It feels like everyday conscious women are being told a new fiber is destroying the planet, and they need to overhaul their closets. To me, this constant game of cat and mouse, buy this, no it’s bad, now buy this, seems crazy. I think the best approach is for women to make their own decisions on what they feel is sustainable. We don’t need to be told by companies what to do, give us the info so we can make the decision ourselves.
What is rayon? And, Is rayon sustainable? Here is everything you could possibly want to know about rayon to decide for yourself it's a fiber you want in your closet.
what is rayon used for?
Rayon is generally used to give clothes that soft, flowy look. When I think of rayon, I think of the clothes that flutter as your walk, creating an ethereal goddess vibe.
rayon and viscose are not interchangeable
Rayon is any type of synthetic or semi-synthetic fiber (depending on who you ask) that is made from cellulose.
Viscose, aka “viscose rayon” is a type of rayon, and is actually the most common type of rayon. Kind of like how all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares - the two are not interchangeable. So viscose actually falls under the umbrella of rayon, kind of like how Cap'n Crunch is a type of cereal, an apple is a type of fruit… you get the idea.
there are many types of rayons
There are lots of different types of rayons, and they all use different chemicals and have different impacts on the environment. Viscose rayon (most commonly in the eco-news) is just one of many rayons. Another popular rayon is acetate rayon. Taffeta prom dresses in the late 80’s and early 90’s were generally made out of this type of rayon. Did you know that acetate fabric can be completely dissolved at home using nail polish remover?! There is also cuprammonium rayon (made with copper and ammonia), and even modal, Tencel/lyocell and bamboo are all considered rayons. Each type has its own set of pros and cons, and some like modal and Tencel, are even sustainable!
synthetic fibers are not spun, they are extruded
Viscose rayon fibers are extruded into a chemical bath, and then, yarns can be spun.
what is extrusion?
Wood pulp mixed with chemicals to create a viscous is pushed through a spinneret. A spinneret looks like a mini spaghetti strainer, it can have one hole or lots, and the holes can be in different shapes to give the fiber they are creating different characteristics. For example, a round fiber will be shiny, and one shaped like a star is dull, and probably has decent heat retention. Once the viscous is pushed through the spinneret, it enters a chemical bath where it is extruded into a fiber. After the fiber has been extruded, yarns can be spun.
Viscose rayon is safe for consumers because all the chemicals are “washed out of the fibers”.
Yes and no. Yes, the sulfuric acid is most likely gone. But the rayon undergoes many more chemical-intensive steps after the extrusion process and is not necessarily safe for the consumer.
After extrusion, fibers aren’t simply just washed and ready to go. They are spun into yarns using either pot, spool, or continuous spinning methods. Then they are bleached, rinsed, dried, and wound on spools to be used in fabric manufacturing. The fibers also need to be dyed using fiber reactive dyes or in the case of acetate rayon, disperse dyes. And finally, once a fabric is either knit or woven from the yarns, often times formaldehyde or other chemicals are used during the fabric finishing process. The end result is a chemical cocktail on your rayon clothes.
should I stop buying viscose rayon?
The thing is, a lot of rayon factories are starting to do a lot to clean up their acts, like sourcing wood from sustainable suppliers. They aren’t perfect yet. It is impossible to overhaul the supply chain systems overnight, but steps are in place towards a greener future.
what about modal?
Modal, especially Lenzing Modal is made from beech trees not a mix of softwood, which has been argued leads to deforestation. Lenzing is very committed to the ethical sourcing of their wood.
what about Tencel and lyocell
Lyocell is a closed loop fiber manufacturing processing method that utilizes dry jet-wet spinning and creates different types of lyocell fabric. There is bamboo lyocell (which we will discuss more in a minute), and also, Lenzing Tencel made from eucalyptus. Lenzing Tencel promises sustainable certification and practices. Generic lyocell options do not always have the rigorous compliance and strict supply chain control that Lenzing does. So, when an article promotes unbranded lyocell from a fast fashion company like H&M as “ethical fashion”, it’s probably greenwashing.
no process is perfect
Eucalyptus is not the holy grail answer to our rayon prayers, check out this article from the Washington Post about the latest controversy around GMO eucalyptus.
what about bamboo rayon?
This gets a little tricky. Bamboo in its natural form is very sustainable and has antimicrobial properties. But, once it is processed it loses those properties. There are two ways of making bamboo synthetic fabrics the first is under the viscose method, which is not sustainable, the second is under the lyocell fiber method, which is a closed loop system and much more sustainable. You can read more about the two methods here.
you have power as a consumer
look out for labeling
Especially for the Lenzing trademark on your garments tags and care labels. Brands pay a premium to use Lenzing fibers, they actually cost much more than generics. Generally, brands don’t miss out on an opportunity to let you know they are using a superior product. Think about it; if you as a consumer don’t know the difference between Lenzing and generic, then why should a brand pay more and cut into their bottom line? Brands want credit when they do the right thing. They are going to take the time to explain and advertise, and one of the easiest ways for them to do that is putting “Lenzing Modal” instead of “modal” on their care tags.
There is another way to know as a consumer what you are buying. You can always ask a company where they are sourcing from.
buy second hand
Try buying second hand to save resources and give clothes new life.