When Dirty Fashion was released in June last year, most of us woke up to the horrific production processes of viscose. The Changing Markets Foundation which researched and compiled the report has since established a roadmap to better production processes and last month it released, Dirty Fashion: On track for transformation. This latest report “assesses the progress made to date by global apparel companies and viscose manufacturers in the transition towards responsibly-produced viscose… [and] examines progress to date and gaps in existing commitments and pledges. This is an extract that explains the chemically intense manufacturing process.

“Following decades of living in denial, the world is finally waking up to the monumental environmental impacts of the fashion industry. From microfibres polluting the oceans and killing marine life to the reckless use of pesticides in cotton cultivation to the huge volumes of waste produced by a ‘fast fashion’ system, it’s clear that we are on a dangerous track.

Against this backdrop, the industry is beginning to tackle some of the key threats its unsustainable practices have created. In the case of viscose, numerous companies are now working together to stop sourcing wood pulp from ancient and endangered forests through their partnership with the CanopyStyle initiative. By signing up to ‘Detox’ commitments with Greenpeace, a large group of brands has also demonstrated serious intent to address impacts from the discharge of toxic chemicals at the wet processing stage of textiles production.

However, taken in isolation, these undertakings do not prove that a company is sourcing responsibly-produced viscose. Since the publication of Dirty Fashion in June 2017, a steadily increasing number of brands and retailers have taken this message to heart and there is now a common understanding that tackling pollution from the manufacturing of viscose (i.e. its processing from wood pulp into staple fibre and filament yarn) is a vital additional step towards putting the industry on a more sustainable footing.

Viscose and other cellulosic fibres are the third most commonly used fibres in the world, after synthetics and cotton. As a biodegradable fibre, viscose has the potential to be a sustainable alternative to oil-derived synthetics and water-hungry cotton. However, in order to fulfill this potential, production methods and sourcing practices must change.

In 2017 and early 2018 the Changing Markets Foundation worked with local NGOs and investigative reporters to carry out on-the-ground investigations in the top three viscose producing countries: India, Indonesia and China. In all three countries, we found clear evidence of viscose producers dumping untreated wastewater, contaminating local lakes and waterways, and impacting on the lives and livelihoods of local people.

The production of viscose is reliant on a number of highly toxic and corrosive chemicals. With careful chemical management, viscose can be produced in a responsible way where chemicals are maintained in a closed-loop system, reducing discharges to the environment.

However, many manufacturers are yet to adopt best practices. At the heart of viscose production is carbon disulphide (CS2 ), a toxic and endocrine-disrupting chemical. CS2 has been linked to numerous serious health conditions, most notoriously as a cause of insanity in factory workers but also a wide range of illnesses ranging from kidney disease and Parkinson’s-like symptoms to heart attack and stroke. The chemical can be present in both water and air as a result of pollution from viscose factories and can impact health at very low concentrations.

During the spinning process, hydrogen sulphide (H2 S) is also generated as a by-product. H2 S is a highly toxic gas which can cause irritation of the eyes, function impairment and neurobehavioural changes. Its presence can be recognised by the distinctive odour of rotten eggs. During our investigations, people we spoke to frequently complained of the foul smells emitted by nearby viscose plants.

Sodium hydroxide (NaOH; also known as caustic soda) and sulphuric acid (H2 SO4 ) are also used in the production of viscose. NaOH can be highly toxic if absorbed through inhalation, ingestion or skin contact, and is known to cause corrosion, skin burns and eye damage to workers who handle it frequently and without protection. H2 SO4 is a highly corrosive, clear, colourless oily liquid. It can result in adverse health effects from inhalation such as a burning sensation and shortness of breath. Evidence suggests that occupational exposure to sulphuric acid mists in combination with other acid mists can be carcinogenic.

Without proper chemical management and treatment, these toxic chemicals find their way into the air and waterways surrounding viscose factories, affecting the delicate natural balance of ecosystems and water bodies, and harming the health of factory workers and local communities. But better production methods do exist, in which viscose is produced in a closed-loop system, limiting emissions to water and air.”

Extract from Changing Markets Foundation