Blog Post

Groundbreaking Study Sheds Light on the Environmental Performance of Viscose Fiber Used in Apparel Products

Viscose Fiber

This is the first blog post in a series focused on the groundbreaking Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) study completed by SCS on behalf of Stella McCartney in October 2017.  Download the full report, and click here to watch a webinar on the topic.

Leading apparel companies are keenly interested in identifying environmentally preferable fibers for use in the manufacture of clothing.  One type of fiber about which little environmental performance information has been available is viscose fiber (also known as Rayon), a type of manmade cellulose fiber (MMCF). Furthermore, the limited analyses that have been conducted to date have not factored in critical areas of impact, such as the negative effects on ecosystems resulting from the harvesting of wood used to produce the dissolving pulp used to produce the fibers.

To fill this knowledge gap with accurate, credible information, the leading luxury designer Stella McCartney commissioned SCS to develop a groundbreaking Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) comparing the environmental performance of ten different raw material sources of MMCF. In this study, conventional viscose produced from wood was compared with innovative new technologies such as flax-based fiber substitutes. The study broke new ground by including an evaluation of impacts on terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems in the forests and farms of origin.

Life Cycle Assessment Table

Both in its breadth and depth, this LCA provides an unprecedented analysis of the distinct impacts of different MMMCF sources. Some key learnings from the study include:

  • The choice of raw material input is key to determining the environmental profile of MMCF. MMCF from different sources may be functionally and chemically identical, but can have radically different environmental profiles based on the processes and technologies used in production. For example, MMCF from tropical hardwoods originating in Indonesia had significant negative impacts associated with deforestation of the rainforest, which were completely different from MMCF originating from well-managed forests in Sweden.
  • There’s no home run when it comes to selecting environmentally preferable fibers. All sources of MMCF had trade-offs, although some performed better overall than others.
  • While none of the ten sourcing scenarios were environmentally preferable across all impact categories, MMCF made from Belgian flax or recycled clothing emerged as favorable across a majority of impact categories. Overall, these two innovative technologies were the most favorable sources identified in the LCA.
  • Asian production from Canadian boreal forest pulp, Chinese production from Indonesian rainforest pulp, Chinese production from Indonesian plantation pulp, and Indian cotton linter pulped in China had the heaviest environmental footprints among the scenarios examined.
  • This cradle-to-gate LCA considered a complete set of environmental performance factors related to the production of MMCF, including all impacts arising from the time raw materials are obtained from forests, agricultural operations or other sources, through the production of MMCFs.
Life Cycle Assessment Table

In completing the study, we applied the latest science and data, conforming to the internationally recognized ISO 14040 and 14044 LCA standards, the draft national standard for LCA (LEO-SCS-002) being developed under the ANSI process, and the Roundwood Product Category Rule(PCR). The report was then peer-reviewed by representatives from Price Waterhouse Cooper (PWC), the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development at Utrecht University, and the influential environmental not-for-profit organization, Canopy. This level of scrutiny ensured that the report’s findings are robust and reliable.

The study is a great resource for the entire apparel industry as it provides insights into the wide range of impacts that a brand’s or supplier’s choice of MMCF fiber source can have, including impacts on species, forest ecosystems, freshwater, global climate and human health.

In the coming weeks, I will be writing more about the details of this LCA, highlighting and describing the most important features of the research, including:

  • The report’s evaluation of ecosystem and biodiversity impacts, which sets a precedent for LCAs in the future. 
  • The inclusion of Short-Lived Climate Pollutants and Forest Carbon Storage Losses, and why these are critical in understanding the GHG impacts of different MMCF sources.
  • The development of regionalized smog impacts, reflecting the widely divergent levels of impact in different regions due to ambient concentrations of PM2.5, Ozone, and Hazardous Ambient Air Pollutants.
  • How this complete and accurate LCA framework can enable selection of high-performing fibers and drive improvement across the supply chain.

Stay tuned for future blog posts, and click here to watch our webinar.

Tobias Schultz is Director of Research & Development at SCS Global Services, and an experienced LCA practitioner. Mr. Schultz headed up the certification team for this LCA study.  He can be reached at [email protected], or by calling +1.510.452.6389.

Tobias Schultz

Tobias Schultz

Vice President, Research and Development