Greenwashing Alert: Is Rayon Actually Eco-Friendly? (2023)

Five years ago, I visited the Green Eileen pop-up (now Eileen Fisher Renew) to see what creative things the designers were doing with old Eileen Fisher pants, blouses, and sweaters that customers brought back to the store. On one rack was a row of overdyed viscose tanks. They look as good as new, with a high-quality drape and hand-feel.

I remember one of the designers talking about viscose and saying, “We’re trying to figure out an alternative.” At the time, I didn’t fully understand why. I just knew that something was up with rayon that made it a poor choice for a brand like Eileen Fisher, which is trying to reduce its negative impact on the environment.

Greenwashing Alert: Is Rayon Actually Eco-Friendly? (1)Meanwhile, when I visited a Reformation store in LA, I saw a label crowing about this “natural” and “biodegradable” fiber that was “woven in a mill free of harmful substances such has heavy metals, dyes, and formaldehyde.”

So if you’ve decided to swear off polyester because it’s a petroleum product, you might be thinking rayon, a soft and silky fabric that is made of a natural, renewable resource — plants — is the solution.

Sorry! It actually might be worsefor the environment. And there are two major reasons why:

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  1. The way it’s made (often with toxic chemicals)
  2. How the plants are sourced (often in a way that destroys old-growth rainforests)

The whole concept of rayon seems deliberately designed to confuse consumers so much that we just give up and stop caring. So far, it’s a strategy that has worked. But I’m here to try to clear this up for you.

The Fabric That Makes Textile Workers Go Insane

To understand rayon, you need to understand what cellulosic fiber is. Cellulosic is an umbrella term for anything made from plants, which includes cotton, linen, hemp, rayon (a.k.a. viscose), and lyocell. Cotton, flaxseed, and hemp are already fairly soft, fibrous plants. They only have to be minimally processed and woven before being sewn into garments, the way they have been for thousands of years. They are considered natural fibers.

But rayon (also known as viscose — viscose is the most common type of rayon and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably) is not a natural fiber. It’s a generic term for fabrics that are made from plants using a modern, chemically-intensive process. It was invented almost 150 years ago, and since it started being widely commercially produced in the 1920s, it has become more and more popular. The global output of viscose rayon is projected to reach $28 billion in 2025.

Most rayon is made from plants that you could never imagine as fabric: bamboo and trees. These tough plant materials are broken down through a chemical and mechanical process involving sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide, and made into a viscous (ah, that’s where that name viscose came from) liquid. That is then spun into threads using sulfuric acid. (Reformation’s assurances that the mills it sources from don’t use dye, heavy metals, or formaldehyde is a complete and utter non sequitur. Those chemicals are in the dye houses.)

Anway, rayon’s industrial process is why it is considered a semi-synthetic fiber, or a man-made cellulosic fiber. It’s also why there are no rayon producers in the US — Rayon production is generally too toxic to comply with the EPA’s standards. While rayon fabric is safe by the time it reaches consumers, rayon factory workers are at high risk of neurophysiological effects, nerve damage, heart disease, and stroke.

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And that’s inside the factory. Once you have a factory dumping these chemicals into the waterway, the whole community can be poisoned. That’s still happening in Asia, according to a report that came out in 2017 by the Changing Markets Foundation. In Indonesia, rayon factory workers have been found washing the chemicals off of rayon textiles right in the river. In China, there’s abundant evidence of rayon production poisoning workers and the local bodies of water, even turning a lake black. In India, a plant is dumping into a tributary to the Ganges, poisoning local families, causing the mental faculties of children to degenerate before they reach their teens.

Because of the high concentration of the rayon industry – 75% of it is dominated by 10 companies — it’s highly probable that any conventional brand you can think of has sourced rayon from the type of dirty factories implicated in the report.

One fabric that is often marketed as inherently eco-friendly is bamboo, because it grows quickly without the use of pesticides or herbicides. But it has come under fire repeatedly for being misrepresented. The FTC has fined Nordstrom, Bed Bath & Beyond, Backcountry, J.C. Penney , Amazon, Macy’s, Kmart, Sears and more for labeling rayon made from bamboo as simply bamboo fabric. That’s sort of like putting high fructose corn syrup in a food product and listing it as “corn.” Yes, it was once corn, but it’s since been transformed into a manmade product that has serious negative implications.

There’salso modal,a type of rayon. Lenzing bills its trademarked Lenzing Modal as a more eco-friendly and softer version of rayon, because it uses closed-loop processing that doesn’t output toxins into the environment. However, there is another problem with modal, rayon, and viscose that we need to discuss…

The Palm Oil of Fabric

Palm oil, if you don’t know, is an extremely popular food and beauty ingredient. It’s so popular that rainforests are burned and cleared in Indonesia and elsewhere in order to plant palm oil plantations.

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And now that is also happening because of rayon. More than 200 million trees from Indonesia, Canada, and Brazil are logged every year and turned into cellulosic fabric, according to research by the nonprofit organization Canopy. In Indonesia, endangered animals and native people are being forced off the land, so that the local pulp mills can be steadily supplied with trees. And tragically, the typical process for dissolving pulp for rayon wastes about 70% of the tree!

Modal, that non-toxic viscose/rayon fabric, is made from different types of softwood such as beechwood, which is great if it’s sourced from well-managed European or North American forests. But Canopy found that modal has also been linked to deforestation. Forests in China are also being logged and replaced with bamboo plantations for bamboo rayon.

There’s no way to know as a consumer where your modal clothing is coming from — wildcat Asian plantations or well-managed European and North American forests. So as a designer, you should source from the reputable brands Lenzing and Aditya Birla, who have been certified by CanopyStyle as having a low risk of sourcing from endangered forests. That covers a little less than a third of global viscose production. The rest is rather iffy.

What Is the Eco-Friendly Rayon Choice?

There is hope. As of 2020, 259 brands including Levi’s, Ralph Lauren, H&M, Zara, Eileen Fisher, Stella McCartney, VF Corp (owner of Timberland, North Face, and Wrangler, among many others), have committed to cleaning up their rayon supply chains. This is due to the excellent work by CanopyStyle, a subsidiary of the nonprofit Canopy, who turned to fashion’s supply chain after working on paper sourcing.

There is also some interesting innovation in the works to shift the raw material away from forests altogether. More large brands are now picking up Infinited Fiber, a Finnish startup that makes a manmade cellulosic fiber from textile waste in a safer, less toxic process. The Swedish startup Renewcell processes old cotton textiles into feedstock for rayon production. (I profiled both in a story for Craftsmanship Quarterly.)

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What about the toxicity of rayon production? There’s a fabric for that. Tencel, a trademarked fabric also by Lenzing, is a type of rayon generically called lyocell. (Lyocell is to Tencel as tissue is to Kleenex.) Tencel is silky soft and absorbent, and is produced using amine oxide, which is purported to be safer, in an entirely closed-loop process. So the chemical isn’t discharged into the water. It’s made of certified sustainably-sourced eucalyptus. Fast-growing eucalyptus tree varieties are adaptable to almost every continent and climate, and often can be grown on land that couldn’t otherwise be farmed. Glyphosate, a dangerous chemical and known carcinogen, is commonly used in eucalyptus plantations, but it’s not required, and neither are insecticides.

Just keep in mind, Tencel has a certain feel and look, and can’t replace all of rayon’s uses. Eileen Fisher has reduced its use of rayon and does offer some Tencel products, but still relies on viscose for a lot of its clothing. You can look for rayon that has been OEKO-TEX certified, which means it was produced in a facility that takes the necessary safety and environmental precautions.

In Conclusion

Rayon is indeed made from plants, but it’s not necessarily eco-friendly because of its toxic production and the deforestation associated with it. Viscose is the same thing as rayon. Modal‘s production isn’t as toxic but can still lead to deforestation. Tencel(a branded type oflyocell) is the type of rayon that is the most eco-friendly.

Personally, if I have a choice, I choose cotton or silk over rayon or viscose. But that is a personal preference due to comfort as well. It’s up to you what works best for your style needs.

Beyond Conscious Consumption

It’s important to think beyond just your own purchasing decisions, to consider how you can help change the system so that sustainability isn’t the elitist choice, but the default. If you care enough to purchase Tencel instead of other semi-synthetic fibers, then you should also:

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  1. Donate to Canopy and the Rainforest Action Network.
  2. Email your favorite brand who uses rayon viscose and ask them what they are doing to phase it out or clean up their supply chain. I’ve heard from someone who was on the social responsibility team at a large fashion company that those emails get forwarded to them, and they use them to present their case for sustainability to the executive team. So, these emails make a difference!

FAQs

What fabric is most eco friendly? ›

Generally, natural fabrics like organic cotton and linen (made from plants) and Tencel (made from sustainable wood pulp) are more sustainable than man-made fabrics like Polyester and Nylon (which are petroleum-based and take hundreds of years to biodegrade).

Is rayon a synthetic fabric? ›

Rayon is a synthetic fiber manufactured from cellulose, and is the main man-made cellulosic fiber. A cellulosic fiber is anything derived from plants, including fibers such as linen (flax), hemp, and cotton, and is created by dissolving the original natural materials and regenerating them.

Which is better rayon or cotton? ›

When it comes to rayon vs cotton, rayon is more absorbent than cotton. Cotton is insulating fabric but rayon is a non-insulating fabric. Rayon is a fabric that we can use in a humid climate whereas cotton is best to use in a warm climate. Rayon is weak when wet and the cotton fabric gets stronger when wet.

Is rayon a good material? ›

Garments made of rayon are usually low-quality. They aren't very durable and lose their shape and color over time. Fibers will break down easily when washed.

Is rayon eco-friendly? ›

While rayon is more sustainable than completely synthetic materials like polyester and nylon, it's not as sustainable as completely natural fabrics. Overall, rayon production has a negative effect on the planet, wildlife, and the people working to make it.

What fabrics are not eco-friendly? ›

The Least Sustainable Fabrics
  • 1) Fabrics to Avoid: Polyester.
  • 2) Unsustainable Fabrics: Acrylic.
  • 5) Synthetic Fabric: Nylon.
  • 1) Organic Cotton or Recycled Cotton Fabric.
  • Is Bamboo an Eco Friendly Fabric?
  • GOTS Certified Natural Fabrics.
4 Jun 2020

Is rayon better for the environment than polyester? ›

Rayon is more sustainable than petroleum synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon.

Can vegans wear rayon? ›

Beyond cotton, other vegan fibers include linen, polyester, spandex, lycra, ramie, bamboo, hemp, denim, nylon, rayon, tyvek, PVC, microfiber, cork, acrylic, viscose, and modal.

Can rayon be recycled? ›

According to Karen S. Prado, during the manufacturing of Viscose rayon fabric, small fibres are wasted during the weaving process; these fibres can be used for recycling.

Why do most people prefer to use rayon? ›

Rayon is a versatile fiber and is widely claimed to have the same comfort properties as natural fibers, although the drape and slipperiness of rayon textiles are often more like nylon. It can imitate the feel and texture of silk, wool, cotton and linen. The fibers are easily dyed in a wide range of colors.

Is 100% rayon a good fabric? ›

Rayon is a special fabric. It wears as good as cotton fabric and feels so soft as silk. It is not without a reason that rayon was often mentioned as "artificial silk" in the past.

What are the disadvantages of rayon? ›

Rayon shrinks and loses much of its strength in water, so that rayon textiles must normally be dry-cleaned. This is a considerable disadvantage and surface treatment, to stabilize the fabric against moisture, can used to produce “high wet modulus rayon.”

Is rayon truly a plastic product? ›

Rayon is different from truly synthetic fibres because it is obtained from a natural material(wood pulp)

What are pros and cons of rayon? ›

Rayon fabric is soft, breathable, and comfortable to wear. Its soft texture is like that of silk and linen. Also, the fabric is moisture absorbent, making it an ideal fabric for sportswear and humid climates. However, some rayon fabrics require hand washing or dry cleaning and can shrink when machine washed.

Can you wash rayon? ›

Handwashing is always the best and safest method for washing rayon. Add 2 capfuls or a squirt of Delicate Wash to a washbasin or sink filled with cool water. Submerge the item and gently agitate the water with your hands to evenly distribute soap. Soak for up to 30 minutes.

Is rayon polluted? ›

Chemically intensive & polluting to air and water

Clothing made from rayon often uses large quantities of water, toxic dyes, and finishing chemicals. Air emissions can include sulfur, nitrous oxides, carbon disulfide, and hydrogen sulfide.

Is rayon always bamboo? ›

Rayon is a semi-synthetic fiber made by chemically reshaping cellulose. Cellulose extracted from bamboo is suitable for processing into viscose rayon (rayon is also made from cellulose from other sources).

Is rayon harmful to humans? ›

Rayon is a fiber that is made from cellulose that is chemically converted from wood pulp. Not only is the production of this material dangerous, but wearing it can also be unhealthy. Rayon fabric can emit toxic substances that can cause nausea, headaches, vomiting, chest and muscle pain, and insomnia.

What is rayon made of? ›

Rayon is a fiber from regenerated cellulose, generally derived from wood pulp. Rayon is usually made from eucalyptus trees, but any plant can be used (such as bamboo, soy, cotton, etc). To produce the fiber, the plant cellulose goes through a process involving a lot of chemicals, energy and water.

Is rayon a breathable fabric? ›

Rayon has very thin fibers, which allows it to breathe more than other fabrics and gives it a lightness that prevents it from sticking to a body in hot weather. Since it is so comfortable and cooling to wear, rayon is an especially good fabric for sportswear and summer dresses.

Does rayon cause Microplastics? ›

came to the conclusion that rayon fibers are a major source of microplastic debris even in the deep sea.

How long does it take rayon to decompose? ›

When buried in soil, rayon and linen can degrade in just a few weeks. (This makes them more biodegradable than cotton.) Tencel, an elastane alternative, takes a bit longer — with a test showing half of the material broke down after 94 days; this is still a much shorter time than the synthetic materials it can replace.

Does rayon have Formaldehyde? ›

According to the American Contact Dermatitis Society, rayon, blended cotton, corduroy, wrinkle-resistant 100% cotton, and any synthetic blended polymer are likely to have been treated with formaldehyde resins.

Why do vegans not wear cotton? ›

Cotton is vegan, and the material itself is not animal-derived. However, non-organic cotton is produced in a way that damages the local environment through excessive pesticide use. We recommend that vegans do use cotton, since it is a great vegan material, but where possible choose organic options over non-organic.

Is there cruelty free silk? ›

Ahimsa Silk, also known as peace silk, cruelty-free silk and non-violent silk, refers to any type of silk that is produced without harming or killing the silk worms. (It is also, erroneously, called vegan silk. As an animal product, however, it is not vegan.)

Is rayon used today? ›

The creation of HWM rayon is considered the most important development in rayon production since its invention in the 1880s. Today it is one of the most widely used fabrics and is produced globally.

Is rayon non biodegradable? ›

Silk: This textile is created from the cocoons of silk worms and is also very biodegradable. Rayon: Rayon, modal and lyocell are produced from renewable cellulosic plants such as beech trees, pine trees, and bamboo. All three fibers are biodegradable.

Does rayon cause deforestation? ›

According to The Guardian, 5% of the fabric industry is made up of forest based fabrics like rayon and viscose. It's projected that demand for these fabrics may grow as fast as 9% annually, which could lead to even more deforestation the world over.

What are the 5 uses of rayon? ›

  • It is used in textile industry for making textiles.
  • Rayon is used for making tyre cords.
  • It is also used for making carpets and surgical dressings.

What happens if you wash 100% rayon? ›

When rayon fibers are wet, they lose nearly half of their strength and can easily tear or become misshapen—which is why you should skip the washer and tumble dryer. Gently pull and shape the garment back to its original shape and size as it begins drying.

Which is better rayon or silk? ›

Rayon has better heat retention and breathability than silk, but isn't as soft or luxurious. However, it does cost less and is easier to care for. Unfortunately, rayon, particularly viscose rayon, is very bad for the environment. Rayon fiber is also not as durable as silk.

Why is rayon not a perfect fiber? ›

rayon is obtained from a natural source, wood pulp, yet it is a man-made fibre because it is processed chemically.

Is rayon worse than polyester? ›

Comparing their tactility, rayon is actually softer to the touch in comparison to polyester. This leaves your fabric more flexible if you were to densely stitch with it. Polyester is rougher to the touch compared to rayon, and leaves the fabric feeling stiffer when densely stitched.

Is rayon toxic for skin? ›

Synthetic fabrics such as polyester, satin, nylon, and rayon can restrict your skin from breathing, cause rashes and clog skin pores. Further, the chemicals from synthetic fabrics can enter your skin pores and settle into your system, increasing the toxic load on your body and triggering stress.

What is better rayon or viscose? ›

In other words, there isn't a substantial difference in the choice between rayon and viscose. Rayon is quite absorbent, and it is known for taking dye incredibly easy. This is something that could be woven or even knitted if needed. It is by far the most commonly used material.

Why rayon is called as artificial? ›

since it is prepared artificially & posses properties similar to that of silk , it iscalled as artificial silk.

Is rayon the same as viscose? ›

The terms Rayon and Viscose are often treated interchangeably. Even the Federal Trade Commission considers the terms to be the same. The viscose process is one of the most common ways to make rayon today. The term “viscose” comes from “viscous, which describes the liquid state of the spinning solution,” says Swicofil.

Does rayon shrink every time you wash it? ›

1. Does Rayon Shrink when Washed? Yes, Rayon fabric can shrink instantly, when washed by a machine and taken to the dry cleaner. Rayon always holds its original shape when washed in cold water and air-dried.

Does rayon bleed when washed? ›

Rayon isn't especially durable when exposed to heat or moisture, so standard machine washing can cause stretching, shrinking, bleeding, and general disfigurement of your once-fabulous 'fits.

Why is rayon dry clean only? ›

Rayon is a tricky fabric because it's considered semisynthetic. It is made from purified cellulose fiber. Dyes may bleed when washed and rayon can shrink or lose its shape when washed in warm water. Hand washing in cold water with mild detergent is an option, but it is generally safer to dry clean this fabric.

Is 100% cotton fabric eco-friendly? ›

Compared to other common clothing fibres such as synthetic polyester, semi-synthetic rayon, and bamboo, cotton has the advantage of being a completely natural product, which means it's biodegradable.

Is 100% linen eco-friendly? ›

Linen is one of the most biodegradable and stylish fabrics in fashion history. It is strong, naturally moth resistant, and made from flax plant fibres, so when untreated (i.e. not dyed) it is fully biodegradable.

Is bamboo fabric really eco-friendly? ›

Bamboo fabrics are certainly a step up from polyester and conventional cotton, so as long as the brand is transparent about its origins, it can be a safe bet as a more sustainable option. While lyocell bamboo is likely a more sustainable alternative, it's harder to find.

Is bamboo fabric more eco-friendly than cotton? ›

Most of the clothes we wear are made of cotton – and cotton is far from being environmentally friendly. Thankfully, there's a solution to that problem: bamboo! Bamboo is one of the most sustainable and fastest-growing plants on Earth, making it more eco-friendly to grow than cotton.

What is the cleanest fabric? ›

Untreated organic cotton is best for your skin. If you are a fan of printed fabrics, check for the ones that contain natural dyes. The high-breathability of cotton makes it the best fabric for your skin, especially if you are living in hot, humid conditions.

What is an eco-friendly alternative to cotton? ›

Tencel. Tencel is a wood-based fiber that is processed from the pulp of sustainably harvested eucalyptus trees. It is softer, more breathable, and less prone to wrinkling than cotton. It is also very biodegradable, making it close to being a perfectly green raw material.

Is polyester or cotton worse for the environment? ›

Polyester is not biodegradable, and can shed toxic microfibers. While cotton, wool, and silk will completely biodegrade within a few months to a few years, as a plastic, polyester will take hundreds of years to completely biodegrade.

Is silk eco-friendly? ›

Generally speaking, silk is considered a more sustainable fiber. It is a renewable resource, can biodegrade, and uses less water, chemicals, and energy than many other fibers.

Why is cotton not sustainable? ›

Conventionally-grown cotton is bad for the environment because of its high water consumption and pollution, soil degradation, greenhouse gas emissions, and use of harmful pesticides and fertilisers.

What fabric is biodegradable? ›

There are several different types of biodegradable plant-based fabrics out there, including hemp, cotton, abaca, bamboo, lyocell (aka TENCEL), ramie, and jute. Some animal-based fabrics are also biodegradable, depending on the circumstances.

Is rayon from bamboo bad for the environment? ›

Bamboo rayon is marketed as an eco friendly fibre. It's water efficient, it rapidly regenerates, and it's a carbon neutral fibre. That is, it is a plant-based fibre that absorbs the same amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as it releases during harvesting.

Is rayon from bamboo biodegradable? ›

This textile combines a bamboo pulp blend and synthetic fibers. Creating bamboo rayon—or any rayon—is a chemically-intensive process that often results in water pollution and contributes to deforestation. Plus, rayon doesn't biodegrade sustainably because of the chemicals, leading to further pollution.

Is rayon a bamboo fabric? ›

Modern clothing labeled as being made from bamboo is usually viscose rayon, a fiber made by dissolving the cellulose in the bamboo, and then extruding it to form fibres. This process removes the natural characteristics of bamboo fibre, rendering it identical to rayon from other cellulose sources.

Is rayon from bamboo better than cotton? ›

Rayon, lyocell, and modal, some of the most common types of bamboo fabric, all use the viscose process.
...
Pros & Cons.
ProsCons
SoftMay cost more than cotton
DurableMay wrinkle depending on the weave
Sometimes considered eco-friendly
1 more row
11 Mar 2022

Is viscose eco-friendly? ›

The wood pulp that viscose is made from is manufactured by treating it with chemicals, which is then filtered and spun into a fine thread. This is a highly polluting process and releases many toxic chemicals into the air and waterways surrounding production plants.

Is there eco-friendly cotton? ›

As a biodegradable natural fabric, conventional cotton is certainly more eco-friendly than synthetic fibers, but organic cotton fabric takes sustainability one step further. Organically grown and organically processed cotton cuts down on landfill waste and reduces pollution.

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