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What Is Rayon — and Is It Sustainable? Consider This Your Go-To Guide

What is rayon? And is it a sustainable and eco-friendly choice? Here's where rayon comes from, what rayon is made from, and alternatives.

Written by
Inga Vallery Phlegar

When we think of textiles, we usually think of natural and synthetic fabrics. However, there's a type of fabric that falls somewhere in between: rayon.

Natural fabrics come from plants and animals, including sheep wool or the flax plant. Synthetic fabrics, however, are chemical-based, including nylon, polyester, and spandex. But rayon fabric is semi-synthetic, meaning it comes from a combination of natural sources and chemical treatments.

So, what is rayon exactly? And is it sustainable? Here's everything you should know.

Where Does Rayon Come From?

Rayon fabric was first created in the 1800s as a result of experimenting with artificial versions of silk. In the 1860s, scientist Louis Pasteur and his assistant Count Hilaire de Chardonnet were called to save the silk industry from a potential silkworm epidemic.

Together, the pair produced the first artificial, commercial silk—rayon. It was named after the French word meaning "ray of light," representing the way light bounces off the fabric.

However, today's rayon has come a long way since the 19th Century, as it's often used for athletic wear, undergarments, and pajamas. It can even be used to make dresses, blouses, and other loose clothing that resembles silk. It can also be found in our bedsheets, curtains, and carpets. It's versatile and soft to the touch, as well as inexpensive to produce.

Because manufacturing rayon isn't a costly process, especially in comparison to other fabrics, the fashion industry—specifically, the fast fashion industry—finds rayon appealing. Fast fashion brands like Shein or Forever 21 have tons of styles made with rayon or types of rayon, ranging from dresses and blouses to pants and jackets.

What Is Rayon Made From?

Rayon is a cellulose fiber made from wood pulp—usually from bamboo, pine, or beech. Even though it comes from natural materials, the fiber goes through an intense chemical-soaking process. This then creates different types of rayon. The most common type is a viscose substance, also known as artificial silk.

Other types of rayon include modal fabric, a semi-synthetic material from beech-tree pulp that's often blended with spandex and cotton. Also lyocell fabric, a more environmentally friendly version of modal fabric that requires less harsh chemicals.

To make rayon, wood pulp is dissolved in sodium hydroxide to make alkali cellulose. Then, the alkali cellulose gets broken into tiny pieces and ages for a few days in a carbon disulfide treatment, a compound that's also used to produce rubber and cellophane.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), exposure to carbon disulfide in the workplace can have an impact on humans. Short-term exposure can cause dizziness, headaches, nausea, and vision changes, among other issues. Long-term exposure may cause neurologic effects, including "behavioral and neurophysiological changes." It may also have reproductive effects, including a "decreased sperm count and menstrual disturbances."

Once the chemically treated cellulose is ready, it gets converted into fine threads and smaller fibers. Then, the fibers are ready to be treated with sulfuric acid, which brings them to the final step. The fibers get woven and spun into rayon fabric. The rayon we're familiar with is soft and silky, and it can be spun with cotton or linen.

How Sustainable Is Rayon?

Rayon production is known for using large quantities of chemicals, energy, and water, making the process both wasteful and polluting.

Producing rayon also requires chemicals that have been shown to harm human health, as well as contributes to deforestation—the process of cutting down trees, which releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and damages animal habitats and ecosystems. In fact, about 30% of the rayon and viscose used in clothing comes from materials found in endangered and ancient forests.

Wood and other natural resources are needed to make rayon, and fast fashion brands are using these natural materials at rapid rates. Unfortunately, between the fast-paced nature of mass production and the fast-paced nature of the fast fashion industry, sustainability isn't front of mind.

Plus, rayon is non-renewable and it doesn't always properly biodegrade because of the chemicals it contains. Therefore, the material can't be replenished, and it won't naturally decompose. But it will still be used because of its low cost and versatility.

Because of its negative effect on the environment, most rayon isn't manufactured in the U.S. Instead, many companies have factories overseas to produce rayon. And to add insult to injury, many of these overseas facilities have unethical working conditions, including exposure to harmful chemicals.

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 Can You Do?

1. Check the Tags

Before you buy something, check what it's made of! Your clothes have a tag stitched to the seam that details exactly which fabrics were used to make them. Check for sustainable or recycled materials and steer clear of semi-synthetic or synthetic fabrics that produce high chemical and carbon emissions in manufacturing.

2. Thrift

Thrift stores have so many hidden gems. Whether you're scrolling through online thrift stores or hitting up your local Goodwill, you're bound to find secondhand clothes to fill your new sustainable closet.

Thrifting is a great way to shop with the planet in mind. Instead of buying into fast fashion trends, opt for secondhand clothes to prevent them from getting trashed. There are tons of thrift stores popping up across the country, with locations in Austin, San Fransisco, and other major cities.

3. Skip Fast Fashion

When buying new, skip fast fashion. Fast fashion isn't eco-friendly for many reasons, with its heavy use of rayon being just one of them. Instead, purchase high-quality items from sustainable fashion brands that have people and the planet in mind.

There are even some up-and-coming sustainable clothing materials to keep an eye out for, including mushroom leather and bamboo.