Viscose: the False Promise [TEXTILE SERIES 1]
In recent years, the fashion industry has witnessed the popularity boom of a newcomer — viscose. Also known as rayon, viscose is a semi-synthetic fabric that is often used to substitute silk and has grown to become the third most commonly used textile fiber in the world. Viscose has been marketed as a biodegradable, eco-friendly fabric because it is made from wood pulp, but its current hazardous manufacturing process and high demand for timber will need much reform before its reality can catch up with its reputation.
THE UGLY TRUTH
The source of the wood pulp to manufacture viscose comes from the cellulose of fast-growing, regenerative trees, many of which are found in tropical forests.
Every year, 150 million trees are logged to create fabric, and because of poor regulation of wood pulp sourcing, many ancient and endangered forests are at risk from excessive logging for viscose production.
After the raw materials are collected, the cellulose undergoes a chemically-intensive process that involves hazardous chemicals such as carbon disulfide, hydrogen sulfide, sodium hydroxide, and sulphuric acid. Carbon disulfide is the most notorious of the chemicals, which can cause coronary disease, neurological and psychological disorders, and even insanity in workers that are subject to high exposure. Most of the viscose manufacturers function in an “open-loop” model, in which chemicals are lost during the process into the surrounding environment (around 30% of carbon disulfide is lost to the environment).
A large portion of the hazardous waste is discharged as wastewater into adjacent bodies of water.
Workers from two of the largest Chinese viscose plants have admitted that sewage was directly discharged into China’s largest freshwater lake, Poyang Lake, without any processing and that the desulfurization facilities were only turned on during inspections.
IS TRANSPARENCY ENOUGH?
One major step for transforming viscose production standards is transparency in brand supply chains. Many popular brands, such as H&M, Asos, and Zara, have taken this step and publicly released a list of their viscose suppliers, whose violations of environmental standards and human rights can then be directly linked with these retailers. Contrary to other textile industries, the viscose industry is dominated by very few producers (10 companies control 70% of global viscose production). This makes it relatively easy for brands to pressure irresponsible manufacturers to clean up their act, providing an opportunity for rapid and transformational change. However, Natasha Hurley, campaign manager at Changing Markets, is not so positive. She has noticed that the increased transparency of brands “hasn’t translated into the factories they’re sourcing from being to a standard that we would expect.” Additionally, Hurley believes that the pressure fast-fashion retailers put on their producers for faster production and lower costs is “creating an unsustainable situation both on a social and environmental front.”
For brands that have not improved their transparency, the IPE Green Supply Chain Map is doing it for them. The initiative by Beijing-based environmental research organization The Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs and New York-based international environmental advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council allows users to see how brand suppliers are contributing to air and water pollution in China. The tool identifies the suppliers’ name and location, emissions data, waste and water consumption, and environmental violations while linking the manufacturer to the brand it supplies.
改变黏胶纤维生产标准的主要步骤之一是增强品牌供应链的透明度。 H＆M，Asos和Zara等许多品牌已公开发布了其黏胶纤维的供应商，而他们供应商的违反环境标准和人权的行为就会直接连累到这些服装品牌的声誉。与其他纺织工业相比，黏胶纤维行业的生产者很少，10家生产商控制着全球黏胶纤维产量的70％。这意味着品牌可以相对容易地向不负责的制造商施加压力，要求其提高环保标准。但是，非政府组织Changing Markets的经理Natasha Hurley并不那么乐观，她发现品牌增强透明度并没有成为对他们供应商的任何实际行动或要求。此外，Hurley认为快时尚品牌对生产商生产速度更快、成本更低的要求就已经产生了一个在环境和社会方面不可持续的理念。
SPOTLIGHT ON CHINA
After the decline of viscose in the 1990s, Asia led the resurgence of this textile until now. India, Indonesia, and China are the three biggest producers of viscose, with China producing 66% of the global supply. China’s environmental laws have assumed a stronger grip in recent years. 2015 witnessed the first revision to the 1989 Environmental Protection Law, which was loosely enforced. Subsequent years saw further revisions including higher transparency standards, more severe legal repercussions, and stronger implementation on the local level. Although Chinese viscose plants are riddled with past scandals and allegations of corruption, worker safety hazards, and poor waste management, some are beginning to address their harmful production processes as shown by completing audits by the Canadian NGO Canopy. Nicole Rycroft, Canopy’s Executive Director, commented positively on the world’s third largest viscose producer, “Tangshan Sanyou’s documented progress on raw material sourcing transparency, their support for landscape conservation planning, and their leadership in developing a new viscose product made from post-consumer recycled textiles are all clear demonstrations of the company’s strong commitment to CanopyStyle.”
THE FUTURE OF VISCOSE
There has been multiple attempts at reforming the production of viscose, to varying degrees of success. Viscose made from bamboo, for example, only solved the need for wood pulp but did not address the leakage of chemicals in the manufacturing process, and thus did not provide a feasible alternative.
Lyocell fabric, marketed by Austrian company Lenzing as Tencil, is produced in a closed-loop system in which 99% of chemicals are recovered and reused. This form of production targets the major issue with viscose, the leakage of harmful chemicals, and is an ideal prototype for future manufacturing processes. Ultimately, viscose has the potential to become a sustainable textile if the source of wood pulp and process of production reach adequate standards.
Both governments and NGOs are capable of regulating production, increasing transparency, and raising awareness of this textile, but as consumers, we are also responsible for understanding the environmental costs of products and wielding our purchasing power with caution.
[FURTHER READING] Reports by Changing Markets Foundation: