Viscose: a complete guide for brands and retailers

Polyester, cotton … viscose. As textile fibres go, the former two are household names, well known inside and outside the global fashion industry. But what about viscose?

While the use of viscose in apparel has been around for more than a century, there has been a renewed interest in this wood-based fibre in recent years. This fact is reflected by a steady increase in its global share of the overall fibre mix.

The interest in viscose among brands has several dimensions. On the one hand, fashion brands and retailers are giving increased thought to the issue of fibre use (and mixes) generally for a variety of financial, sustainability-related and regulatory reasons.

Moreover, while cotton and polyester remain the dominant fibre types used in apparel, neither is without its challenges, which are well documented.

Thus, brands are increasingly open to looking at new and novel fibre types as well as ways they can incorporate viscose fibres into their mix, whether as single use or fibre blends.

To provide guidance for brands and retailers, this paper looks at the global viscose market, developments in viscose production methods, sustainability issues, recycling opportunities, forestry challenges and pricing.

Viscose: an overview

Viscose falls under the classification of man-made cellulosic fibre (MMCF). Charles Frederick Cross, Edward John Bevan, and Clayton Beadle discovered the viscose process in the 1890s and patented the first viscose.

Viscose is commonly made by dissolving wood pulp from trees such as birch, pine, and eucalyptus (although, in theory, many other cellulosic plants could be used for the process).

The manufacturing process for viscose entails the wood being chipped and cooked into pulp and then dissolved in chemicals to form a pulp slurry.

The slurry is pressed to create alkali cellulose, and this alkali cellulose is treated with carbon disulphide and dissolved in sodium hydroxide to create viscose.

A honey-like viscose solution is filtered through a fine spinneret and transformed into filaments or regenerated cellulose. Finally, these filaments are spun into yarn which can be either woven or knitted into viscose fabric.

Applications

A highly versatile material, viscose is valued due to its cotton-like qualities. The fibre has a wide range of applications, ranging from fashion – by far its largest market – to nonwovens such as facial masks and wipes.

Viscose blends well with other fibres including cotton and polyester and has many special properties – being breathable and absorbent as well as dyeing easily. It is lightweight, 100 per cent bio-based and biodegradable. The fibre is increasingly popular due to its blendability with other fibres, and also acts as a substitute to silk and cotton.

The state of the market

The global market for textile fibres has almost doubled over the past 2 decades and the trend is upwards with an overall compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.7 per cent in 2019.

Since 2000, the market share of MMCF has increased from 5 to 6 per cent, with CAGR of 5.2 per cent. Polyester’s market share has risen from 50 to 65 per cent (CAGR of 5.1 per cent) while cotton’s market share has declined steadily from 35 per cent in 2001 to 23 per cent in 2019 (CAGR 1.5 per cent). With global cotton production stagnating, MMCFs are turned to as the cellulosic alternative to meet growing fibre demand.

MMCF such as viscose/rayon, Lyocell, Modal and Cupro, form the second largest cellulosic fibre group in the global textile industry after cotton.

The changing market

The largest share of fibres in the MMCF category is viscose staple fibre (VSF) which accounted for 79 per cent of MMCFs in 2019 according to estimates by Sateri.

Global VSF capacity for 2021 is estimated at 7.5MT. This is based on information from a range of sources, including Sateri, Lenzing, Birla and APR.

The largest player in the VSF market is Sateri, which accounts for around 20 per cent of viscose production volume. Other key players in the market include Birla, Zhongtai, Tangshan and Lenzing.

The top five players in the market make up almost 70 per cent of global market share.

In the first decade of the 21st century, China quadrupled its viscose production capacity, and now represents almost 66 per cent of the global viscose market.

Indonesia and India are the world’s second and third largest producers.

Viscose, Lyocell – what is the difference?

We often hear the terms viscose and Lyocell used interchangeably. So how do they differ?

The key difference is viscose and Lyocell use different technologies and chemicals to regenerate cellulose, with Lyocell the only production method which excludes carbon disulphide.

The Lyocell process operates in a ‘closed loop’, which means most of the water and solvent in the process are recycled for reuse. Here, an organic solvent called N-Methylmorphine N-oxide (NMMO) is used as an alternative to carbon disulphide to dissolve wood pulp.

Lyocell fibres were first developed and manufactured by Courtaulds Fibers, UK, in the 1980s and branded as Tencel. Lenzing produced Lyocell under the brand name ‘Lyocell by Lenzing’ and subsequently bought over the Tencel brand.

The world Lyocell capacity is currently at 0.54MT and the market is expected to grow significantly, with the sustainability credentials of Lyocell’s production methods an alluring proposition for brands. That said, Lyocell still only represents a fraction of global viscose production and the price premium it attracts remains a barrier for some brands.

The expiration of related technology patents for Lyocell production in recent years and improved manufacturing capabilities in the industry have opened up the Lyocell market to other producers.

Sateri is one of the large-scale manufacturers to step into the Lyocell market. In March 2021, the business announced plans to expand its Lyocell production in China and is targeting annual capacity of up to 500,000 tonnes by 2025.

Tom Liu Sateri’s Vice President and General Manager of Lyocell and Nonwovens Business. We asked him where he sees the Lyocell market looking ahead. He told us: “There are barriers to entry in the market. As well as patents, there are high start-up costs, including the technology involved.

There is some Lyocell production capacity in China but the challenge is to reach high levels of capacity. Most producers in China are only producing around 10,000 tonnes per year.”

In 2019, Lenzing announced plans to establish a 100,000 tonne Lyocell production facility in Thailand. Expect further announcements from the key players in the Lyocell market moving forwards. This space is moving fast, with Asia the favoured destination for new production units.

Sustainability – key developments

Like every other textile fibre sector, viscose has increasingly come under the microscope from NGOs, regulators and other industry stakeholders in recent years.

The concerns around viscose production are that because it is manufactured using a chemical-intensive process, there is a risk of damage to the local environment in instances where production is handled irresponsibly.

There are also the issues around forestry and, to this end, the nonprofit Canopy has done a huge amount of work raising awareness about responsible sourcing of viscose.

In recent years, the more reputable players in the industry have certainly helped to drive up standards in production methods.

Christian Cai, Sateri’s Vice President of Operations, says: “Traditional viscose production is reliant on industrial chemicals and if not well managed, can have negative impacts on human health and the environment. But the industry has certainly changed drastically in the past decade. In our own process, for instance, we recover more than 96 per cent of total sulphur components.

“But we can only do that because we have invested heavily on the operational side of the business. In parts of the market, there is a push towards sustainable production, closed loop and clean manufacturing. It is not all push from NGOs”

An influential NGO in this space is Changing Markets. Changing Markets has lobbied for viscose producers to move towards a closed-loop manufacturing system, where emission controls and chemical recovery rates are in line with best practices – the so-called EU Best Available Techniques (BAT).

Many of the leading viscose manufacturers in the world, accounting for more than 50 per cent of viscose production, have committed to align their performance with EU BAT at all their facilities in the coming years.

These include Aditya Birla Group, Asia Pacific Rayon (APR), Lenzing, Sateri and Tangshan Sanyou.

Another industry initiative, the Chinese Collaboration for Sustainable Development of Viscose (CV), brings together China’s ten leading viscose producers which accounts for more than 50 per cent of the world’s viscose production capacity to promote responsible production of viscose.

Other work in the field includes an initiative led by Forum for the Future and Textile Exchange as well as key players in the MMCF value chain.

Together, these have developed a ‘shared vision’ for the viscose value chain covering five areas of action. These are regenerating ecosystems; producing with zero harm; enabling circular systems; creating prosperity; and upholding rights.

On the issue of chemicals, the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) Foundation in 2020 expanded the scope of its work to cover the environmental impact of MMCF. The first focus of its work here is viscose and modal. Consequently, new ZDHC Guidelines now offer brands and manufacturing facilities producing MMCF an aligned approach for emissions control. They also offer an aligned approach for the recovery of sulphur compounds, part of the inputs, as well as by-products generated during the production process.

What other factors dictate whether production is clean or not? And how do production standards vary around the world? Sateri’s Christian Cai: “When you’re serving global markets, it does not matter where you are based, be it China or Europe. When you have that international presence, different pressure is exerted.”

“A lot of the manufacturing issues arise due to the age of the technology and equipment being used. Investment in modern technology has been key for us.”

Circularity and recycling

In recent years there has been a push from industry to incorporate recycled feedstock into the viscose process. Brands are attracted by the proposition of being able to use viscose produced from a combination of virgin and recycled materials as use of recycled fibres often dovetails with their stated sustainability targets.

An example of work in this area is an initiative between Sateri and Swedish company Södra which saw viscose fibre produced on a commercial scale from regenerated textile waste. The new fibre created, FINEX™, uses a mix of dissolving pulp made from recycled post-consumer textile waste by Södra, and other PEFC-certified wood pulp.

Trialled at Sateri’s Linz Nanjing yarn spinning mill, the new fibre has proven compatibility with existing spinning technologies – a key potential stumbling block – ensuring stable yarn production without the need to adjust existing processes or parameters.

Another well-known name here is Renewcell. This Swedish business has developed Circulose, a branded ‘dissolving pulp’ product which is produced from 100 per cent discarded cotton textiles. Swedish fashion retailer H&M is now using Circulose in its Conscious and mainstream collections.

We talked to APR about the issue of recycling in terms of the challenges it brings to production, potential costs it brings to final products and future developments in this area.

Dr Rudine Antes says there are technical challenges the whole industry is grappling with. “While the technology can now separate polyester from natural fibres, other synthetic fibres like elastane and nylon remain big challenges.”

In fact, numerous papers support this sentiment – elastane content in used clothing is a serious barrier to recycling. It is used increasingly in fashion garments, skinny, stretch jeans being the most obvious growth area.

There are other issues, Dr Rudine says. “While some feedstock is easy to work with – used bed towels and sheets – other feedstock includes multiple blends, requires removing buttons and zips, uses a range of dyeing technology and so on. The permutations make sorting extremely tough.”

Decreasing quality in clothing is certainly having an impact. “By the time something is not useable for a human, it is often at a point where it is not useable for us to put into our system to be recycled,” says Dr Rudine. “Access to feedstock for recycling could be the next battle among producers.”

All these factors, Dr Rudine suggests, have implications for pricing, increasing the cost and time associated with production with potential knock-on effects for brands and retailers.

Traceability

A raft of projects have been launched in the past two years – many in pilot stage – to show how fibres can be traced through supply chains using a combination of (for example) DNA ‘markers’ and blockchain. Many of these projects have focused on cotton, and occasionally wool, but are equally applicable to viscose.

Last year, the Viscose Traceability Project was launched by Fashion for Good to pilot a solution that verifies sustainable viscose fibres along the fashion supply chain.

The work was developed in collaboration with Danish brand BESTSELLER and French luxury goods business Kering. It applies blockchain technology from TextileGenesis to trace the viscose in the textile supply chain spanning eight countries.

BESTSELLER and Kering provided eight garment styles to be traced for the pilot, with fibres sourced from three different viscose producers.

APR has its Follow-Our-Fibre, a block-chain based tracking platform that traces its viscose from nursery to bale, since 2019.

The conservation and biodiversity protection efforts of its suppliers are also captured on the platform.

Pricing

Viscose prices are impacted by a combination of sector-specific factors and broader, macroeconomic dynamics.

Demand-supply issues drive prices at the macro-level. A broader, upward demand for viscose generally from brands and retailers has seen an upturn in prices over the past decade.

Environmental factors include whether viscose contains certified or uncertified pulp, and production issues – for instance, the cleaner production offering of Lyocell fibres means they attract a price premium in the market.

While China is a major producer of viscose, the government there strengthened its environmental policy on industrial production around five years ago. This impacted viscose production and briefly squeezed supply, pushing prices upwards.

The fortunes of other textile fibres have an impact on viscose prices.

In 2021, the US announced a ban on the import of cotton products, including apparel and textiles, from Xinjiang which accounts for 20 per cent of global cotton production. This has caused speculations and price volatilities for all fibre markets, including a general upward trend in viscose prices where it is often seen as an alternative to cotton. With Europe, the UK and other parts of the world looking likely to follow the lead of the US, this trend is likely to continue.

This upward dynamic has been counter-balanced by the impact of the global coronavirus pandemic during 2020/21. Clothing production globally has fallen significantly, which in turn has hit demand for all textile fibres. This has had a knock-on effect on viscose prices.

Forestry

How concerned should brands and retailers be about the link between viscose production and deforestation? And what questions should brands be asking of their viscose suppliers?

To gain a better understanding of forestry issues related to viscose production, we spoke to Boris Saraber, director of operations with non-profit Earthworm Foundation, which has extensive expertise in the forestry sector.

Saraber suggests the first question brands should ask of viscose suppliers is about their supply chains – namely, can the supplier provide assurances of its raw material origins, right down to the specifics of which forests and not just simply country of origin.

He adds: “There has to be a high degree of transparency with that, which is not always the case today. There is a lot of opacity which means at the mill level they may not be fully transparent about the different fibre sources they are pulling into the mill. Or they may say they have certification, but they might not be selling you certified products.”

Once visibility of supply chain has been established, one can begin looking at issues around types of fibre base – for

instance, is it a plantation or a natural forest.

He says: “If it is plantation, what is the nature of that plantation? Is it a newly established plantation which may have links to deforestation? Or is it a plantation which has been long established? Also, what are the assurances around things like respect to workers’ rights, community engagement, potential community conflicts etc?

“We want a situation where companies can be transparent about the nature of their fibre supply and can speak concretely about the challenges present and what they are doing about those. Not just feel they have to assure the world it’s all green and great.”

What about allegedly ‘high risk’ countries where forestry is concerned? How concerned should brands be?

Saraber suggests this is far from a black and white issue, arguing that the problem of avoiding ‘high risk’ regions is

that you potentially “de-link responsible purchasing power from the areas where change is needed.”

He adds: “Indonesia is a case in point. Like many other countries, it has a significant fibre production base which is primarily plantations. Those plantations have a range of practices from very well managed/responsible to poorly managed/less responsible. So it’s really not helpful for an entire country to be associated with a high risk category”

He adds: “I also believe that, as a brand, if you have supply chain which has some challenges (which if you’re going to be transparent, all do), you have to ask yourself what you can do to foster change in those areas where change is critical for the survival of us all on this planet. Foster change that gets to the root cause and provides good value propositions to support change, plenty of carrot and not just stick.”

Finally, on the issue of certifications, Saraber warns against using certification as a “green shield,” and that much

more important is a company and its own values.

He says: “In my experience if you are a company that has strong values and you apply the principles under the certification standard to the letter of what they write – fantastic.

“But if you choose to use certification as a ‘green shield’, you will do whatever you can in your power to cut costs to get the certification. That way of certification is flawed.

“As a company you have to be prepared to have a strong ambition that goes beyond certification, to be transparent. Certification is a tool to help you verify your journey. It is not the end of the road.”

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