The Absolute WORST Fabric for Rugs, Furniture, and Clothing
Hard to clean. Check. Bad for the environment. Check. Toxic to workers. Check. Greenwashed. Check. Manufacturing banned in the USA. Check.
Viscose rayon is sold under many names (I guess 'fake silk' just isn't appealing to consumers): bamboo silk, banana silk, art silk (as in 'artificial'), Silkette, and Luxcelle, just to name a few. So what is it, and why is it so bad?
Rayon was the first manufactured fiber, developed in the late 19th century and commercially produced in the US starting in 1910. It was originally marketed as artificial silk due to its softness, nice drape, and luster. It quickly rose in popularity because its price point was significantly lower than natural silk and cotton. Rayon is a semi-synthetic material manufactured from cellulose (plant fibers) derived from natural sources like eucalyptus, spruce, and pine trees, but can also be made from cotton or bamboo. 'Viscose rayon" is a type of rayon, and the terms are often used interchangeably.
The term 'viscose rayon' is used because the manufacturing process of this type of rayon involves a highly viscous chemical stew to break down the plant fibers composed of a strong base such as sodium hydroxide (better known as lye), and a highly toxic chemical called carbon disulfide. You can read more about the toxicity of carbon disulfide in this document from the EPA.
Viscose rayon is used in making sponges, tampons and pads, rugs, clothing, furniture, tapestries, bed linens, and more. In the case of furnishings and rugs, it's often marketed as a 'luxury fiber', because the look, feel, and texture of the fabric closely resembles that of far more expensive natural silk.
So, What's the Problem with Viscose Rayon? Isn't it 'Made from Nature'?
Arsenic. Cocaine. Poison hemlock. Snake bites. Salmonella. Heck, even our own bodies create formaldehyde during our normal metabolic processes. (Surprised? Humans produce about 1.5 ounces of formaldehyde a day!) Anyways, we already know that a substance being 'natural' tells us absolutely nothing about its safety. While it's true that viscose rayon is manufactured from plant fibers, life cycle analysis reveals that the fabric is anything but eco-friendly and safe.
1. The Manufacturing Processes is Deadly for Workers Exposed to it - and it's Deadly for Everyone Else, too.
Production of rayon fiber is nonexistent in the United States because it is so damaging to the environment and to workers. China produces 65% of the global supply of viscose rayon, and India, Malaysia, and Indonesia largely produce the rest. In 2015, about 50 percent of the viscose rayon staple fiber imported into the United States came from China. In his book 'Fake Silk: The Lethal History of Viscose Rayon', Dr. Paul David Blanc describes how viscous rayon is an industrial hazard whose egregious history ranks up there with asbestos, lead and mercury.
Studies from the 1930s show that 30% of American rayon workers suffered severe effects. Rates of disability in modern factories in China, Indonesia and India are unaccounted for. "It was pretty easy to recognize the toxic effects early on because it makes workers insane", Dr. Blanc said.
The carbon disulfide used in the production of viscose rayon is also used in making vulcanized rubber, condoms, cellophane, and a whole slew of other products - and its effects on human beings are truly horrific. However, the finished product has no residual toxic chemicals in it - when it comes to the health impact on consumers, there is none. "Which is why it's gone on so long. Because when consumers aren't affected, there's not very much impetus for outrage if it's just the poor people making it that suffer."
Does that mean we're safe from these toxic effects here in the U.S.? Not at all. Viscose rayon is no longer made in the U.S., but cellophane, sponges, and sausage casings are. “Skinless” weenies are made by pushing meat into a tube of viscose rayon and then, after it hardens, peeling back the rayon. A 2016 EPA report indicated that carbon disulfide levels in the air are 50 percent higher in urban areas than rural areas. The U.S. federal standards for carbon disulfide are “among the worst in the world—the most non-protective,” said Blanc. “Worse than China and Europe, comparable to India.”
States do have the authority to implement tougher standards, but only one routinely has: California. It follows the recommendations of the CDC; Blanc estimates these to be 20 times more protective than the federal standard (which chemical industry lobbyists have fought to maintain).
Dr. Blanc is uneasy about the prospects for carbon disulfide poisoning—both acute and low-level chronic exposures—under the Trump administration.
“Consumers shouldn’t just be worried about the Occupational Safety and Health Administration,” he added, “but about what will happen to the Consumer Product Safety Commission—which is the main agency dealing with post-marketing control of hazardous materials.” Trump and other Republicans will be in a position to “strangle the agency with inadequate funding, or tie the agency up in knots so it cannot adequately function.”
“And of course if you’re a factory in the United States that makes viscose products, you can stop worrying about your air pollution,” said Blanc.
2. It's Hard to Clean, Stains Easily, and Falls Apart
No piece of furniture or rug or anything else subject to normal wear and tear should be made of viscose rayon. Why? The fibers tend to pull, sprout, and lose their sheen with the slightest soiling or friction from foot traffic. Viscose rayon furniture and rugs may mimic the luxurious look, feel, and texture of natural silk when they're new. But they're essentially made of paper, a disposable fiber, making them about as durable as paper. The fibers turn grayish with dust and soil, and moisture causes yellowing. They're subject to excessive mildew and mold growth. On sofas, body and hand oils darken the fabric, and fabric on any points of friction tends to fray and tear. The fabric burns easily.
Viscose rugs often need to be cleaned multiple times a year, and will start showing wear and tear only a year or two after purchase. Many professional cleaners refuse to even deal with viscose at all.
Viscose rayon fabric becomes very delicate when wet and often requires dry cleaning - even spilled water can be disastrous. Not only is frequent dry cleaning expensive, the solvents used in dry cleaning have detrimental impact on the environment and are toxic to workers. Viscose clothing is usually designated as dry clean only because the twisting that occurs in a washing machine can damage the fibers. Machine drying will also disfigure viscose garments.
3. Manufactures Mislead and Hoodwink Consumers About Viscous Rayon
Fancy-sounding names like art silk, bamboo silk, and Luxcelle lead consumers to believe they've invested in real silk, or at least something just as good. And this 'luxury fiber' is being sold at luxury prices while consumers have no idea about how poorly the fabric performs. "Luxury" implies quality and longevity - and viscose rayon fabric lacks both.
A hand-knotted wool rug might last a century or more and need to be fully cleaned every 2 to 3 years, while a viscous rayon rug needs to be cleaned multiple times a year and is essentially disposable.
The lack of information is not necessarily intentional - manufacturers may mislead furniture distributors about the true nature of viscous rayon rugs and furniture, and the consumer is left in the dark. And an interior designer may not be an expert on the durability and ease of cleaning of different furniture and rug fabrics.
Many different plants can provide the cellulose for viscose rayon production, even sustainably sourced, fast-growing plants like bamboo. When we look at the entire life cycle of a 'bamboo' rug or shirt, however, that eco-friendly looking facade begins to break down.
Because bamboo is fast-growing it is often seen as eco-friendly, but most bamboo rayons are made with the viscose process. Back in 2009, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) came down hard on the 'bamboo' clothing industry, noting that bamboo fabric is simply viscous rayon: rayon is a man-made fiber created from the cellulose found in plants and trees and processed with a harsh chemical that releases hazardous air pollutants, and any plant or tree could be used as the cellulose source—including bamboo—but the fiber that is created is rayon.
Rising cotton prices in 2010 led clothing makers to begin replacing cotton with even more rayon in their fabrics. And in 2010, the FTC issued letters informing over 100 companies that they were mislabeling products made of viscous rayon as being made from bamboo, deceiving environmentally conscious consumers. In 2015, the FTC filed complaints against Bed Bath & Beyond, Nordstrom, J.C. Penney, Backcountry.com, and their subsidiaries, for continuing to deceptively sell rayon mislabeled as bamboo. The four companies were required to pay civil penalties totaling $1.3 million for violating the "Textile Act and the Textile Rules" and Section 5(m)(1)(B) of the FTC Act. Similar action took place in Canada.
Once the stuff had to be called "rayon made from bamboo" it didn't sound quite so natural and green anymore and pretty much disappeared. If you see bamboo clothing, it might be spun directly from the fiber and described as bamboo linen - but probably not. Ask questions of the manufacturer if possible. Otherwise, pass on it! If you notice that fabrics are advertised or labelled as "bamboo" without the words "rayon" or "viscose", and it isn't labeled as bamboo linen, either, take a photo of the product and label. Note the brand, retailer, location and date, and report it to the FTC.
4. Viscous Rayon is Bad for the Environment
Since viscous rayon is essentially paper-based, it breaks down easily - so easily, as a matter of fact, that it begins to break down while you're still using it. Which, ironically, also makes it LESS eco-friendly. Since it doesn't last very long, you have to replace it more often. Meaning that stained rug or worn-out piece of furniture is likely to end up in the landfill, where nothing really breaks down.
100% viscose fabric can often be found in dresses and blouses from “fast fashion” retailers like H&M, Zara, and Forever21 because they feel like silk without the hefty price tag. Don’t count on them looking new for very long. The cost of dry cleaning could possibly be more than what the dress cost to purchase, making it tempting to simply toss the dress when it inevitably loses its shape. More clothing for the landfill!
The impact of the textile industry on the environment has become a major concern globally, and viscous rayon is no exception.
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 is 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.
What Can Be Done? What are the Alternatives to Viscous Rayon?
Lyocell and Tencel are rayon clothing fabrics that are less toxic and more green than viscose rayon, but with similar performance. Tencel is a trademarked brand name of the generic Lyocell, sort of like how BandAid is a trademark name for a brand of bandage. These fibers are made from eucalyptus in a closed loop system that captures and recycles the chemical solvents and water used in production so there is no release to the environment. Compared to cotton in particular, these fabrics have a significantly smaller environmental impact, requiring much 10 to 20 times less water and no pesticides whatsoever.
As for household goods, avoid purchasing viscose fabric rugs and upholstered furniture entirely. If you cannot afford to purchase high-quality pieces new, considering second hand markets like resale shops or online marketplaces. Purchasing used items is a great option for clothing, too!