What is Rayon and How Does it Break Down?

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One of the challenges in buying fashion a little more mindfully lies in the journey to find clothing made with fairly paid, happy employees, and within the boundaries of safe and sustainable practices. After this, the hurdle is identifying the fabrics these clothes were made of, and considering the impacts both the creation of that fabric had on the environment and its decomposition process. 

One of our fabulous followers struggled with this, and asked us the following question: “are you familiar with Rayon and how it breaks down at the end of the clothing’s life span?” So we’ve done some digging, and we are here to answer as the first in our many ‘you ask, we answer’ series. 

Before we dive straight into the answer, let’s rewind and find out why Rayon was needed in the first place, and understand what Rayon is and how it is made. The end of the nineteenth century brought about an extremely high price for silk—the dominant material within the textile industry at the time—so a more accessible and affordable alternative was needed, an alternative that mimicked the feel of the much loved silk. Voila, rayon was born. Rayon is a synthetic fiber manufactured from cellulose, and is the main man-made cellulosic fiber. A cellulosic fiber is anything derived from plants, including fibers such as linen (flax), hemp, and cotton, and is created by dissolving the original natural materials and regenerating them. 

Although Rayon is labelled as a synthetic fiber, it is technically semi-synthetic because of its originating natural compound. A semi-synthetic material is a material that is partly natural, partly synthetic, and thus has a tendency to be incorrectly marketed to consumers as “environmentally-friendly” or “natural” - hello greenwashing.

So, how does Rayon break up at the end of a piece of clothing’s life span?
Although Rayon is not technically a completely natural material, it does have the ability to biodegrade. A study was conducted on the decomposition of cellulosic fibers in soil and Rayon was actually found to biodegrade faster than cotton, and it can also decompose faster if broken up into smaller pieces and used in a home compost bin. However, let’s not get too excited yet, Rayon production typically wastes around 70% of the tree from which its wood pulp was originally taken, so we would still steer well clear of rayon or any synthetic materials. The process of creating rayon is also very chemical heavy, and even requires being dunked into a pool of acid! Imagine wearing that on your skin or soaking into the ground. We’d take cotton any day. Plus, in terms of Rayon as a fabric, it is not very durable, it loses its shape easily and has a tendency to shrink, so you will not usually see an ethically and sustainably savvy business using this as their go-to material. 

If you’re unsure of what fabrics to be wary of, have a sift through our Journal and our Ethical Brand Directory to see what materials to look for when shopping with the good of our planet in mind.

A little aside, if you’ve read this and then checked tags in your wardrobe only to realise they’re made from rayon, don’t fret. Step one for us, always, is to continue to love them and use them like the wonderful garments they are.