The cellulose-based synthetic fiber viscose is a popular fabric of choice for countless apparel companies, and is often touted as a sustainable material. But this textile, often sourced from wood pulp, has generated more than its fair share of controversy over the years. Some high-profile designers, notably Stella McCartney, have pledged to source material that can only be traced to responsibly managed forests; McCartney herself has striven to raise awareness about the links viscose has to deforestation and pollution.
On that point, there has been some good news about viscose for the apparel industry’s global supply chain. The NGO Canopy, which partnered with Rainforest Alliance on textile raw material verification, announced last week the completion of an audit for Birla Cellulose, a worldwide supplier of viscose. The results showed that the supplier’s raw material was verified to be at low risk of containing fibers traced to old-growth or endangered forests, In addition, the audit found Birla’s viscose to have no evidence of links to what the industry often describes as “conflict sources,” as in factories where forced labor or other human rights violations have occurred. When added to an Austrian manufacturer’s viscose supply, one estimate suggests that about 25 percent of the world’s supply of this fabric is now verified as being sustainably sourced.
A recent report, however, suggests that more work needs to be done on the global viscose supply chain, especially when considering that it has been attributed to the pollution of communities across the globe.
According to the foundation Changing Markets, several of the world’s leading fashion companies purchase viscose from factories reportedly notorious for pollution in nations including China, India and Indonesia. Changing Markets’ researchers, who visited communities in which these factories are located, concluded that “clear evidence” indicates that various manufacturers are causing severe environmental degradation, including the discharge of untreated wastewater. The resulting pollution in lakes and local waterways has been a suspect in increased cancer rates, contaminated drinking water as well as the destruction of local livelihoods, including fishing. “Viscose fibers were observed hanging out to dry and viscose waste littered the ground as far as the eye could see,” was one of many details dispersed throughout the report.
Changing Markets acknowledged that many viscose suppliers have made progress by decisions made to ensure that they no longer source wood pulp from endangered and virgin forests. Nevertheless, the processing of that pulp into what the industry calls viscose staple fiber (VSF) is a “black box” creating more environmental problems of which many within the global clothing industry, in addition to consumers, are largely unaware.
At least one global fashion company, H&M, says it is aware of the problem and is working with its supply chain to solve it. “We are deeply concerned regarding the findings of the report and we will follow up with mentioned viscose producers that we source from,” said an H&M representative in an emailed statement to TriplePundit. “We are currently working on a revised man-made cellulosic fiber policy that also will include the viscose fiber production process.”
Changing Markets’ report serves as a call to action to both apparel manufacturers and consumers. Consumers have long been accustomed to buying fashion-forward clothing at a low price. The result has been a wide range of crises, from forced labor on cotton farms in Uzbekistan to the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, which have forced companies to revamp their supply chains and become far more transparent about discussing the impacts their business has on people and the planet. The enduring popularity of fast fashion chains, however, shows that consumers are still either unaware - or refuse to acknowledge - the social and environmental impact that their purchasing decisions have on people and local communities.
Indeed, the garment industry has made many improvements, including changing how workers are paid and ensuring that more sustainable cotton ends up in our clothes. Nevertheless, this report, along with its disturbing depiction of waterways ridden with toxic effluent and corrupt officials turning a blind eye to mounds of industrial waste, shows the global fashion sector still has much catching up to do when it comes to environmental and social responsibility.
Image credit: ChangingMarkets.org
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media. His previous work can be found at The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.