Material Guide: What Is Tencel? And Is It Sustainable?
19 Feb

Material Guide: What Is Tencel? And Is It Sustainable?

Tencel is a popular fabric of choice for eco-conscious clothing brands. It’s light and versatile, and used in everything from casual wear to underwear to activewear. But what impact does it have on people, the planet, and animals? Is Tencel ethical and sustainable? We’ve put together a cheatsheet to help demystify this fabric and put the power back in your hands.

What is Tencel?

TENCEL® is actually a brand name owned by the Austrian company Lenzing AG. While Tencel can also refer to Lenzing’s modal fabric, usually the ‘tencel’ label is referring to Tencel lyocell.

How is Tencel made?

Tencel is a type of rayon, like viscose and modal. These cellulose fibres are all made in a similar way: by dissolving wood pulp and using a special drying process called spinning. Before drying, the wood chips are mixed with a solvent to produce a wet mixture. This mixture is then pushed through small holes to form threads, chemically treated, then the lengths of fibre are spun into yarn and woven into cloth. Sounds simple enough—but what kind of environmental footprint does this process have?

So how does Tencel impact the environment?

Tencel lyocell is better for the environment than other similar fabrics, but not as sustainable as top-tier fabrics like organic linen or recycled cotton.

In production, Tecnel requires less energy and water than conventional cotton. As a plant-derived fibre, Tencel is also biodegradable, but check that it isn’t mixed with other synthetic fibres like nylon when it comes time to dispose of the garment. Although, like most materials, it is often coloured with harmful conventional dyes, Tencel requires a lot less dye than cotton. It is also pure white when produced, so no bleaching is necessary and undyed is always an option.

Tencel vs traditional viscose and rayon

There are two main ways TENCEL lyocell differs from most other fabrics made from wood fibre:

First, at the chemical treatment stage. The traditional viscose process is chemically-intensive, using harmful sodium hydroxide. Tencel replaces it with the NMMO process. The solution of N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide is more easily recoverable, and a closed-loop solvent system means almost no solvent is dumped into the ecosystem. Instead, it is recycled time and time again to produce new fibres and minimise harmful waste. Lenzing AG says the solvent recovery rate for their version is an impressive 99%.

Second, Tencel is made from sustainably sourced wood, while around 30% of rayon and viscose used in fashion is made from pulp sourced from endangered and ancient forests. Lenzing AG states it sources from sustainably managed PEFC or  FSC tree plantations. This is good news, considering concerns about the increasing impact of viscose production on deforestation.

Other sources of lyocell

Lyocell fabric is also manufactured by a company called Birla, under the name Excel. In 2017, the Rainforest Alliance assessed Birla as at low risk of sourcing products from ancient or endangered forests or other controversial sources. Birla also claims to recover over 90% of chemicals used in Excel production. This is an industry-leading result, so clothing made from Birla-sourced lyocell is another good option.

As versatile as it gets

Tencel fabric is extremely versatile. Depending on the length of the fibre chosen in production, varying thickness and texture can result. From a cottony feel to a silky one, the fabric adapts to a wide range of clothing types, from activewear to flowy dresses.

According to Lenzing, Tencel has incredible absorption characteristics: 50% more than cotton. Because it’s more breathable and less susceptible to odorous bacteria growth like environmentally-damaging synthetics, this fabric is ideal for activewear. Perfect for a sweaty gym or bikram yoga session!

While it is pricier than your average workout tank top, we believe it’s always worth prioritising quality over quantity. If exercising is part of your daily routine, consider investing in high-quality, durable garments that are good for your skin, such as those made from Tencel. If you look good, feel good, and do good for the environment, nothing can stop you from achieving your personal best!

Here are some ‘Good’ and ‘Great’ rated brands that use Tencel:

Tasi Travels

Rated: Good
woman wearing moss green sustainable tencel dress by Tasi Travels

The Escape Moss Dress – Ships internationally from Australia

For travelwear designed for adventures, look no further than Australian brand Tasi Travels. Boasting a stunning collection of handmade garments in eco-friendly materials that are made-to-order, you can feel good out in the world knowing you are leaving a light footprint behind. Garments come in sizes XS/S, S/M, and M/L.

See the rating.

Shop Tasi Travels.

MATE the Label

Rated: Great
plus size model woman wearing light green tencel sleepwear set by MATE the Label

Tencel Sleep Pants – Ships internationally from the US

MATE the Label creates clean essentials made with GOTS certified organic fabrics and low-impact dyes. Its goal is to offer women everywhere a clean product that is just as beautiful as it is sustainable. It is proudly female-founded and is predominately operated by women. This US brand also manufactures locally to reduce its carbon footprint. Find the range in inclusive sizes XS-3XL.

See the rating.

Shop MATE the Label.

tentree

Rated: Good
dark green tencel joggers by ethical brand tentree

Tencel Pacific Joggers – Ships internationally from Canada

tentree is a Canadian sustainable lifestyle brand that plants 10 trees for every item purchased. The certified B-Corp brand has already helped to remove tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere and reforested over 5,000 hectares of land (that’s equal to 12,000 football fields). But its commitment to sustainability extends way beyond trees. Using recycled, organic, and circular fabrics, tentree cuts down on huge amounts of waste and water usage with every piece. We love it for its super comfy fabrics and easy wardrobe staples that are available from XS to XL.

See the rating.

Shop tentree.

Patagonia

Rated: Good
grey tencel mix boxers by Patagonia

Men’s Essential Boxers – Ships internationally from the US

Patagonia is a brand which truly lives and breathes the great outdoors. It makes clothing for trail running, climbing, mountain biking, surfing, skiing, and snowboarding. Patagonia has strong labour rights and uses recycled, rather than virgin, polyester. It has also committed to reducing its energy use and emissions, and stocks sizes XS-3XL.

See the rating.

Shop Patagonia @ Luisa via Roma.

Shop Patagonia.

Shop Patagonia Pre-Owned @ Vestiaire Collective.

TAMGA Designs

Rated: Great
pink tencel shirt with trees please logo by TAMGA Designs

Trees Please Crew Neck – Ships internationally from Canada

TAMGA Designs is a sustainable social enterprise that helps to create opportunities for disadvantaged people and serves up gorgeous, flowy designs that will glide you into warmer weather with poise and grace. TAMGA offers a range of tops, skirts, dresses and accessories made from 100% Micro TENCEL®. Find the range in XS-2XL.

See the rating.

Shop TAMGA Designs.

Whimsy + Row

Rated: Good
woman of colour wearing long deep teal tencel jacket by Whimsy + Row

Gia Jacket – Ships internationally from the US

Whimsy + Row is an eco-conscious lifestyle brand born out of a love for quality goods and sustainable practices. Since 2014, its mission has been to provide ease and elegance for the modern, sustainable woman. By limiting each garment to short runs, Whimsy + Row utilises deadstock fabric, reduces packaging waste, and takes care of precious water resources. Find most products in XS-XL.

See the rating.

Shop Whimsy + Row.

OhSevenDays

Rated: Good
woman of colour wearing orange tencel sustainable pants by Oh Seven Days

The Thursday Crease – Ships internationally from Turkey

OhSevenDays was started by Australian-Canadian Megan Mummery to promote slow fashion and the ‘power of circularity’. Based in Istanbul, the brand reclaims end-of-roll fabrics from the city’s garment factories and creates sharp, everyday womenswear that’s as wearable as it is ethical. Essentially, it makes slow fashion from fast fashion's leftovers! OhSevenDays' garments are available in sizes XS-XL.

See the rating.

Shop OhSevenDays.

Mother of Pearl

Rated: Good
woman wearing tencel plaid black and white dress shirt by Mother of Pearl

Whitney Check Dress – Ships internationally from the UK

Mother of Pearl is a sustainable and ethical luxury womenswear and accessories designer brand from the UK that celebrates individuality and authenticity. The brand uses a high proportion of eco-friendly materials including organic cotton and ensures the payment of a living wage across some of its supply chain. Find most products in UK sizes 6 to 16.

See the rating.

Shop Mother of Pearl.

Shop Mother of Pearl @ Rêve en Vert.

Shop Mother of Pearl Pre-Owned @ Vestiaire Collective.

Altar

Rated: Good

Ronnie Lounge Blush – Ships internationally from the US

Altar is a US-based boutique that specializes in alternative and custom fashion, apothecary, and gifts. The brand celebrates independent manufacturers and artists from across North America, with a focus on the stories that are woven into their work. Its clothing brand, Altar Houseline, is proudly made in America using deadstock materials and serves size gradations from size S to 6XL.

See the rating.

Shop Altar.

Franc

Rated: Good

The Tank Maxi Dress – Ships internationally from Canada

Franc is a Canadian brand that makes basics so you can enjoy a complete wardrobe built on timeless essentials. The brand ranks 'Good' on all fronts: it uses eco-friendly materials, pays a living wage and uses no animal products. Find most products in sizes XS to 3XL.

See the rating.

Shop Franc.

Learn more about sustainable and ethical materials.

Editor's note

Feature image via Mother of Pearl, all other images via Unsplash, and brands mentioned. Good On You publishes the world’s most comprehensive ratings of fashion brands’ impact on people, the planet and animals. Use our Directory to search more than 2,500 brands. We may earn a commission on sales made using our offer codes or affiliate links.

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