The third most-used fiber in the textile industry after polyester and cotton, viscose is a soft semi-synthetic material made from biodegradable plant fiber that is commonly used to make lighter clothing. Given its natural credentials, one would think that it would be a go-to in terms of sustainable garment production. However, the process of extracting cellulose fibers from trees requires hazardous chemicals, and according to a recent report, a significant section of the fashion industry is still not demonstrating a willingness to engage with this issue, or to set out their policies on viscose production.
The report, which was complied by Changing Markets Foundation following a year’s worth of investigations and research, found that while there has been bold leadership from some retailers, many firms are still not doing enough to ensure the environmental sustainability of their textile supply chains. Citing that there was very little difference between luxury and affordable brands in their approach to viscose, which is also known as rayon, it accuses a number of major producers of failing to follow adequate health and safety processes, leading to pollution from production processes impacting surrounding water and soils.
While stressing that “much progress remains to be made", and that in addition to concerns about chemical pollution, the sector is also largely reliant on carbon intensive energy, the report does indicate that the "tide is beginning to turn in favor of more responsible viscose production". The two largest viscose producers, Austria's Lenzing and India's ABG, have both now committed to making all their sites meet EU Ecolabel requirements for production. And in China, the country's 10 largest producers have joined together to form the Collaboration for the Sustainable Development of Viscose and are developing a 10-year roadmap for improvement.
If managed properly, viscose has the potential to be a "largely sustainable fiber" according to the Changing Markets Foundation, and it has previously set up a roadmap for sustainable viscose sourcing. But, “Luxury brands and discount retailers continue to ignore an issue that is blighting people's lives and the environment," said Natasha Hurley, Changing Markets Foundation’s campaign manager. “It's time for them to wake up to consumers' desire for more transparency and more sustainable fashion."