Cotton is one of the most widely used fibers for textiles around the world. It makes strong, soft, breathable, and natural fabrics for clothing but it also harms the environment. Rayon is often used as a cheap alternative to cotton. Which one is better?
Rayon is a man-made fabric. It's a semi-synthetic cellulosic fiber that has a lower environmental impact than regular cotton. Organic cotton and recycled cotton remain better natural fabric choices for clothing.
Both cotton and rayon have amazing qualities for the textile and apparel industry. They are comfortable, resistant, absorbent, and easy to care for. They make great textiles, clothes, and footwear.
Cotton has been widely used in the fashion world for a very long time. The popularity of rayon has been rising recently. With the rise of fast fashion over the last 20 years, fashion brands and retailers look for alternatives to make cheap, trendy, and disposable clothes.
Read up my article on the top 10 reasons why fast fashion is so popular to understand its advantages for consumers.
Fashion brands and designers often choose rayon for their new collections to meet consumers' demands. It's an affordable fiber that makes a great choice for low-cost clothing.
Conventional cotton is mass-produced around the world. It represents 2.5% of the total agricultural area on Earth. The main concern of cotton production is its high water requirement for farming, washing, bleaching, dyeing, and treatment.
Regular cotton farming often uses toxic chemicals that are harmful to the environment and the health of workers. Is rayon better than cotton?
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Rayon environmental impact
Rayon is also known as viscose or viscose-rayon. It's a man-made cellulosic fiber and considered semi-synthetic. It's often produced from regenerated cellulose derived from wood pulp.
Rayon fabric was first developed in 1855 but the term rayon was officially adopted in 1924. It was the first economically viable man-made fiber.
Rayon isn't fully synthetic like petroleum-based fibers such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic. And it isn't natural like cotton, linen, and hemp either. Rayon is derived from natural and renewable resources, wood, or plants.
Read up my article on rayon vs polyester to learn more about the differences between these two types of fibers.
Rayon is the most widely used man-made cellulosic fiber. It occupies about 79% market share. 5.3 million tons of rayon were produced globally in 2018. Other cellulosic fibers include lyocell, acetate, modal, and cupro.
Rayon fabric is very soft, comfortable, lightweight, breathable, moisture absorbent, and anti-bacterial. It's more absorbent than cotton and linen. But rayon loses strength when wet, unlike cotton.
Rayon is becoming more and more common in fashion. It's largely used for apparel and footwear such as shirts, dresses, pants, jackets, undergarments, hats, shoes, and sportswear.
Unfortunately, rayon manufacturing requires heavy processing. Tons of energy, water, and chemicals are needed to disintegrate wood pulp into a viscous liquid before reconstructing it into fibers.
Rayon production is in general very toxic. The chemicals used to make rayon fibers are carbon disulfide, sulfuric acid, ammonia, acetone, or caustic soda. These substances are highly hazardous and poison the environment while endangering workers' health.
Check out my article on why rayon is bad for the environment to learn more about the environmental impact of rayon.
Rayon production is usually highly polluting and has a huge negative impact on the environment. Luckily, there are many different manufacturers of rayon. Some of them are more eco-friendly than others.
With the help of closed-loop processes, sustainable production facilities can almost fully recover and reuse water and chemicals used in rayon manufacturing.
Lenzing is an Austrian fiber manufacturer for the textile industry. It produces Modal and Lyocell (brand name Tencel) from sustainable forestry. Tencel is one of the most eco-friendly man-made cellulosic fibers.
Rayon vs cotton
Cotton is a very lightweight, durable, breathable, absorbent, soft, and comfortable fabric. It tends to soak up moisture and shows stains when wet in hot weather. It's often blended with other types of fiber to enhance its properties.
Rayon is a cellulosic fiber just like cotton. It shares many of its properties. But rayon is much softer than cotton, almost like silk. It's dyed easily and maintains its shape for longer. It's a great fabric choice to stay cool for long periods when traveling.
Cotton is still one of the most used fibers for clothing. 30.3 million tons of cotton are produced each year worldwide, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
Even if cotton is a natural fiber made from cotton plants, it also requires tons of chemicals to make fabrics for the fashion industry. Conventional cotton production destroys biodiversity and soil fertility. It creates health problems and kills wildlife.
Many textiles used in the fashion industry are extremely dangerous. Wearing fabrics that contain toxic chemicals may lead to cancer, hormonal dysfunction, insomnia, nausea, immunity harm, anorexia, and behavioral problems.
Cotton farming consumes 4% of all nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers globally. It also uses 16% of all insecticides, and 7% of all herbicides, as reported by the Global Fashion Agenda.
Conventional cotton production uses harsh chemicals such as orthophosphates (phorate and methamidophos, endosulfan, and aldicarb), and man-made pesticides such as Trifluralin, Toxaphene, and DDT.
Many pollutants that are harmful to farmers' health and ecosystems are controlled and limited by international usage restrictions. But agricultural use continues in many East-Asian countries.
Avoiding the use of hazardous chemicals in conventional cotton production is better for the planet, people, and animals living on it. Organic cotton has many advantages over regular cotton.
Organic cotton is also a natural fiber made from the cotton plant. It's recyclable and biodegradable, non-GMO, and grown without man-made pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers.
Read up my article on the case for organic cotton to learn more about the different types of cotton and better alternatives.
There are various types of rayon and cotton. It's difficult to compare rayon with cotton and state which one is better. The topic is very complex and depends on manufacturing processes, distribution, consumption, and disposal.
The Higg Materials Sustainability Index (MSI) attributes rayon a total impact score of 62, which is much lower than 98 for cotton. Cotton has a very high water scarcity impact score of 50.4 as it requires tons of water to grow and is detrimental to countries with limited water resources.
What do you think of cotton and rayon? Which one is the better choice for you? Let us know in the comment section below.
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About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.