We all love the feel of viscose. It’s soft and luxurious to the touch. So, it shouldn’t surprise you much that after it was first commercially produced in 1905 it was often called “artificial silk”. The silkiness is obvious. But artificial? Maybe this comes as a bit of a surprise to you.

Until a year ago when Changing Markets Foundation published its first Dirty Fashion report, most of us had very little knowledge of what was entailed in the making of viscose.

The wood pulp goes through an intense process, involving toxic chemicals

Although it is produced from plant cellulose derived mainly from biodegradable wood pulp, it cannot be called a 100% natural fabric. For it to become the soft silky fabric it is, the wood pulp goes through an intense process, involving toxic chemicals.

Kate Ng, of Time to Sew, explains that the process (which is much like the production of other cellulose-based fabrics like lyocell, modal, cupro, acetate) starts with plants being turned into pulp, then “[has] chemicals added to dissolve the pulp, and [goes] through a spinning process to turn them back into a fibre that could then turn into a yarn.”

By now we should know what viscose production is doing to forests. Since launching in 1990, the not-for-profit organisation, Canopy, has been protecting indigenous and ancient forests while raising awareness of the issue. The organisation says that depending on the region, 35 to 60 per cent of the world’s forests continue to be felled to manufacture the products we consume, from tee shirts to toilet paper. Another organization, Rainforest Action Network, has estimated that 120 million trees are logged every year to make our clothing.

Why should we care? Well, forests, particularly tropical ones, produce oxygen, store carbon and are home to millions of people and animals. Canopy has “collaborated with more than 750 companies to develop innovative solutions, make their supply chains more sustainable and help protect our world’s remaining ancient and endangered forests”.

Toxic run-off into rivers next to factories was destroying subsistence agriculture

But until the Dirty Fashion report’s release in July last year most of us weren’t aware of the toxic nature of the viscose manufacturing process. The Changing Markets Foundation found that toxic run-off into rivers next to factories was destroying subsistence agriculture and had been linked to higher incidence of serious diseases such as cancer in local populations. It also found that “communities living near some of the plants spoke of a lack of access to clean drinking water and sickening smells that were making life unbearable”. The chemicals involved with making viscose are carbon disulphide (CS2); hydrogen sulphide (H2S); sodium hydroxide (NaOH) and sulphuric acid (H2SO4).

Collaboration between brands and other stakeholders is key

Since this report the foundation has published guidelines, the Roadmap, to improving the production processes and last month published a follow-up report. The Roadmap currently has seven signatories, namely Inditex, ASOS, Marks & Spencer, H&M, Tesco, Esprit and C&A. Head of sustainability at H&M, Anna Gedda, says that the chemically intense production process of viscose “requires well-managed chemical, waste and waste water treatment systems and is therefore a challenge for the entire fashion industry – that is why collaboration between brands and other stakeholders is key.”

H&M is working towards zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020 which will help to make the viscose production process more sustainable. Gedda says, “Together with other brands we have joined [Changing Markets] Roadmap towards responsible viscose and modal manufacturing and are incorporating it into our sourcing policy”.

Woolworths has also committed to “zero discharge of all priority chemicals from the whole lifecycle and all production procedures that are associated with the making and using of all products Woolworths clothing it sells by 2020”.

The good news is that better production methods do exist, in which viscose is produced in a closed-loop system, limiting emissions to water and air. As H&M’s Gedda says, it’s important for stakeholders and brands to work together to ensure that all viscose production  complies with environmental and social best practices.  But for now, Made By, a not-for-profit, with a mission to ‘make sustainable fashion common practice’ has classified viscose as an E-class fibre in its environmental benchmarks for fabrics. E being the worst class.

Read an extract from Dirty Fashion here.

Image credit: Unsplash