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Campaign for Clean Viscose

We highlight the deadly impact of Viscose, a man-made fibre used in the textile industry. 

Image: Cover of Dirty Fashion Report by Changing Markets

What is viscose?

Around 7% of clothes are made from viscose which is also sometimes referred to as rayon. This means that you are likely to have some in your own wardrobe – either pure or blended in with other fibres like cotton.

Viscose is made by chemically treating wood pulp – usually from trees or sometimes from bamboo. And because plants are the source material, viscose garments are sometimes referred to as ‘eco’ or ‘natural’. 

An investigation into the supply of viscose, a man-made fibre widely used in the textile supply chain, has uncovered evidence of the deadly impact of its production.

A number of top UK brands that feature in our guide to high-street clothes retailers are buying fabric from highly polluting factories across Asia.

Evidence gathered by the Changing Markets Foundation at locations in Indonesia, China and India found that viscose factories are dumping highly toxic waste water into local waterways, destroying marine life and exposing workers and local populations to harmful chemicals.

The report, titled ‘Dirty Fashion: How pollution in the global textiles supply chain is making viscose toxic’, reveals links between the polluting factories and major European and North American fashion brands including a number of companies featured in our guide to clothing retailers:

  • H&M
  • Zara/Inditex
  • ASOS
  • Levi’s
  • Tesco
  • United Colors of Benetton
  • Burton
  • Marks & Spencer
  • Asda
  • Next
  • Debenhams
  • Matalan

Find out more about viscose in our guide to choosing sustainable fabrics.

It has long been known that one of the chemicals used in viscose production (carbon disulphide) has been linked to severe health effects including Parkinsonism, heart attack, stroke and mental illness in factory workers. 

“This report reveals that some of the world’s biggest brands are turning a blind eye to questionable practices within their supply chains. With water pollution increasingly being recognised as a major business risk, shifting to more sustainable production processes should be high on retailers’ agendas” Natasha Hurley, Campaign Manager at Changing Markets.

Water pollution

In some areas visited for the investigation, pollution from viscose manufacturing is suspected to be behind the growing incidence of cancer, and villagers have stopped drinking the well water for fear of the effect it will have on their families’ – particularly their children’s – health. The factories are also destroying many traditional livelihoods, with local fishermen particularly badly impacted. 

For example, at factories in West Java operated by Indian conglomerate Aditya Birla (used by Burtons) and Austria’s Lenzing Group, Changing Markets found villagers washing viscose products in the Citarum river, directly exposing themselves to toxic chemicals and adding to the river’s already considerable pollution load.

Time for change

The viscose staple fibre market – which is projected to grow from $13.45 billion in 2016 to $16.78 billion per year by 2021 – is highly concentrated, with 11 companies controlling 75% of global viscose production, so a concerted effort on the part of retailers could achieve dramatic change.

Changing Markets got 150,000 people to sign a petition calling on Zara and H&M “and other fashion giants” to stop sourcing from producers linked to pollution.

What to buy

The report calls on consumers to “only buy viscose from brands that have made a clear commitment to sustainable sourcing of wood pulp and clean viscose production”. 

The main production method that does not release carbon disulphide is the lyocell process, largely either branded Tencel® (for wood-based fibres) and Monocel® (for bamboo-based fibres). So, if you see viscose clothing products claiming to be green or eco – look out for one or other of these names on the label.

How the brands fared on Transparency

Responded to questionaire and disclosed factories or only used lyocell

Either responded or disclosed some data or member of 'Canopy Style' or Greenpeace Detox signatory 

No meaningful response to questionaire or factory disclosure

Inditex, H&M, M&S, ASOS, Stella McCartney, Patagonia

GAP, Hugo Boss, New Look, Primark, Tesco (F&F), Uniqlo, Levi's, Arcadi, Victoria's Secret, Nike, Adidas, Burberry, Mango, Eileen Fisher

Chanel, Monsoon, YSL, Fendi, Gucci, PVH, Prada, Next, Michael Kors, Forever 21, Abercrombie and Fitch, Urban Outfitters, American Eagle, Gildan, ASDA, Sainsbury's, Morrisons, John Lewis

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