How Sustainable Are Rayon Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

How Sustainable Are Rayon Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

Quynh Nguyen

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Rayon is the first ever regenerated cellulose fiber invented. With the development of technology, three generations of rayon have emerged: viscose, modal, and lyocell. Though all of these fibers come from dissolved wood pulp, their sustainability differs due to changes in manufacturing processes and, thus, fiber properties. So we had to ask: How sustainable are rayon fabrics?

Rayon fabrics can be anything from unsustainable to highly sustainable, depending on the manufacturing technologies and wood sourcing as raw materials. Rayon fabrics made with certified wood in a closed-loop manufacturing process are generally sustainable thanks to the recovery of resources. 

In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of rayon fabrics used for clothes and bedding. Then, we evaluate its sustainability, potential, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable products made with rayon fabrics.

Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Rayon Fabrics

Rayon fabrics could be highly sustainable when durable, breathable fabrics are made with wood from sustainably-managed forests. However, not all rayon fibers are made equally because some rayon manufacturers still depend heavily on fossil fuels for energy while using and releasing a high amount of chemicals. 

Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”

Oxford Dictionary

Rayon are semi-synthetic fibers made in chemical manufacturing processes that break down natural cellulose fibers in wood and then regenerate fibers of desired properties. 

Rayon fibers can be divided into three generations, driven by the changes in manufacturing technology. 

  • Viscose: 1st generation of rayon (and sometimes referred to as rayon)
  • Modal: 2nd generation of rayon 
  • Lyocell: 3rd generation of rayon 

All three generations (viscose, modal, and lyocell) are made with cellulosic fibers regenerated during manufacturing. Two other regenerated cellulose fibers are acetate and cupro. 

Regenerated cellulose fibers are similar to cotton or hemp in the sense that all of these fabrics contain cellulosic fibers, but the fibers in cotton and hemp are natural (instead of manufactured). 

To understand the sustainability of rayon fabrics, we must assess their life-cycle and each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of products and materials. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. So, let’s have a look at the LCA of rayon fabrics!

In this article, we’ll use the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA, examining the five stages of the life-cycle of clothes and bedding made with rayon fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments

The life-cycle stages of rayon fabricsEach stage’s sustainability
Sourcing of rayon fabricsThe sourcing stage is generally sustainable because rayon fabrics are made from renewable wood or wood-like material. The fabrics are more sustainable when raw materials come from trees like eucalyptus, bamboo, or beech, which grow relatively fast and need no irrigation or fertilizer. However, there are concerns over the association between sourcing raw materials for some rayon fabrics and deforestation in ancient and endangered forests.
Manufacturing of rayon fabricsManufacturing rayon fabric can be energy and chemical-intensive. That could have serious knock-on ecological impacts, especially if fossil fuels are the main energy sources at the manufacturing locations. However, integrated and closed-loop manufacturing processes can recover part of the energy during production while optimizing materials. 
Transporting of rayon fabricsTransporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with rayon fabrics because of the emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. Rayon fabrics typically travel from forests, where raw materials for rayon are grown, to processing factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfill. 
Usage of rayon fabricsThe usage of rayon fabrics is relatively sustainable because the breathable rayon clothing requires relatively fewer washes. Also, modal and lyocell are durable fabrics. 
End-of-life of rayon fabricsThe end-of-life stage for rayon fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable. 

Overall, we can say that rayon fabrics are on a spectrum from highly sustainable to not very sustainable.. The actual environmental impact of a particular product, like sportswear, depends on more specific factors, including the sourcing of the wood, manufacturing processes, and the distance and mode of transportation

Let’s dive deeper into each life-cycle stage and find out how you can buy rayon fabrics more sustainably. 

How Sustainable Is the Sourcing Raw Materials for Rayon Fabrics?

The sourcing stage is generally sustainable because rayon fabrics are made from renewable wood or wood-like material. The fabrics are more sustainable when raw materials come from trees like eucalyptus, bamboo, or beech, which grow relatively fast and need no irrigation or fertilizer. However, there are concerns over the association between sourcing raw materials for some rayon fabrics and deforestation in ancient and endangered forests.

What Raw Materials Are Used for Rayon Fabrics

Cellulose fibers are the main material used for rayon fabrics. These fibers can come from any wood and wood-like material, but the common choices are: 

(Organic or synthetic solvents are also used in making rayon fabrics, but we will discuss those agents in the manufacturing stage.)

How Do the Raw Materials Sourced for Rayon Fabrics Impact the Environment

The main raw materials used in rayon fabrics come from wood – a renewable resource. Sourcing wood with verified origins is generally sustainable thanks to timber trees’ carbon sequestration potential and renewability.

  • Carbon sequestration: As timber trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink, taking greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere and helping to mitigate the climate crisis.

    The carbon stored in wood (the raw material) is transferred to rayon fiber, resulting in rayon fiber, in some cases, being close to carbon neutrality (life-cycle carbon emitted is somewhat equal to carbon stored).

    For example, the three generations of rayon fibers made by the Lenzing AG company have the following carbon balances (per tonne fiber, cradle-to-factory gate):
    Viscose: – 0.25 t CO2eq / t fiber
    Modal: 0.03 t CO2eq / t fiber
    Lyocell: 0.05 t CO2eq / t fiber
  • Renewable material: Wood is a renewable resource, providing sustainable forestry management practices are in place.

    Woods like eucalyptus or bamboo have quick renewal rates because these trees grow relatively fast. Eucalyptus wood can be harvested as raw material for rayon fabrics after a decade. Bamboo grows even faster, ready for harvesting within three to five years.

    Also, trees like beech, eucalyptus, and bamboo (aka common raw materials for rayon fibers) require little to no irrigation, fertilizers, or pesticides. 

Where Are the Raw Materials for Rayon Fabrics Usually Sourced From

Though rayon fabrics can come from any tree, some plants are more likely to be picked as raw materials for rayons because of their growth rates and adaptability. 

Here are three common plants used as raw materials for rayon fabrics and their whereabouts:

One of the main concerns about the sustainability of rayon fabrics, mainly viscose and modal, is the origin of the wood stock

A report from Changing Markets pointed out the association between sourcing raw materials for rayon fibers and deforestation in ancient or endangered forests, which have huge ecological costs and environmental implications. Specifically, Canada, Indonesia, and Brazil — all countries with endangered and ancient forests — provided around two-thirds of China’s 2010 dissolving pulp imports for viscose, 75% of which was then manufactured into viscose fabrics

Related: Are you interested to find out more about the sustainability of trees and plants? Check it out in these articles below:

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Rayon Fabrics

Manufacturing rayon fabric can be energy and chemical-intensive. That could have serious knock-on ecological impacts, especially if fossil fuels are the main energy sources at the manufacturing locations. However, integrated and closed-loop manufacturing processes can recover part of the energy during production while optimizing materials. 

How Sustainably Is Rayon Fabrics Generally Manufactured

The manufacturing of the three rayon generations diverges in technology and chemicals that are used. Still, the core principle involves the same steps: 

  1. Prepare the pulp (harvest wood, cut it into penny-sized pieces, and grind the pieces into a pulp)
  2. Dissolve the pulp using various artificial chemicals or organic solvents 
  3. Process the solution 
  4. Spin to create threat-like forms 
  5. Wash, beach, finish, dry, and weave the yarn into rayon fabric 

Let’s now deep dive into a few key sustainable issues of this life-cycle stage: 

Manufacturing Rayon Fabrics Is Energy-Intensive 

Both wood pulp production and fiber production require significant energy. The following table compares the energy needed to produce viscose, modal, and lyocell (all made by Lenzing AG) and cotton (made in the US and Canada). 

Fibers Viscose Modal LyocellCotton 
Manufacturing Energy GJ/tonne fibers 1067810155
Compared to the cotton baseline (times) 1.92 1,42 1.841

In this life-cycle assessment, all rayon fabrics have higher energy requirements in manufacturing than cotton, roughly from 1,5 to 2 times higher. 

Manufacturing Rayon Fabrics Is Chemical-Intensive

During the manufacturing process of viscose and modal, a few different artificial chemicals are used, including caustic soda (or sodium hydroxide), carbon disulfide, and sulphuric acid:

Modal fibers are made in the same process as viscose but with fewer chemicals, also resulting in lower energy requirements and less toxic waste. 

In contrast, manufacturing lyocell uses an organic solvent instead of artificial and toxic chemicals to dissolve the wood pulp. Thus, lyocell is relatively less harmful to the environment and factory workers. 

However, pretreatment with chemicals is often necessary before finishing lyocell fibers. If used, toxic chemicals can contribute to increased toxicity, hazards, pollution, and waste. Manufacturers can improve the sustainability of production by opting for eco-friendly or less harmful substances.

Integrated and Closed-Loop Processes Increase the Sustainability of Rayon Fabrics 

In an integrated process, for example, in the Lenzing Modal Factory in Austria, production energy can be recovered and reused. Bark, thick liquor, and soda extraction liquor from pulp production become energy sources for pulp and fiber production. The remaining heat requirements – about 40% of the total heat requirements – come from incinerating externally purchased bark and municipal solid waste. 

Closed-loop production systems, on the other hand, dissolvent agents can be recovered to use again and again. It reduces the demand for virgin resources to produce new chemicals. Also, it minimizes hazardous waste being discharged into the environment. Companies like Lenzing AG and Birla Cellulose manufacture their rayon fabrics in closed-loop systems. 

Where Are Rayon Fabrics Usually Manufactured

The main producers of rayon fibers and dissolved pulp for rayon fiber are: 

  • China
  • India 
  • Indonesia 
  • Pakistan
  • Japan
  • The US
  • Canada 
  • Brazil
  • South Africa 
  • Austria
  • Germany 
  • The UK

Energy Usage at Rayon Manufacturing Locations Varies Based on Each Country

Because manufacturing these fabrics is energy-intensive, using renewable energy (solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass) significantly reduces carbon emissions at this stage. 

According to Our World in Data, the share of renewable energy in primary energy in Brazil is 46.22% – the highest percentage in all countries where rayon fabrics are made. 

Following are the renewable energy share in primary energy in rayon-producing countries:

  • China: 14.95% renewable energy
  • India: 9.31% renewable energy
  • Indonesia: 10.39% renewable energy
  • Pakistan: 10.62% renewable energy
  • Japan: 11.43% renewable energy
  • The US: 10.66% renewable energy
  • Canada: 29.89% renewable energy 
  • Brazil: 46.22% renewable energy
  • South Africa: 3.41% renewable energy 
  • Austria: 37.48% renewable energy
  • Germany: 19.46% renewable energy 
  • The UK: 17.95% renewable energy

As you can see, the percentage of renewable energy varies significantly among rayon manufacturing locations. This has a big implication on the environmental impact of the fabrics as the more fossil fuels (nonrenewable energy resources) are burned for heating, the higher the carbon emission of this manufacturing process (and, as a result, the whole life-cycle of rayon). 

Waste Treatment At Rayon Manufacturing Locations

Because of the high usage of (toxic) chemicals during manufacturing of some rayon fibers, waste treatment at rayon facilities is a matter of concern, especially when factories in some countries lack transparency and regulations. 

For example, the Changing Markets Foundation reported in 2017 about fashion brands such as Zara, H&M, and Marks & Spencer and their links to highly polluting factories in China, India, and Indonesia, where they make viscose and modal fibers. (Because the manufacturing of rayon is similar to viscose production, these two types of cellulose fibers are often produced on the same property.) 

The organization raised concerns about the devastating impact of wood pulp production on forests, people, and vulnerable animal populations.

In brief, it is important for you, as a consumer, to find out where the rayon fabrics are made, not just where your clothes are sewn together.

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Rayon Fabrics

Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with rayon fabrics because of the emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. Rayon fabrics typically travel from forests, where raw materials for rayon are grown, to processing factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfill. 

In the life-cycle of rayon clothes, transportation typically occurs as below: 

  • From forests where rayon raw materials are grown to the rayon fiber manufacturing locations
  • From the rayon fabrics manufacturing location to the clothing manufacturing location 
  • From the clothing manufacturing location to sorting centers/physical shops 
  • From sorting centers/physical shops to the consumer’s house 
  • From the consumer’s house to the centers for recycling/ disposing of

Traveling Distances of Rayon Fabrics Vary 

It is uncommon for cellulose-based fabrics to have raw materials grown, processed, sewn, and sold in one town, country, or even continent. 

Here are some scenarios of transporting rayon fabrics: 

  • Rayon manufacturers can source beechwood grown in the US, process it into rayon fabrics and clothing in a nearby factory, and then rayon textile products around the US to sell to consumers.
  • Others might ship eucalyptus wood from forests in Asia, to factories in Europe and consumer markets in the US.
  • Bamboo can be grown in China, transported to a factory in the immediate vicinity for dissolved pulp manufacturing, then to Canada for fiber manufacturing before being shipped worldwide to end users. 

You can reduce the transporting carbon footprint by opting for rayon fabrics from some of the closer temperate and subtropical forests (providing that they have not first been sent to a manufacturing factory on the other side of the world). 

The Carbon Footprint of Transporting Rayon Fabrics Depends Largely on the Vehicle of Transportation 

During its life-cycle, a piece of rayon clothing can be transported using various types of vehicles, including: 

  • Large container ships 
  • Planes 
  • Freight trains 
  • Long-distance trucks 
  • Short-distance delivering vans 

And these various types of transportation vehicles have different carbon footprint impacts: 

For example, as a consumer, you can choose not to pick the fast delivery option when ordering rayon clothes to reduce the carbon footprint of your rayon items. 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Rayon Fabrics

The usage of rayon fabrics is relatively sustainable because these breathable rayon clothing requires relatively fewer washes. Also, modal and lyocell are durable fabrics. 

An environmentally favorable property of rayon fabric is its breathability. Clothes made with rayon fabrics don’t start smelling too quickly, meaning fewer washes are needed. Because washing during the usage phase is one of the main sources of energy consumption in the life cycle of clothing, breathable fabrics tend to be more sustainable. 

Also, modal and lyocell fabrics are durable. Clothes made with, for example, modal fabric will last years of wearing. Specifically, modal clothes can withstand more washes and dry cycles than cotton

Long-lasting clothing is generally more sustainable because you don’t need to replace it too frequently (thus, no need for more resources to make the new one). 

How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Rayon Fabrics

The end-of-life stage for rayon fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable. 

Rayon fabrics are 100% cellulose, making them a biodegradable material. Thus, at the end of the fabric’s life, there are three available options: 

  • Composting
  • Incineration
  • Landfilling

It takes about six to eight weeks for rayon fibers to decompose, contrary to plastic-based items that could take up space in the landfill for up to 100 years. Cotton typically takes 11 weeks to decompose. 

How Circular Are Products Made of Rayon Fabrics

In the textile industry, a circular economy is designed to keep products and materials in use for as long as possible, especially through reusing and recycling. It also covers regenerating natural systems that support the industry and reducing polluted waste released into such systems.

“The circular economy is a systems solution framework that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution.”

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

As a whole, the textile industry is almost linear: 97% of the input are new resource.

Regarding regenerated cellulose fabrics, there have been incentives for recycling materials and energy in closed-loop manufacturing processes

Since 2000, new technologies have emerged to produce cellulose fibers to keep harmful toxins from being released into the environment. Such closed-loop systems have excellent control to minimize the emission of gases to the environment and recover the solvent carbon disulfide up to 90-95%. Later technologies also improve the recovery of other resources (water and energy) used in manufacturing.

Lenzing AG and Birla Cellulose are two rayon manufacturers with closed-loop manufacturing processes. 

Also, cellulose fibers in lyocell fabrics can be reused in manufacturing new fabrics if not blended with other fibers

Another recycling alternative is to mix the virgin wood pulp with recycled cotton fibers (from garment production or end-of-life recycled clothes) to create a cotton-lyocell blend

How Can You Buy Rayon Fabrics More Sustainably

The key to sustainably buying rayon products is to check on relevant environmental and original certifications. 

  • Forest Stewardship Council: An FSC certification ensures that the wood comes from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits.
  • Program for Endorsement of Forest Certification: PEFC’s approaches to sustainable forest management are in line with protecting the forests globally and locally and making the certificate work for everyone. Getting a PEFC certification is strict enough to ensure the sustainable management of a forest is socially just, ecologically sound, and economically viable but attainable not only by big but small forest owners.
  • USDA Certified Biobased Product: The USDA BioPreferred® Certification is a voluntary certification offered by the United States Department of Agriculture. The certification identify products made from plants or other renewable materials.
  • STeP by OEKO-TEX®: STeP by OEKO-TEX® is an independent certification system for brands, retailers, and manufacturers from the textile and leather industry. It communicates organizational environmental measures, including reducing carbon footprint and water usage.
  • Ecolabel: Ecolabel is the official European Union voluntary label recognized worldwide for certified products with a guaranteed, independently-verified low environmental impact. The label requires high environmental standards throughout the entire life-cycle: from raw material extraction through production and distribution to disposal. It also encourages companies to develop innovative, durable, easy-to-repair, and recyclable products.

Some certifications are signaling brands’ efforts toward lowered environmental impacts and a circular economy are: 

  • B Corp Certification: The label B Corp is a certification reserved for for-profit companies. Certified holders are assessed on their social and environmental impacts. 
  • Cradle2Cradle certification: Cradle2Cradle provides a standardized approach to material circularity. It assesses whether products have been suitably designed and made with the circular economy in mind covering five critical categories: material health, material reuse, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.

Where to Buy Sustainable Rayon Fabrics 

As we have established throughout the life-cycle assessment, not all rayon clothes are made equally sustainable. 

Rayon clothes can only be sustainable when the raw materials come from sustainably managed forests (where harvesting rotation allows new trees to grow and replace cut-down trees). In addition, the sustainability of rayon fabrics depends on: 

  • Energy usages (volume and source) in manufacturing 
  • Chemical controls during manufacturing 

Consequently, you want to buy rayon clothes from brands that are transparent about their raw materials and committed to reducing energy usage and emissions. Here are some of such sustainable brands (in alphabetic order): 

Why Is It Important to Buy Products Made of More Sustainable Fabrics

It is important to buy products made of more sustainable fabrics because a sustainable textile industry has a lower carbon footprint, helps save natural resources, and is better for forests, animals, and humans. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Your Carbon Footprint 

The production of clothing and footwear is estimated to contribute 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions – more than all international flights and shipping combined. If the fashion industry were a country, it would be the fourth largest emitter of carbon dioxide

One way to reduce the carbon footprint of the clothes you buy is to opt for sustainable fabrics. Sustainable fabrics, which are often made with natural or recycled fibers, have relatively low carbon footprints compared to petroleum-based fabrics. For example, organic cotton made in the US has a carbon footprint of 2.35 kg CO2 (per ton of spun fiber) – a quarter of polyester’s carbon footprint. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Demand For Natural Resources and Waste Management

The textile industry uses water and land to grow cotton and other fibers. It is estimated that 79 billion cubic meters of water were used for the sector worldwide in 2015. For example, producing a single cotton t-shirt requires as much water as one person drinks for 2.5 years (2,700 liters of fresh water).

Worse yet, the textile economy is vastly more linear than circular: the largest amount of resources used in clothes ended up in landfill (instead of being recycled to remake clothes). According to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation,

  • Less than 3% of materials used in the textile economy in 2015 came from recycled sources.
  • In other words, more than 97% of resources used in making clothes are newly extracted. 

When clothing items are disposed of within a short period of time – under a year in the case of half of the fast fashion clothes – the natural systems that provide raw materials for fabrics don’t have enough time to recover and regenerate, which could lead to ecological breakdown. 

Sustainable fabrics are made with less water and emissions while lasting longer:

  • Because they are durable, you don’t need to buy new clothes too often. 
  • Thus, you help reduce the pressure to extract more resources for making new items. 

Similarly, making and consuming sustainable fabrics made with recycled materials reduces the demand for virgin materials while helping tackle waste management. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Sustainable Management of Forests

Sustainable plant-based fabrics are made with raw materials from forests and plantations that are sustainably managed, such as complying with FSC standards

When you buy sustainable plant-based fabrics, you discourage unsustainable forestry practices like illegal logging. You can help reduce deforestation, biodiversity loss, and the effect of climate change. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Animals 

The fashion industry is rife with animal mistreatment when it comes to making animal-based fabrics like cashmere or leather. Every year, billions of animals suffer and die for clothing and accessories.

Buying sustainable vegan alternatives can help to reduce the pressure on raising more and more animals to meet the demand for animal-based fabrics while sacrificing their well-being and lives. 

Suppose you have to buy fabrics made with, for example, leather or wool; make sure you only choose brands committed to cruelty-free products. In that case, you help advocate better treatments for animals raised within the textile industry. 

Using Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Textile Workers 

Recent statistics from UNICEF estimated as many as 170 million child labors worldwide, many of whom were engaged in some form of work in the textile industry. They don’t get paid minimum wages and often work long hours. 

When you buy sustainable fabrics from brands transparent about the working conditions at their factories, you discourage the use of child labor and help promote better working conditions for textile workers.

Final Thoughts

Rayon fabrics are on a spectrum from highly sustainable, such as the case of lyocell manufactured in a closed-loop process, to not very sustainable, like viscose made with uncertified wood. 

To find sustainable rayon fabrics, you want to be able to trace the origin of the fibers to certified forests. Also, manufacturing processes matter. You want to check if your chosen brands are committed to reducing fossil-based energy and recycling fibers. 

To make it even more sustainable, buy second-hand rayon clothes, use clothes for as long as possible, upcycle the material to extend its usage, and arrange for it to be recycled.

Stay impactful,


Photo of author

Quynh Nguyen

Quynh loves to research and write about how we can live more sustainably. Before joining Impactful Ninja, she managed communications at the social enterprise Fargreen. And when she's not writing, she likes to run in the woods, dig in the garden, or knit the next jumper.

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