What Is Modal Fabric? Sustainable Rayon Or Not?

Modal fabric is taking the fashion industry by storm and more and more brands are incorporating it into their lineups on and off the catwalk.

But is modal fabric ethical and sustainable? Or is it just viscose rayon in another guise?

Or is modal fabric another contributor to the destruction of the planet at the hands of an industry not exactly famous for green credentials?

What is modal fabric? It’s a semi-synthetic variation of viscose rayon. It uses beech tree pulp as its based ingredient. You create viscose rayon and modal in similar but not identical ways.

Modal fabric is more durable and will flex better than viscose rayon and it can be used in blends to give it greater strength than rayon fabrics.

Modal and cotton as well as modal fabric and spandex are quite common uses.

Modal fabric feels super soft to the touch and that means it’s expensive and you will pay more for it than you would for say, cotton or viscose.


The Origins Of Modal Fabric

What Is Modal Fabric?

Modal fabric was originally invented in Japan and it came into use as early as the 1950s.

In 2020, the majority of the world’s modal originates from a single source, an Austrian company by the name of Lenzing AG, which holds the trademark for modal.

You can find different brands of modal from the same company – these include Formatex, China Modal and Lenzing Modal.

The variations tend to be of even higher quality than the standard fabric and yes, they are even more expensive for it.


Is Making Modal Environmentally Friendly?

It’s certainly more environmentally friendly than making cotton.

That’s because beech trees tend to suck up much less water than cotton plants.

It takes around 10-20 times less water to grow the trees than the equivalent amount of cotton plants and that’s clearly good for the planet.

However, modal also incorporates the use of chemical processing. That means that it's a semi-synthetic fabric because of this production process.

Though it’s more eco-friendly the use of sodium hydroxide (a bleaching and dissolving agent) and carbon disulfate in the manufacturing of modal fibers means that this is not a “natural” product, it’s a semi-synthetic.


The Risks Of Deforestation

deforestation

In addition to what we’ve seen about growing and manufacturing modal there are some serious concerns about the impact of modal fibers on the planet.

While many companies that manufacture modal under license deliberately choose to use beech trees that were grown on land that was unfit for all other agricultural purposes – some are less ethical.

If the wood they sourced was from Indonesia it’s entirely possible that rainforest was cleared in order to saw monocrop (that is single tree) timber plantations and that’s definitely not good for the planet.


The Risks To Workers

danger to textile workers

The sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfate used in modal production are not good news for workers.

If any animals or, indeed, the workers come into contact with the product while it’s being treated with these chemicals in the production process, they are exposed to what is essentially a neurotoxin.

The nerve damage that it causes can blind someone, kill them or even, in extreme cases, kill them.


Lenzing Does Better

Lenzing has recently turned Lenzing Modal into TENCELTM Modal. This is designed to be a better product which holds itself to the highest standards. Tencel modal retains the modal fabric feel but is much kinder than most semi-synthetic fabrics.

They want to demonstrate that modal can be sourced from renewable forestland and that the processing was done in a way that is meant to keep emissions to a minimum.

They use an environmentally friendly process which has been certified globally that allows them to better recover the chemicals used in the preparation of the fabric. This reduces emissions and conserves resources.

tencel

At the same time, they use trees harvested from sustainably managed plantations in Europe to create the modal fabric properties. This means it’s easier to be certain that the trees are ethically sourced.

What is important to remember though is that Lenzing doesn’t directly manufacture any modal textiles. Instead, it produces the yarns and then ships them to factories and textile manufacturers around the world that transform the fibers into fabrics. The manufacturing processes at these plants are less transparent.

Lenzing has no control over the ethics and sustainability of the companies involved in these processes.


Conclusion | Is Modal An Ethical Sustainable Fabric Choice?

So, from what we have learned about modal is that it can be an ethical sustainable fabric choice.

If you’re buying TENCELTM Modal then you know that the initial part of the supply chain was designed with the environment and the well-being of people in mind.

What you still need to do is ensure that you are buying your fashion products from an ethical supplier that is clear about what happens to the TENCELTM Modal once it has left the hands of Lenzing.

If you’d like to learn more about ethical fabrics, why not check out our vegan leather guide?

Or learn why there are at least ten good reasons to buy clothing secondhand. Go vintage!

There are many options to make a better world without compromising on the quality of your clothes.

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