Viscose Suppliers to H&M and Zara Linked to Severe Health and Environmental Hazards

Alexander Zhiltsov/Adobe Stock

Zara and H&M are among the fast fashion giants that have been found to source viscose from manufacturing sites whose processes pose serious health and environmental dangers, according to a new report from Changing Markets Foundation.

When the foundation visited 10 such sites in China, India and Indonesia, it found that untreated hazardous waste was leading to severe air and water pollution, and for people who lived near the manufacturing sites, physical and mental disorders.


Viscose clothing. Source: Zara

The apparel industry loves viscose, a semi-synthetic cellulose fiber derived from wood pulp. As the material is inexpensive and versatile, drapes well and feels soft (in fact, it used to be referred to as artificial silk), viscose is used by fast fashion brands and high fashion alike. Its provenance from trees gives it the appearance of being natural, making it a prime candidate for corporate greenwashing.

Although viscose itself does not damage human health or the environment, the chemicals used in its manufacturing process can be highly toxic. One of those chemicals, carbon disulfide, can damage the nervous system to the point of insanity in factory workers — though not consumers, as viscose doesn’t retain residue from chemicals used in manufacturing.

Source: QYR Chemical & Materials Research Center’s “Global Viscose Fibre Market Research Report 2017”                    

Viscose production is highly concentrated. About 70% of production is controlled by 10 companies, and, as the above graph shows, roughly two-thirds of global viscose production takes place in China. India and Indonesia are the second and third largest producers, respectively. Environmental regulations in these three top viscose-producing countries are hardly stringent. Factor in mass production as a result of steady consumer demand for cheap, trendy clothing, and you have what the Changing Markets Foundation calls a “toxic” combination.

Despite growing awareness of the ugly environmental and social consequences of fast fashion, the trend is not slowing. The NGO Greenpeace forecasts that clothing sales will rise to $2.1 trillion by 2025 (as of 2015, that figure was $1.8 trillion). When investigators from the Changing Markets Foundation visited viscose factories in China, India and Indonesia, they found that the manufacturers were dumping untreated wastewater into local water sources. The resulting heavily contaminated water has affected fishermen’s livelihoods, and it is also hypothesized to be behind nearby areas’ increasing cancer rates.

According to the report, H&M sources from six of the polluting factories that the foundation investigated. Other viscose buyers like Zara, ASOS, Tesco and Marks & Spencer are also linked to the polluting factories. However, the specificity of the information on H&M’s suppliers also reflects on the company’s greater transparency, compared to its peers. Out of the 45 major brands that the foundation contacted, only H&M provided a full list of the viscose factories that it works with.

Last year, Yale University Press published “Fake Silk: The Lethal History of Viscose Rayon,” by Paul D. Blanc, a professor of medicine at University of California, San Francisco. Blanc traced the century-long history of viscose production, which — if you haven’t guessed from the book title already — continues to sicken and kill factory workers.

To reiterate, there’s nothing wrong with viscose per se. The fault lies with carbon disulfide, hydrogen sulfide, sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) and sulfuric acid, all chemicals typically used in viscose manufacturing, as well as allowing the chemicals to escape into the surrounding environment. In addition to nervous system ailments, studies have linked carbon disulfide exposure to birth defects, leukemia, miscarriages, kidney disease and coronary heart disease. For every pound of viscose produced, roughly 10 grams–14 grams of carbon disulfide and two grams of hydrogen sulfide are emitted. The latter can cause vision problems and changes in behavior.

The Changing Markets report found that factories were illegally dumping wastewater into rivers at night, causing water from nearby wells to be undrinkable. Semi-processed viscose was found scattered around the village by the largest viscose factory in Indonesia, which is also the second largest in the world. A sulfuric acid leak last year from another Indonesian viscose plant sickened more than 40 nearby residents, but no measures were taken to prevent another similar accident, according to the report.

Many companies have viscose sourcing policies that pledge to avoid using wood pulp from endangered forests, but these policies tend not to cover the environmental and health costs of the manufacturing process. As Blanc wrote in “Fake Silk,” viscose “deserves to be every bit as familiar as the cautionary tales of asbestos insulation, leaded paint or the mercury-tainted seafood in Minamata Bay.”

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