You’ll see it on labels as rayon, modal, viscose or lyocell. Rayon was “invented” in the late 1800s and was heavily used in the US by the 1920s and ’30s as a more-affordable substitute for silk. Major rayon-producing countries include India, China, Germany, Brazil, Canada, the US, and Laos. Rayon is used in many textiles besides clothing, including sheets, blankets and curtains, upholstery, industrial and medical products, and cellulose sponges.
How are rayon, viscose, modal and lyocell produced?
First, trees are cut down and ground into pulp. The cellulose is treated with chemicals (sodium hydroxide, carbon disulfide and sulfuric acid) and put through extensive mechanical processing. This processing breaks down the cellulose, then shreds, dissolves, presses, spins and stretches the chemically modified material into yarn. Creating these soft silky fabrics is very energy, chemical and water-intensive, so the fabrics are considered “semi-synthetic” or “manufactured fibers.” The process generates toxic byproducts including zinc (a metal that’s harmful to aquatic life) and hydrogen sulfide.
What are options for avoiding deforestation-based rayon?
We’ll look at other fabrics in future posts. But if you’re set on rayon…
Consider rayon derived from bamboo.
It’s hard to argue that any rayon is sustainable given the processing it takes to make it. Retailers make green claims for products that use bamboo as a source of cellulose. They often describe these textiles as, for example, “95% BAMBOO / 5% SPANDEX.” This is simply false. The products are not bamboo. However, the use of bamboo, a fast-growing grass, as a source of cellulose might help prevent deforestation. I would choose products made from bamboo-based rayon over products made from tree-based fabrics. Just be aware that claims of “green” and “sustainable” are misleading.
Consider Tencel (a brand).
Tencel may be a more sustainable form of rayon. The company that produces Tencel (Lenzig, based in Austria) claims to use only Eucalyptus trees from plantations. They also claim to capture and reuse their solvents and to recycle other byproducts into the food and glass industries.
To sum up, if the label says rayon,
viscose, modal or lyocell, the fabric came from a tree and is probably liked to deforestation. If the label says something like “rayon from bamboo” or “Tencel,” it may be a better choice. To help reduce your textile impact and make a more sustainable fashion statement, visit your local resale shops! Many have barely used clothes for a fraction of the price of brand new. And take the CanopyStyle pledge! Ask questions at your favorite clothing shops and hold brands accountable with your buying choices!