose rayon is the more attractive option. Alongside being more environmentally friendly, it offers a similar feel, breathability, and other properties.
Is viscose breathable?
Viscose is known for its breathability and excels in this department when compared with many other textiles, such as polyester and cotton. As a result, it’s seen as a better alternative for certain products, such as clothes, bedding, and activewear.