Getting Hip to the Rainforest Destructive Nature of Rayon
The Rainforest Action Network’s recent launch of its new campaign “Out of Fashion—A Campaign for Forest-Friendly Fabrics” got me thinking that it’s a good time to share a chapter from my book about rayon. Aside from one type of rayon that is more eco-friendly, the production of this textile is hugely destructive to tropical rainforests particularly in Southeast Asia. The problem is that many of us Westerners unwittingly feed this destructive trade with everyday clothing purchases. Awareness can reverse this issue—so please share this freely with as many people as possible.
HERES THE SCOOP
Who would think that something as innocuous as a rayon Hawaiian-print shirt might be linked to rainforest destruction? But indeed it is. Many of us have no idea that rayon—this seemingly harmless textile so popular in warm-weather clothing—is made from wood or pulp through an intensive chemical process, requiring vast amounts of water. Rayon is not a natural fiber, yet it’s not completely synthetic either. It’s a hybrid of sorts or what’s called a semisynthetic fiber derived from a reaction of carbon disulfide and cellulose (sourced from wood pulp) through a long and intensive chemical process. Unfortunately, in tropical areas, the wood pulp comes from either healthy or degraded rainforest or deforested areas replaced with tree plantations. The tropical rainforests of Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries provide an ideal habitat for rayon mills, as environmental laws are not strictly enforced and there’s an abundance of cheap labor, water and wood sources, making it a top supplier, followed closely by Japan and Korea.
Conservation groups are very concerned about existing rayon mills and their continued expansion. “Rayon mills are rapidly destroying native rainforests and coastal mangroves and causing grave water and air pollution problems in many places, “ reports www.borneoproject.org. “The rayon mills are huge consumers of rainforests,” adds Borneo Orangutan Survival.
These rayon mills are affecting the habitats of endangered species such as the Sumatran tiger, rhino, elephant and orangutan—as well as the livelihoods of subsistence farmers and locals who depend on the forest for survival. Chemical byproducts from rayon mills such as zinc and hydrogen sulfide are emitted into the air and wastewater, which find their way into the surrounding environment and drinking water.
Rayon mills are inherently unhealthy for workers due to chemical exposure. Studies of the impact of exposure to carbon disulfide on rayon plant workers have revealed that the risk of death from cardiovascular causes is greatly increased (as much as two to three times fatality risk) if the levels of this toxin are high, according to a Super Eco report. Labor abuses have been an issue as well, according to reports from the organization Down to Earth.
But perhaps what’s most detrimental of all is the disappearing forest and degraded forest replaced by tree plantations to feed the rayon mills’ incessant need for wood. Local populations that depend on the forest for food and other resources are displaced. And as journalist Chris Lang has argued, what some rayon manufacturers and governments define as “degraded” forest is actually quite viable, providing many resources to local populations. While the industry and government may accept eucalyptus plantations as “reforestation,” the experience of locals whom Lang has interviewed shows that plantations offer very little in the way of resources to locals compared to even the most degraded forest.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
You can help rainforests and those who are suffering directly from their loss by simply avoiding rayon. Rayon can look like silk, wool, cotton and linen. Check labels when purchasing clothing, linens, drapery, pillows—any item involving textiles.
It can be tricky to identify rayon sometimes, because it has several names and some safe textiles have names that sound like rayon. For instance, in Europe, rayon is more commonly called viscose or viscose rayon. And acetate rayon is actually not rayon made from wood, but rayon made from cotton that is not destructive to rainforests—so it is okay. There are some trade names for different types of rayon as well. Bemberg is the trade name for cuprammonium rayon, produced in Italy. It is the most chemical-intensive form of rayon and a good one to avoid, whether produced in tropical environments or not. Tencel is the trade name for lyocell rayon produced in a nontoxic organic solvent solution that’s reclaimed and recycled in a closed-loop spinning process that conserves both energy and water. The wood pulp is sourced most often from eucalyptus plantations certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). It’s a better choice than rayon, but we are hesitant to heartily recommend it as tree plantations are not equivalent to forests.
To summarize, these are the most common names for rayon and should be avoided:
• Viscose rayon
These types of rayon are better choices:
• Tencel (the more eco-friendly type of rayon)
• Acetate rayon (made from cotton, not wood pulp)
Look for organic cotton, linen, washable silk or hemp instead of rayon. These textiles will keep you as cool as rayon in the warmer months—and you’ll be additionally cool for avoiding harming rainforests!
Here’s a link to RAN—join the campaign: