As the world wakes up to the ecological crisis that we all increasingly find ourselves in, it’s become clear that the materials that we use can make a difference, particularly when looking at the fashion and textile industry. Opting for better materials can lead to fewer harmful impacts on the environment and wildlife, and also cause less harm to growers and manufacturers. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to tell the better alternative, particularly when greenwashing is such a common occurrence with some companies purporting themselves and their products to be eco-friendly, when in fact they are often anything but.
Unsure about which fabrics actually are better alternatives, we set out to determine how different materials compare in pursuit of finding the most sustainable fabrics.
First up: modal fabric. You might have heard of it as an ethical alternative to cotton – but what are the pros and cons? Is it worthy of the hype? Plus, what exactly is modal?
What is modal fabric?
First developed in 1951, modal fabric is a man-made type of rayon fabric. It’s commonly used as an alternative to cotton and is breathable, soft, and durable. Resistant to shrinkage and pillage, it has quickly become a popular choice of textile and can often be found blended with other textiles for added support and strength. It tends to be more expensive than other types of fabric such as cotton or synthetic materials, so is mostly used more by higher-end brands that tend to market based on quality over price.
Because of its unique qualities, modal fabric is often used in activewear, underwear, pajamas and bed sheets. Take a look at your clothing and you may be surprised to find that quite a few items will probably be made out of modal, or some sort of modal blend. As it’s a strong and flexible material that also happens to be extremely water absorbent, over 50% more absorbent than cotton in fact, most high quality gym wear is made from modal.
Most modal fabric is produced by Lenzing, an Austrian company with headquarters in the USA, UK, and China. Lenzing state that their products are sustainable and eco-friendly, using wood from controlled and managed sources under strict regulations and the company also has a code of conduct that all their headquarters and factories have to follow, making sure that all production of their materials is done in a sustainable way.
How is modal produced?
Given its reputation for softness, you might be surprised to find out that modal fabric is made from beech tree pulp. First, beech trees are harvested and chipped, with their cellulose extracted for pulp. After extraction, the cellulose is made into sheets and steeped in sodium hydroxide. This breaks down the sheets into smaller, crumb-like pieces which are then are soaked in carbon disulfate. This creates sodium cellulose xanthate, which is then again soaked in sodium hydroxide. At this point, the cellulose is kind of weird and gloopy, so it’s spun into fibers with a spinneret. Then, it’s once again soaked in a chemical, this time sulfuric acid, which turns it into a yarn – ready to be dyed, woven, knitted, and used!
Modal vs. Micromodal
Micromodal fabric might be another term you’ve come across. It’s a fairly new form of modal fabric, and has been hailed as having even better qualities than the original. Micromodal is made in exactly the same way as standard modal fabric, however the size of the fibers produced are much smaller, which means that the final product is even softer. Purported to be softer than silk, micromodal is quickly becoming one of the best materials out there for underwear and lingerie. Everyone wants soft underwear right?
In contrast to modal, most, if not all, micromodal fabric is produced in Europe. This lends an added level of confidence in its sustainability credentials as all member states of the EU are subject to specific laws surrounding the sustainability of fabrics. That said, micromodal is more expensive than modal fabric and this can be an issue when companies are choosing what textile to use, making it largely accessible only to luxury brands
Why you might choose modal
Modal fabric is popular for a reason. Often seen as an eco alternative to silk or cotton, modal is soft and light with a texture and feel of a high quality product. It’s also breathable and water-absorbent, resistant to both pilling and creasing/wrinkling, and with tight weaves and long fibers, modal is very strong which means that garments that made from modal are harder wearing and longer lasting. In a world increasingly dominated by fast fashion, this can only be a good thing.
The benefits of modal fabric
When companies work with modal fabric, they will often label their product as being ‘ethical’. There are well known organic and sustainable clothing brands that are using modal fabric regularly, and there are some compelling reasons as to why.
Quite simply, modal fabric comes from natural materials. Using cellulose from a raw material such as wood means that modal fabric is derived from plants. Cellulose is the core component to plant life on earth, supporting the trees and flowers that surround us, and by using this we are going with nature and not against it. Of course, it must also be asked whether, after all of the production, chemical treatment, and processing of the fabric, modal can still be considered a sustainable fabric even if it is, ultimately, a natural textile.
Lenzing is the largest manufacturer of modal fiber and is committed to creating the smallest carbon footprint possible, reusing and recycling as much material as they can. The organization states that more than 99% of the wood that they use comes from sustainable forestry and are intent on producing as little waste as possible. To bolster these claims the company regularly checks their production with the Forest Stewardship Council and holds certification with the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification, both non-profit organizations that operate independently of the company and assess the sustainability of manufacturers, their processes, and the products they produce.
Much of the material that humans have been using for the last hundred years is not biodegradable. There are literally tons and tons of plastic and rubbish in landfills and in the sea, which is having monumental environmental repercussions. Unfortunately, a significant amount of fabric used today is not biodegradable which is only contributing to the waste problem. Popular materials such as polyester, spandex, and nylon will take up to 200 years to break down, and given the popularity of fast fashion, this isn’t quick enough. Modal, on the other hand, is completely biodegradable with the fibers breaking down quickly and naturally, leaving no harmful chemical residuals.
Strong and long-lasting
One of the main reasons why modal fabric is considered to be a more sustainable alternative is because of its durability and strength. Finished products manufactured from modal fabric tend to be designed to last, not just until the end of the season when new styles come into fashion. It’s no secret that fast fashion is causing a great strain on the environment and our shared ecosystem. Clothing made from synthetic fabrics are often quickly tossed at the end of the season, with 85% of textile waste in the USA going into landfills or being incinerated. In choosing modal fabric as a textile, companies are opting for stronger and longer lasting products. With society becoming increasingly aware of the emerging environmental and social crises unfolding around us, we’re also waking up to a culture of waste that has become prevalent in our everyday lives. Rejecting fast fashion and opting for long-lasting clothing and materials is a substantial change that can lead to ripple effects around the globe and better outcomes across society and the ecosystems around us.
More sustainable than cotton
When it comes to sustainability, modal fabric has a smaller carbon footprint. The water consumption used in the making of the fabric is very low, and agricultural land used per fiber yields is lower than the equivalent for cotton. It’s not just for this reason that modal is generally considered a better alternative to cotton – it’s also stronger whereas cotton is known to sag, fade, and wear and as modal fabric is by its very nature more durable, it tends to last longer than cotton.
Drawbacks of modal fabric
Of course, things are rarely as simple as they seem when it comes to issues of sustainability. It would be great if modal fabric was the saviour of fashion, the hero fabric we’ve all been waiting for, allowing us to wear amazing clothes and not feel guilty, plus being extremely comfortable at the same time. But, modal fabric might not be the be all and end all answer to fashion’s problems, and it’s important that we look at some of the marks against this textile which mean it may not be quite as ethical as we’d like to believe.
The amount of energy required to go from beech tree pulp to soft modal fabric is extensive, which raises questions about how much CO2 and other emissions are generated during the production process. For their part, Lenzing have outlined their efforts to transition towards replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, implementing biorefinery systems in which the excess raw wood used to create fibers is burnt for fuel.
Every year 120 million trees are logged for fabrics such as modal, rayon, and viscose and while some companies who manufacture modal fabric make a verifiable public commitment to sustainably sourcing wood, such as Lenzing, others actively contribute to forest destruction. Worse still, the number of trees cut down for fabric manufacturing is likely to raise significantly in the coming years. Trees, some of which have been around for hundreds of years, play a vital role in ecosystems and also for local communities, some of which rely on the ecosystem services provided by these forest environments for water, shelter, and food as well as an almost innumerable variety of non-tangible benefits provided. In choosing products that are made from the cellulose of trees without first determining the sustainability of the growing practices, we are risking the livelihood of communities and wildlife.
Another major issue when it comes to the manufacturing of modal fabric concerns the consideration of workers rights around the world. The vast majority of modal is produced in China, with a large percentage of Lenzing’s products also manufactured there. Unfortunately, China is well known for a lack of transparency around issues regarding workforce treatment and general workers rights, with nearly 500 million citizens living on less that $2 a day. Choosing fabrics made in countries with known labor issues, such as China, means that we are inevitably opting for unknown workers rights and potentially supporting a harmful and exploitative system.
As the majority of modal fabric is produced in China, it is inevitable that the fabric will be shipped to clothing manufactures and companies all over the world. It’s possible that the final product will then be shipped to yet another country before it finally reaches stores. Both the duration and number of trips affects the final carbon footprint of the product as it increases CO2 emissions and pollution resulting from these travel miles. At the end of the day, manufacturing in China for buyers that are located elsewhere substantially increases a company’s carbon footprint.
One look at how beech pulp is turned into fibers and it becomes clear – the process uses a lot of chemicals. Of particular concern is carbon disulfide which is released into the air and water where it has the potential to harm wildlife in the surrounding area. It’s also known to harm workers with exposure potentially causing liver, eye, heart, kidney, and blood damage. When considering that modal is largely manufactured in China which lacks transparency around workers rights, this is of course, an increasingly significant factor when it comes to assessing the final score for modal fabric and whether it’s a better alternative to other options.
So, is modal fabric worth it?
As is often the case, there is no right answer when it comes to the overall ethical and sustainability questions in regards to modal fabric. Without regulations and strict guidelines, modal fabric is no more ethical than the majority of textiles. It has the ability to harm the planet, the ecosystem, and the workers that produce it. At the same time, modal has the potential to be a better ethical alternative fabric if we push for sustainably managed forests, carbon-conscious approaches to manufacturing, and workers rights that are transparent, fair, and just. While the fabric may have its problems today, through discussion, openness, and holding companies accountable, this modal just might be one of the solutions to the wider problems we’re facing.
At the end of the day companies need us as much as we need them – there is a power in the collective voice. In having these discussions and questioning corporate statements, we have the power to make better, more informed decisions, and ultimately, to enact positive change. Perhaps modal manufacturers are earnest in their claim to care about the environment and ethical considerations surrounding manufacturing processes, and if so, we can discuss with them their regulations and the approach they take to ensuring workers rights across the globe and encourage other companies to follow suit.