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Above: Singlet, TENCEL™ Lyocell, Organic Basics

 

Have you ever wondered about the difference between the currently trending textile fibers viscose, modal and lyocell – or is it tencel? – that all seem to have curiously fallen under the same label: Sustainable. We have. So we thought we’d try to clear things up a bit. As it turns out, even though all three are made from the same natural raw material – wood – and pretty much perceived as the same thing, they’re not. 

While originating from all-natural, renewable and biodegradable sources, viscose, modal and lyocell all fall under the category of regenerated cellulose textile fibers. Some even call them semi-synthetic (no microplastics though). VISCOSE, or rayon as it’s sometimes called, is created when cellulose from wood pulp is transformed into textile fibres through a chemical-heavy process. This method is often unregulated and causes toxic emissions and pollution that have a hugely negative impact on the health of the people involved in the process, as well as the environment. While there can be better-made viscose – LENZING™ Viscose, for example, is said to generate up to 50% lower emissions and water impact compared to generic viscose – this one would generally be the bad guy

Viscose, or rayon as it’s sometimes called, is created when cellulose from wood pulp is transformed into textile fibres through a chemical-heavy process.

Viscose is traditionally made from wood, but can also be extracted from bamboo – a fast-growing plant that doesn’t require pesticides, herbicides or irrigation, and is therefore often marketed as eco-friendly. But this is not always true. While it’s often implied or believed that all bamboo textiles are eco-friendly, this obviously won’t be the case for most bamboo viscose textiles. So major greenwashing alert.  

Now, MODAL is mainly made from beech tree, and though the production process is very similar to the one of viscose, it generates a fiber with slightly different properties. Compared to viscose, modal is more durable and flexible, and has a higher fiber strength when wet, which makes it easier to wash as the fibers keep their shape. 

Most modal today seem to be manufactured by Lenzing, an Austrian company that specializes in producing different innovative materials from wood pulp in environmentally friendly ways. Lenzing’s TENCEL™ Modal – and yes, TENCEL™ is just a brand name – is made with certified biobased fibers manufactured in an environmentally responsible production process that generates a certified compostable and biodegradable product. The same principles apply to the company’s TENCEL™ Lyocell, so these would both pass as good choices.

LYOCELL is a wood-based fibre made through modern methods that require less energy than traditional viscose manufacturing, and where the chemicals used have low toxicity and are recycled in a closed-loop process. This is a big and crucial difference, and makes the lyocell fiber the most eco-friendly out of the three. Lenzing, for example, recycles the process water and a minimum of 99% of the chemicals used in the manufacturing of their TENCEL™ Lyocell.

Lyocell is a wood-based fibre made through modern methods that require less energy than traditional viscose manufacturing, and where the chemicals used have low toxicity and are recycled in a closed-loop process.

It is important, however, not only that the raw material is natural, renewable and biodegradable, but that it comes from well-managed, certified forests and sustainably harvested trees. Deforestation is a huge global problem, where particularly rainforests are logged in favor of, for example, bamboo, palm or eucalyptus plantations, or cattle. Deforestation – removing trees – without sufficient reforestation affects wildlife, eco systems, weather patterns and the climate, contributing to habitat damage, biodiversity loss, drought and global warming. All bad things.

In the case of conventional viscose, wood sources are not always traceable, which is another reason to avoid it. Lenzing says that all the wood and pulp they use “comes from natural forests and sustainably managed plantations”, and that “all TENCEL™ are available with FSC or PEFC certification upon request.” Upon request? So these certifications are not default then…? Again: how do we know when a thing is actually, truly good?  

And it’s not even enough that the raw material in our clothes come from sustainable sources. There’s the whole process of weaving yarns into fabric, dying and manufacturing the garments to consider, which normally also requires huge quantities of energy, water and chemicals. If this process isn’t made ethically and responsibly too, the end product won’t be much to brag about.

Gaaah. It sometimes feels like we’re screwed no matter what, don’t you agree? However, if we do a little research, ask a few questions, and look for trusted certifications like GOTS (or Svanen and Bra Miljöval if you live in the Nordics) at least we’ve tried. And there is still second hand; never forget. It sucks that so much is up to us consumers, we know, but we guess that’s what things are going to be like, for now… 

Hope this helped a little bit. And if you’ve got something to add, or any insight – please share!


2 Comments

Lisa: Hello! Great article! A few things I should note though - not all Lyocell is produced in a closed loop process. Currently only Tencel Lyocell can guarantee this, so if you’re buying conventional non-branded lyocell this wouldn’t necessarily have been closed loop. Also regarding the FSC/PEFC certification "upon request" I'm pretty sure this simply means that the certificate is always there but due to the complexity of the supply chain you (if you work for a brand like me!) have to request it from your suppliers to make sure you get it. It’s the same thing with GOTS or GRS – you can buy this kind of fabric without getting certification because your suppliers are lazy with the paperwork, but if you request it they will send 😊 Lastly, FSC and PEFC certification is actually not enough to prove sustainable forestry management – brands also need to investigate which regions the wood is coming from because there are FSC certified forests which are ancient/endangered so even with the certification you can still be screwed ( like you say)…
November 26, 2019

Malin: Thank you!
August 23, 2019

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