As the world wakes up to the ecological crisis that we all increasingly find ourselves in, more and more of us are trying to do all we can to save the planet. But of course, when something is popular, there is money to be made. In a disturbing step from capitalism, companies have begun greenwashing, purporting themselves and their products to be eco-friendly, when in fact they are anything but.
But fear not! We are here to tell it how it is and how green certain products actually are helping you to make the right choices towards a better future for everyone. We will do the research so you don’t have to! First off, modal fabric. You might have heard of it as the ethical alternative to cotton. But what are the pros and cons? Is it worth the hype? Plus, what actually even is it?
What is Modal Fabric?
Modal fabric is a man-made type of rayon fabric, first developed in 1951. It is commonly used as an alternative to cotton. It is breathable, soft, and durable. Resistant to shrinkage and pillage, it has quickly become a popular choice of fabric. It is often blended with other textiles to add support and strength to the product.
Most modal fabric is produced by Lenzing, an Austrian company which claims that their products are sustainable and eco-friendly, using wood from controlled sources under strict regulations. They have headquarters around the world, in the USA, UK, and China. The company 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.
Where Is It Found?
Because of its qualities, modal fabric is used in activewear, underwear, pyjamas and bed sheets. Take a look at your clothing and you will be surprised to see quite a few items will probably be made out of modal, or some sort of modal blend. Most high quality gym wear is made from it as it is the best material out there for activewear. It is strong and flexible, and also extremely water absorbent, over 50% more absorbent than cotton, perfect for times when you are getting all sweaty in the gym!
It is more expensive than other types of fabrics such as cotton or synthetic materials, so it is mostly used by more high-end companies that value quality over price.
How Is It Made?
Modal fabric is made from beech tree pulp. Sounds weird? I know, but hear me out. Basically, it all starts with beech trees being harvested and chipped, with their cellulose extracted for the pulp. Cellulose is a molecule made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. It is the main substance in the walls of plants, aiding in the stability of their structure.
After it is extracted, the cellulose is made into sheets and steeped in sodium hydroxide. This breaks down the sheets into smaller, crumb-like pieces. After this step, they are soaked in more chemicals, this time carbon disulfate. This creates sodium cellulose xanthate, which is then again soaked in the sodium hydroxide.
A lot of soaking in chemicals, but the amount that is discharged into the environment is not purported to be dangerous or threatening to the ecosystem so, so far so good!
At this point, the cellulose is a kind of weird gloopy thing, so it is then spun into fibres with a spinneret. Then, it is once again soaked in a chemical, this time sulfuric acid, which turns it into a yarn.
Now, the modal fabric is ready to be dyed, woven, knitted, and used!
Why You Might Choose Modal
Modal fabric is popular for a reason. It is often seen as an eco alternative to silk or cotton and it’s soft and light texture have the feel of a high end product. Rayon was first developed as a silk alternative, and modal is now used as a blend for scarves and bedsheets.
Modal is breathable and water-absorbent. It is also very strong, utilising tight weaves and long fibres, meaning that garments that are made from modal are here to stay. In a world of fast fashion, this can only be a good thing. Modal is also extremely resistant to pillage, having a smooth finish that lasts a long time.
Modal fabric is also crease and wrinkle resistant, meaning you don’t have to iron it every time you wish to use it.
What Is Micromodal Fabric?
Micromodal fabric might be a phrase you have come across. It is a fairly new form of modal fabric, and has even better qualities than the original. Micromodal is made in exactly the same way as the original modal fabric. However, the size of the fibres produced are much smaller.
The smallness of the fibres in micromodal means that the product is even softer than modal fabric. This means that the use of the material in high end fashion has become increasingly popular. Often purported to be softer than silk, micromodal is becoming the best material out there for underwear and lingerie. Everyone wants comfy pants right?
All micromodal fabric is produced in Europe, and Lenzing is the only producer of it. All the countries that make this type of textile are a part of the European Union and therefore are subject to it’s laws surrounding the sustainability of fabrics. When it comes to making the right eco choices with fabric, we must be aware of the laws and regulations of the country or continent in which it is made. When fabric is made solely in the EU, we can be sure that it is following the regulations of the Union.
Unfortunately, micromodal is more expensive than modal fabric and this can be an issue when companies are choosing what textile to use. Most companies that use micromodal fabric are luxury fashion brands, and because of this, micromodal is not changing the world yet.
Ethical Pros of Modal Fabric
Now we know what modal fabric is, how it is made, and where it is found, we can look at the ethical considerations of this textile. When companies work with modal fabric, they will label their product ethical. There are well known organic and sustainable clothing brands that are using modal fabric regularly, and there are reasons why.
Modal fabric comes from natural materials. Using cellulose from raw material wood means that modal fabric comes from the land. 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.
However, it must be asked that after all the production, chemical treatment, and processing of the fabric, can it still be called a natural textile?
Lenzing is the biggest maker of modal fibre, producing Tencel fabric, and prides itself on the way at the end of the life of the product, the fibres can go back into the earth and support the trees that produce the next batch of modal fabric.
Lenzing is committed to creating the smallest carbon footprint possible, reusing and recycling as much material as they can. More than 99 percent of the wood that they use comes from sustainable forestry. They also are intent on producing as little waste as possible, which for a company I respect. I am one of those people who stays up at night worrying about all the rubbish getting stuffed into the land, and I know I am not alone in this. Again, it is about living with nature and not against it.
These are not just empty words from Lenzing, with the company regularly checking their production with the Forest Stewardship Council, and being certified with the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification. These are non-profit organizations that are independent of the company and care solely about one thing; the sustainability of products.
A lot of the materials that the human race has been using for the last hundred years are not biodegradable. There are tonnes and tonnes of plastic and rubbish in landfills and in the sea, and we as a society are becoming very uneasy about the production and consumption of more non-biodegradable products.
A lot of fabric used today is unfortunately not biodegradable. Popular materials such as polyester, spandex, and nylon will take up to 200 years to break down, and with the consumerism of fast fashion, this isn’t quick enough.
Modal, however, is completely biodegradable. The fibres break down quickly and naturally, leaving no harmful chemical residuals.
Modal Fabrics vs. Cotton
When it comes to sustainability, modal fabric is a better alternative to cotton, with a smaller carbon footprint. In the production of modal fabric, less land and less water is used than in the production of cotton. The water consumption used in the making of this product is very low, and agricultural land used per fibre yields is much lower than for cotton plantations.
It is not just for this reason that it is better than cotton. The fabric is also stronger. Cotton is known to sag, fade, and wear, however, because modal fabric is much more durable, it lasts longer.
Strong and Long Lasting
One of the main reasons why modal fabric is sustainable is because of its durability and strength. It is a product built to last, not just built until the end of the season when new styles are made.
Fast fashion is causing a great strain on our ecosystem. Clothing made from synthetic fabrics is often quickly binned at the end of the fashion season, with 85% of textile waste in the USA going into landfills or being incinerated.
In choosing modal fabric, companies are choosing to make strong and long lasting products. With society waking up to the ecological crisis that we are in, we are waking up to the culture of waste that is so prevalent today. Rejecting fast fashion and opting for clothes that are built to last is a big change that will have ripple effects around the globe.
Ethical Cons of Modal Fabric
Of course, nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Lenzing’s policies and its claims sound great, and it would make me so happy if modal was the saviour of fashion, allowing me to wear amazing clothes and not feel guilty, plus being extremely comfortable at the same time.
But, modal fabric might not be the saviour of fashion after all, and I have to look at why it might not be as ethical as we would like to believe.
Firstly, the making of this product means that we kind of have to use up a whole load of energy. Lenzing uses natural gasses and coal in the production of their fabric, and because the fabric goes through a lot of treatments, we can only presume that it means that it uses a lot of energy.
However, Lenzing does address this on their website, and claims that they are working towards using renewable energy for their products. But, when it comes to sustainability, words don’t really mean anything and we need to see action.
It is not just Lenzing who manufactures modal fabric, and throughout the world fabrics made this way have caused quite an issue when it comes to forest destruction. Every year 120 million trees are logged for fabrics such as modal, rayon, and viscose and there is no way that all of this is done sustainably. That number is said to be doubled by 2025.
A lot of these are old trees which have been around for hundreds of years. Some of these trees provide an ecosystem to animals such as orangutans, bears, and wolves. The forests that are used in the making of modal fabrics are also home to indiginous people who rely on the ecosystem of the forest for water, shelter, and food. In choosing products that are made from the cellulose of trees, we are risking the livelihood of communities and wildlife.
Another big issue when it comes to the manufacturing of modal fabric is workers rights around the world. The vast majority of modal is produced in China, with a large percentage of Lenzing’s products being made there. Unfortunately, China is well known to not have sufficient workers rights, with nearly 500 million citizens living on less that $2 a day.
When we are opting for modal fabric, if it is made in China, we are opting for unknown workers rights and the potential to be supporting a harmful and exploitative system. Even Lenzing might not be as ethical as they seem, with their health and safety information being much less in depth than the other pages on their website.
Because the majority of modal is produced in China, it is then shipped to companies all over the world. This affects the carbon footprint of the product as it increases CO2 emissions and pollution.
A lot of ethical clothing brands are using Lenzing modal fabric with the claim that it has a small carbon footprint, but how can it be that small if the material it is made out of is shipped from China to Europe?
Companies that produce modal fabric claim that the chemicals that are used are environmental and sustainable. However, that does not appear to be true. In developing the cellulose into the fabric, carbon disulfide is used. This chemical is a neurotoxin and during the making of modal it is released into the air and water and it can harm the animals and wildlife in the area.
Sadly, carbon disulfide is also known to harm the workers who are using it. Exposure to the chemical can cause liver, eye, heart, kidney, and blood damage. This can lead to blindness, severe illness, and even death. When considering what we have discussed previously about workers rights or the lack thereof, this is a cause of great concern when it comes to modal fabric.
So, Is Modal Fabric Worth It?
Unfortunately there is no right answer when it comes to the ethical and sustainability questions in regards to modal fabric. Of course, the claims that Lenzing makes and the marketing that they use to suggest that they care deeply about the environment would be so nice to believe. But the hard line is that this is a company and they want to make money, so you should take everything they say with a pinch of salt.
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.
With Lenzing fabric, there are better regulations involved. However, having most of their factories in China or Indonesia is an issue. Companies outsource to these countries to cut costs with cheap labour. They are putting profit over ethics.
However, in having these discussions and questioning what we are told by companies, we have the power to make positive change. Perhaps Lenzing is honest in their claim that they care about the environment, and if so, we can discuss with them their regulations and their workers rights across the globe. Companies need us as much as we need them, and there is a power in the collective voice.
Modal definitely has the potential to be ethical if we push for 100% renewable forests and minimised chemical emissions. It has its problems right now but of course, there is still hope! With discussion, openness, and holding companies accountable, we can change things globally for the better.