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Fabric Deep Dive: Tencel and Viscose Rayon

If the first step on your journey to creating a more ethical wardrobe has been to know where and how your clothes are made, a great next step is to consider the fabrics that make up each garment.

Why care about fabrics? Because raw materials are one of the biggest environmental impacts the production of your clothing was responsible for, whether it’s cotton grown in a field or polyester made from petroleum in a lab.

But while you might know enough about polyester and cotton to guess their impact, what about some of the fibers listed on your clothing labels that you don’t know where they come from? Two of the biggest “mystery” fibers might just be Tencel and viscose rayon, so let’s get down to the facts!

Pop Quiz: Is Tencel a synthetic (i.e. man-made) fiber or a natural fiber?

(Hint: Wood-n’t you like to know?)

Answer: Trick question! It’s both…sort of. Tencel, like Modal and viscose rayon, is a cellulosic fiber. This means it comes from wood pulp, which obviously originates in nature but then must undergo a chemical process to turn it into a fiber that can be spun into a fabric, so it’s not quite natural or synthetic. It’s semi-synthetic.

But while Tencel and its cellulosic friends might be hard for the average shopper to categorize, we do know a lot about their environmental impacts.

Tencel

Black shift dress– 100% Tencel.

Tencel is a cellulosic fiber produced by Lenzing, an Austrian company founded in 1938. You may also see its generic name, lyocell, on certain labels, but while it might be safe to opt for the generic version of Tylenol or Kleenex, this is one product that you don’t want to accept substitutes for just yet. This is because Tencel, as produced by Lenzing, has a unique nearly closed-loop process that uses a low toxic solvent to make the fiber and then captures almost 100% of that solvent to recycle back through the process again. This means fewer chemicals going into the process and no unsafe byproducts to deal with on way out. Tencel also dyes evenly and easily, which means it requires fewer dye inputs.

The wood pulp for Tencel comes from responsibly managed farms of fast-growing eucalyptus trees in South Africa, and the fiber is produced in a few of Lenzing’s facilities across the globe, including its headquarters in Austria and even an outpost in Mobile, Alabama.

Fun fact that I learned recently from a Lenzing representative: Tencel is an incredibly smooth fiber, which makes it great for people with sensitive skin or those who find many fabrics itchy or irritating.

If you want to try incorporating this sustainable fiber into your wardrobe, check out Sotela’s little black dress.

Viscose Rayon

In comparison to Tencel, viscose (also known as rayon) is not quite the environmentally-responsible fiber, because it goes through a much more chemically intensive production process. These chemicals aren’t safe for workers, and they also require wastewater treatment to make the water safe for disposal. In addition, because viscose and rayon are generic fiber terms (as opposed to branded like Tencel), it’s difficult to know if the fiber used is coming from trees in endangered or ancient forests. As demand and production of viscose continues to rise, the work of nonprofits like Canopy is increasingly important to protect these vital ecosystems.

“Fun fact: IMBY’s rayon items are made from deadstock fabric— excess fabric that was otherwise destined for landfill.”

So what’s a shopper to do? Avoid viscose and rayon if you can. And if you can’t, see if you can find out if the viscose rayon is sourced from Lenzing, since at least you’ll have the assurance of responsible harvesting of trees and safe and extensive wastewater treatment.

As with all conversations about responsibility when it comes to fashion, it’s up to you to decide what’s most important to you, since there’s no perfect option just yet. What are your non-negotiables? What do you value most? Is it where the fabric was made? Or is it what it was made from? Or perhaps you’re most interested in transparency or durability. And of course, the first step is always just learning and building awareness, and if you made it to the end of this article, you’re well on your way.

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