Leading firms have committed to source the garment fibre from sustainable forests, but are paying less attention to widespread environmental damage from toxic chemicals used in its production. We look at greener alternatives

On paper, so to speak, viscose looks like it should be a sustainable fabric. It’s produced from trees, uses far less water in production than cotton; and no pesticides. What could possibly be the problem?

The trouble with viscose extends throughout the supply chain and starts with the forests that fibre producers rely on.

Viscose is marketed as a natural fibre because it is produced from cellulose, the main constituent of the cell walls of plants. But since just 40%-50% of a tree is cellulose, a huge volume of forest goes to waste. Typical fibre yields are just 25%-40%, explains Nicole Rycroft, the founder of Canadian NGO Canopy.

Canopy is working hard to raise awareness of the devastating impact of the growing demand for viscose on ancient and endangered forest, where some 120 million trees are logged each year.

It has persuaded some of the world’s leading businesses, including H&M, Zara and Marks and Spencer to commit to stop sourcing dissolvable pulp from endangered ecosystems.

Beginning with its spring collection this year, Stella McCartney can now say her ready-to-wear viscose comes from sustainably managed and certified forests in Sweden.

Rycroft is encouraged that compared to four years ago, “when there was very little knowledge ... now we have 105 brands and retailers with revenues of over $130bn, who have committed to help kick-start commercial production of the next generation of fibres.”

Toxic chemicals

So far, so good. But few have concentrated efforts further up the supply chain.

A report from Changing Markets earlier this year exposed a dirty secret: that much of the industry uses a chemically intensive process that exposes factory workers to highly toxic chemicals. Those same chemicals, and their by-products, are discharged out in to the environment, damaging both human health and the surrounding waterways and soil.

Factories in Indonesia, China and India are the culprits, producing viscose for some of the world’s best-known brands: amongst them H&M, Zara, M&S and Tesco.

Stella McCartney's viscose is sustainably managed (credit: Stella McCartney)

“Ten companies account for 70% of fibre production so there’s a clear opportunity to make the shift,” suggests campaign adviser Urska Trunk. “Our investigation shows this cannot be delayed further: brands have to act.”

Indeed, demand for viscose is growing: over the past 15 years production is up 8%-12% and is expected to double over the next decade. The use of viscose isn’t confined to the fashion world. It also goes into what are called nonwovens. A big market is in wipes, where its absorbency and strength are greatly valued.

The innovators

So what does the viscose industry have to do to clean up its act? One answer is innovating to use recycled instead of virgin fibres. In a benchmark by not-for-profit consultancy Made By that examines human and environmental impacts of fibre production recycled fibres get top marks of A, while conventional viscose gets the bottom score of E.

This month Re:newcell, a spin-out from Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology, will start selling pulp made from recycled textile fibres. Initially these will be pure cotton, but mixtures with viscose and polyester will follow. Its pilot plant in Stockholm will produce 7,000 tonnes a year. Louise Norlin, who works in business development for Re:newcell, expects the resulting fibre could be recycled between five and seven times. 

She suggests that Sweden’s strict environmental regulations mean “if you can make it in Sweden you can make it anywhere”, adding that Re:newcell has only collaborated with fibre spinners that place a premium on the environment. 

Re:newcell’s process uses a fraction of the water consumed in cotton manufacture. It is cleaned of the dyes and sent to the city’s water treatment plant. The dyes, which form a sludge, are burnt as an energy source in municipal facilities. Ideally they’d be recycled, but Norlin says the technology is not developed enough for them to use. The plant is powered by renewable energy and Norlin estimates that it will save at least 21,000 tonnes of CO2 a year. 

Another option is to use alternative fibres, something being pioneered by US-based Agraloop, which makes fibres from the residue of banana, pineapple, sugar cane, hemp and flax.

There is a strong business case for such alternatives, asserts Agraloop’s founder Isaac Nichelson, because there are not enough wood resources to meet the expected growth in demand for viscose.

Changing Markets' report focused on viscose (credit: Changing Markets)


The residue from the five crops that Agraloop uses, on the other hand, represents two and half times the demand for fibres today, he says.

Nichelson is trying to persuade the big brands to provide capital to build a pilot plant that will operate in a closed loop for water and chemicals, and generate bio-energy to run its processes. He’s been working with, amongst others, Inditex and H&M to explore circular economies in their supply chains, so hopes some of them will back this innovation.

Another start-up using alternative fibres is US-based Crailar, which produces a fibre from the outer bark of plants like flax and hemp. Crailar co-founder Jason Finnis says its fibres work best mixed with wool, cotton or Lyocell, and bring superior qualities of moisture management and strength. IKEA Group uses it in furnishings; while US customer Georgia Pacific uses it as a viscose alternative in the production of wipes.

The actual tonnage of viscose used in the so-called nonwovens market is huge, says Finnis, which is why Crailar recently teamed up with Canopy, to try to “educate consumers to the human and environmental cost of their pure white viscose baby wipes.”

Another innovation, from Austrian manufacturer Lenzing, is Refibra, made with (pre-consumer) cotton scraps generated during garment-making, which would otherwise end up in landfill or be incinerated. These fibres, which can be distinguished in finished textiles, are being used by Zara.

Lenzing has gone further than any other viscose producer to make its fibres sustainable. Its efforts began more than 20 years ago, explains sustainability director Peter Bartsch: Lenzing’s Lyocell fibre (marketed as Tencel) avoids the conventional toxic chemicals used to make viscose. Production is based on a so-called solvent spinning technology.

The solvent, used to dissolve the cellulose, is almost 100% recovered. An evaluation of Tencel’s environmental impact using the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s HIGG index in 2010 gave it a score that was less than half that of traditional viscose. But there have been improvements since then, says Bartch.

He describes its latest Ecovero fibre is as “the most sustainable viscose you can have”. Moreover, it is totally traceable and, uniquely, the fibres can be identified in any finished textile.

Crialar and Canopy are educating consumers about the environmental cost of  baby wipes (credit: JPC-PROD/Shutterstock Inc.)


To address wood wastage, Lenzing has built two biorefineries in Europe which process the wood its uses (from managed European forests) into pulp, valuable chemicals and energy to fuel the pulp production.

However, even such an environmentally aware company was pulled up by Changing Markets over concerns that its Indonesian subsidiary is discharging waste water directly into a nearby river. Last year, residents near the factory fell ill after a leak exposed them to sulphuric acid. Bartsch says Lenzing is looking at its production processes “to determine which engineering activities are needed to overcome shortcomings” and that these will be implemented with “high priority”.

After Changing Markets’ report was published, brands voiced concern about the environmental problems caused by viscose, says Trunk, but it is too early to say where this will lead. As Louise Norlin, who works in business development for Re:newcell, points out: “It’s a very traditional industry [that is] only taking small steps.”

First steps

Trunk says it is too much to expect brands to take Lenzing’s lead and adopt new technology and upgrade to a closed-loop process like Lyocell.

However brands should at least adopt an appropriate management system to improve recovery of chemicals. In fact, brands could insist on best available alternatives for chemical recovery identified by the EU 10 years ago.

Another initiative, ZDHC, is aiming for zero discharge of hazardous chemicals in textile, leather and footwear production processes. A lot of the brands identified in the Changing Markets report are members, acknowledges Nany Kusuma, programme project manager. One is M&S, which says it is working with the organisation to develop tools for the global viscose fibre supply chain.

“We want this to become a key part of ZDHC’s work and to adapt the existing tools so that they can be successfully adopted by the viscose fibre manufacturers,” M&S said.

Toxic chemicals from viscose production damage human health (credit: Faser)

One tool is a manufacturing restricted substances list (MRSL), of hazardous chemicals for which a safe alternative has been identified. Unfortunately, none of the toxic compounds used in viscose production is included.

Much of ZDHC’s efforts are about tackling wastewater: it has developed a global industry standard to clear up supplier confusion, and limit the amount of testing they have to do. It’s also a useful tool to verify suppliers are sticking to the MRSL. From next year it will have a portal, where suppliers can upload wastewater reports, and brands can see them.

So far, brands have relied on voluntary self-regulation for their supply chain manufacturing. But now that several companies are working on recycling fibres, brands are taking notice. If the optimism of market newcomers like Agraloop and Re:newcell doesn’t translate into firm action, then perhaps standards will have to be mandated. Consumers could help by demanding brands invest in new closed-loop systems. We could also buy fewer clothes.

This is part of a package of articles on the push for greater transparency in the garment industry. See also:

‘Four years after Rana Plaza, garment workers are still dying in unsafe factories’

New apps to keep tabs on the factory floor

Not so fast: Millennials press fashion brands for greater transparency

The female micro-entrepreneurs disrupting India's garment trade



viscose  Lenzing  Agraloop  garment fibre  Stella McCartney  Chemicals  Lyocell  ZDHC  pollution  Crailar  M&S  Re:newcell 

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