How Sustainable Are Viscose Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

How Sustainable Are Viscose Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

Quynh Nguyen

Read Time:18 Minutes


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Viscose, or viscose rayon, was originally developed as an artificial alternative to silk. And to create silk-like properties, conventional manufacturers put the raw plant-based materials through energy and chemically intensive processes. So we had to ask: How sustainable are viscose fabrics?

Viscose is generally not a very sustainable fabric. Mainly, because manufacturing viscose fabric is associated with high usage of energy (often fossil fuels) and chemicals. However, sourcing viscose fabrics can be sustainable as the raw materials come from renewable wood or wood-like materials.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of viscose 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 viscose fabrics.

Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Viscose Fabrics

Viscose fabric is generally considered not a very sustainable material because of the energy and chemical-intensive manufacturing processes and the association some viscose fabrics have with deforestation. 

However, viscose fibers can be made more sustainably by sourcing raw materials from sustainably managed forests, recovering energy from production, and optimizing manufacturing inputs.

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

Viscose is a type of semi-synthetic fabric, made with regenerated cellulose fibers extracted from wood.

These cellulose fibers often come from the following trees and plants:

Viscose fibers are classified as a type of rayon – a group of regenerated cellulose fibers:

  • Viscose is considered the 1st generation of rayon, and thus, often simply referred to as rayon 
  • Modal is considered the 2nd generation of rayon
  • Lyocell is considered as the 3rd generation of rayon 

All three generations (viscose, modal, and lyocell) are made with cellulosic fibers regenerated during manufacturing. They 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 made-made). 

To understand the sustainability of viscose fabrics, we must assess its 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 viscose 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 viscose fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments

The life-cycle stages of viscose fabricsEach stage’s sustainability
Sourcing of viscose fabricsThe sourcing stage is generally sustainable because viscose fabrics are made from renewable wood or wood-like materials. The most common cellulose fibers in viscose manufacturing come from fast-growing trees and plants like eucalyptus, bamboo, or soy.

However, there are concerns over the association between sourcing raw materials for viscose fabrics and deforestation in ancient and endangered forests. 
Manufacturing of viscose fabricsManufacturing viscose fabric is energy and chemical intensive, which could have serious knock-on ecological impacts, especially if fossil fuels are the main energy sources at the manufacturing locations.

However, integrated manufacturing processes can recover part of the energy during production while optimizing materials. In this case, manufacturing viscose fabrics can be designed to be more sustainable. 
Transporting of viscose fabricsTransporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with viscose fabrics because of the emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. Viscose fabrics typically travel from forests, where raw materials for viscose are grown, to processing factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfill. 
Usage of viscose fabricsThe usage of viscose fabrics is generally not very sustainable because viscose clothing lack durability. 
End-of-life of viscose fabricsThe end-of-life stage for viscose fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable. 

Overall, we can say that viscose fabric is generally not a sustainable material for clothing and bedding. However, 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 viscose fabrics more sustainably. 

How Sustainable Is the Sourcing Raw Materials for Viscose Fabrics

The sourcing stage is generally sustainable because viscose fabrics are made from renewable wood or wood-like material. The most common cellulose fibers in viscose manufacturing come from fast-growing trees and plants like eucalyptus, bamboo, or soy. However, there are concerns over the association between sourcing raw materials for viscose fabrics and deforestation in ancient and endangered forests. 

What Raw Materials Are Used for Viscose Fabrics

Cellulose fibers are the main material used for viscose fabrics. They are derived from woods like eucalyptus and beech or wood-like materials like bamboo, soy, and sugarcane. 

Synthetic chemicals are also used in making viscose fabrics, but we will discuss those agents in the manufacturing stage. This sourcing section will focus on plant-based materials from fast-growing species like beech, eucalyptus, or bamboo.

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

The main raw materials used in viscose fabrics come from trees and plants. They are renewable, often at quick rates. Also, such raw materials store carbon because of the carbon sequestration in trees and plants. 

  • Quick and easy-to-replenished materials: Raw materials for viscose fibers generally come from fast-growing trees and plants. For example, eucalyptus wood can be harvested as raw material for viscose fabrics after a decade. Bamboo grows even faster, ready for harvesting within three to five years. 

    Some common plants grown for viscose’s raw materials require little irrigation, fertilizers, and pesticides.

    Bamboo, for example, grows well in many types of soils without the need for artificial fertilizers, pesticides, or heavy irrigation. Eucalyptus trees have similar qualities. For the same biomass, a eucalyptus plantation requires only a quarter of the water needed by a cotton plantation.

Where Are the Raw Materials for Viscose Fabrics Usually Sourced From

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. And a report from Changing Markets pointed out the association between sourcing raw materials and deforestation in ancient or endangered forests, which have huge ecological costs and environmental implications.

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

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Viscose Fabrics

Manufacturing viscose fabric is energy and chemical intensive, which could have serious knock-on ecological impacts, especially if fossil fuels are the main energy sources at the manufacturing locations. However, integrated manufacturing processes can recover part of the energy during production while optimizing materials. In this case, manufacturing viscose fabrics can be designed to be more sustainable. 

How Sustainably Is Viscose Fabrics Generally Manufactured

The typical viscose manufacturing process follows these five steps: 

  1. Prepare the wood pulp (harvesting wood, cutting it into penny-sized pieces, and grounding the pieces into a pulp)
  2. Wood pulp is first dissolved in caustic soda, then depolymerized and reacted with carbon disulfide to form cellulose xanthate, which is dissolved in once more time caustic soda
  3. Filter, degas, and age the viscose solution 
  4. Spin the solution in an acidic bath containing sulphuric acid, sodium sulfate, and zinc sulfate to regenerate the (viscose) cellulose in filament form 
  5. Wash, beach, finish, dry, and weave the yarn into viscose fabric 

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

Manufacturing Viscose Fabrics Uses A Lot of Chemicals

The viscose manufacturing process requires a large amount of caustic soda: 0.5-0.8 kg per kg fiber. It also uses other chemicals, including: 

  • carbon disulfide 
  • sulphuric acid 
  • sodium sulfate 
  • zinc sulfate 

Caustic soda, carbon disulfide, and sulphuric acid are all toxic chemicals that could potentially cause serious harm to the environment and workers.

Both caustic soda and sulphuric acid can damage the skin and eyes.

Carbon disulfide has been linked to higher levels of coronary heart disease, birth defects, skin conditions, and cancer, not in textile workers and residents in the vicinity of viscose factories. 

In a closed-loop manufacturing process, these chemicals can be strictly controlled for recovering, reusing, and/or safely discharging. We will discuss this matter later in the Circular Economy section. 

Manufacturing Viscose Fabrics Is Energy-Intensive 

The manufacturing process of viscose fabrics is energy-intensive. A lot of energy is needed for wood and chemical production (input materials) and pulp and fiber production. 

For a tonne of viscose fiber (using eucalyptus cellulose) made by Lenzing, a leading viscose manufacturer in Asia, the total energy usage is 106 GJ.

  • This is about 40% and 60% higher than modal (2nd generation of rayon) and lyocell (3rd generation of rayon) made by the same company, respectively. 
  • This is also double the energy usage for manufacturing the same quantity of cotton fiber in the US and Canada
An Integrated Process Reduces Energy Usage in Manufacturing Viscose Fabrics 

There are two production systems in manufacturing viscose: integrated and separate processes:

  • Integrated processes combine producing pulp and fiber at the same location, saving material and energy in the process. 
  • Separate processes separate pulp production from fiber production, which adds transportation between the two facilities and loses out on the opportunities of recovering energy. 

In an integrated process, for example, in the Lenzing Viscose 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. 

Thanks to recovering energy, Lenzing viscose fiber made in Austria uses only two-thirds of the total energy needed for viscose fiber made in a separation process of Lenzing Asia. 

Where Are Viscose Fabrics Usually Manufactured

Dissolved pulp for viscose fiber, viscose fibers (and fabrics) are made worldwide. China accounts for the most dissolved pulp and viscose fiber (more than 60%). The top manufacturers in the viscose fabric supply chain are located in: 

  • China
  • The US
  • Brazil
  • South Africa 
  • Canada 
  • Austria
  • India 
  • Indonesia 
Energy Usage at Viscose Manufacturing Locations

Because manufacturing viscose fiber requires a lot of energy, the use of renewable energy (instead of fossil fuels) significantly reduces the carbon emission during the manufacturing stage (and, as a result, the whole life-cycle of viscose fabrics). 

Different types of renewable energy are solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass

Here’s the share of renewable energy (as a percentage of primary energy) for each of the main viscose-producing countries as of 2021:

  • China: 14.95% renewable energy
  • The US: 10.66% renewable energy
  • Brazil: 46.22% renewable energy
  • South Africa: 3.41% renewable energy
  • Canada: 29.89% renewable energy
  • Austria: 37.48% renewable energy
  • India: 9.31% renewable energy
  • Indonesia: 10.39% renewable energy

As you can see, the percentage of renewable energy varies significantly among viscose 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 viscose). 

Waste Treatment At Viscose Manufacturing Locations

Because of the high usage of (toxic) chemicals during manufacturing, waste treatment at viscose 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 viscose factories in China, India, and Indonesia. 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 viscose fabrics are made, not just where your clothes are sewn together.

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Viscose Fabrics

Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with viscose fabrics because of the emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. Viscose fabrics typically travel from forests, where raw materials for viscose 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 viscose clothes, transportation typical occurs as below: 

  • From forests where viscose raw materials are grown to the viscose fiber manufacturing locations
  • From the viscose 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

It’s extremely rare for viscose raw materials to be grown, processed, sewn, and sold in one town, country, or even continent. It’s more often the case that viscose fabrics are transported long distances and on various vehicles. Let’s have a look at the transporting miles and the mode of transportation up close: 

Viscose Fabrics Typically Travel Long Distances

Let’s first look at one of the commonly used wood for viscose: eucalyptus. 

Eucalyptus trees are native species from Australia and nearby islands. If you live in a temperate region and buy viscose fabrics made from eucalyptus wood pulp, your clothing would have generally had a long journey to reach you. 

The good news is that eucalyptus trees are also grown in plantations around the world’s hotter regions, from Southern Europe to Califonia, to name a few. Thus, the traveling distance of a specific piece of eucalyptus viscose fabric can vary significantly. Here are some scenarios: 

  • Viscose manufacturers can source eucalyptus grown in California as raw materials, truck it to another state to make viscose clothing items, and then ship it around the US to sell to consumers.
  • Others might ship eucalyptus wood from forests in Australia to factories in India and to consumer markets in Europe or the US.
  • Eucalyptus wood can be grown in Indonesia, transported to South Africa for dissolved pulp manufacturing, then to Austria for fiber manufacturing before being shipped worldwide to end users. 

The stories are similar in the case of other tropical plants that are used for viscose raw materials, such as soy or bamboo. 

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

Another option is to look for viscose fabrics made with locally-grown beech pulp to significantly reduce the transportation footprint of your clothing items. 

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

During its life-cycle, a piece of viscose 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 viscose clothes to reduce the carbon footprint of your viscose items. 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Viscose Fabrics

The usage of viscose fabrics is generally not very sustainable because viscose clothing lack durability. 

Viscose is originally made as a more durable (and cheaper) alternative to silk. However, compared with fabrics like cotton, it doesn’t tend to last as long

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). 

One advantage of viscose fabric is its breathability: it generally doesn’t start smelling too quickly. 

Meaning that viscose clothes can be washed less frequently, saving water and energy.

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

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

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

  • Composting
  • Incineration
  • Landfill can all be used as end-of-life options. 

It takes about six weeks for viscose products 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. 

As viscose fabric breaks down, the chemicals used for its production are also released into the environment. That means that the compost will be contaminated. 

How Circular Are Products Made of Viscose 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.

When it comes to viscose fabrics, there have been incentives towards a circular economy:

  • Closed-loop manufacturing process: Since 2000, new technologies have emerged to produce viscose 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’s Ecovero is one example of a more sustainable viscose fabric made in a closed-loop process. 
  • Viscose fibers made with cotton waste: A Swedish company has created an alternative cellulose pulp from cotton waste. The pulp can then be mixed, for example, with FSC-certified virgin wood pulp in a 50:50 ratio to produce viscose fibers. Another example of more circular viscose fibers is FINEX™ which uses a mix of dissolving pulp made from recycled post-consumer textile waste by Södra and other PEFC-certified wood pulp.

How Can You Buy Viscose Fabrics More Sustainably

The key to sustainably buying viscose 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 Viscose Fabrics 

As we have established throughout the life-cycle assessment, not all viscose clothes are made equally, with some of the traditionally made viscose fibers not being very sustainable. 

Viscose 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 viscose fabrics depends on: 

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

Consequently, you want to buy viscose 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 extracted new. 

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 to 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 laborers 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

Viscose fabric is generally not a very sustainable material. It is made with natural cellulose fibers and is thus fully biodegradable. Still, the high chemical and energy usage makes it less sustainable than, for example, lyocell – the third generation of rayon.

However, it is possible to find sustainably made viscose rayon, with the raw materials for the yarns coming from sustainably managed forests and processed in closed-loop manufacturing systems. Besides, 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 viscose clothes, use clothes for as long as possible, upcycle the material to extend its usage, and arrange for it to be recycled appropriately.

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