Material Guide: How Ethical is Tencel?

Tencel is increasingly the fabric of choice for ethical and conscious clothing brands.  It’s light and versatile, and is widely used in casual wear. But what is Tencel? 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 for a type of lyocell, or sometimes modal material. TENCEL® is produced by the Austrian company Lenzing AG.

How is Tencel made?

Tencel is a cellulose fibre, which is made by dissolving wood pulp and using a special drying process called spinning. Before it is dried, wood chips are mixed with a solvent to produce a wet mixture. The mixture is then pushed through small holes to form threads, which is then chemically treated and the lengths of fibre are spun into yarn and woven into cloth.

According to Lenzing AG, Tencel has incredible absorption characteristics and is 50% more absorbent than cotton. Because they’re more breathable and less susceptible to odorous bacteria growth, these fabrics are perfect for a sweaty gym or bikram yoga session, making them ideal for activewear.

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How does Tencel impact the environment?

As is the case with most textiles, Tencel production has both positive and negative impacts on the environment. Like cotton and bamboo, Tencel is made from plant materials. However manufacturing Tencel requires less energy and water than cotton. As a naturally derived fibre, Tencel is also biodegradable.

Lenzing says it sources its wood and pulp from certified and controlled sources like sustainably managed plantations.

The solvents used to turn the wood pulp into fibre are made using petrochemicals. However the closed loop production process, means that the solvent is recycled time and time again to produce new fibres and minimise harmful waste. Lenzing Group says the solvent recovery rate is 99%.

Although it is mixed with conventional dyes, which can be harmful to the environment, lyocell requires a lot less dye than cotton. Lenzing AG was presented with a European Award for the Environment from the European Union for developing this process, called REFIBRA™ technology.

The main concern with Tencel fabric is the use of energy during the production process. This is something that Lenzing AG have acknowledged and are working to address by increasing their use of renewable energy sources.

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 being of low risk of sourcing its products from ancient or endangered forests, or other controversial sources

A great option for active bodies

Tencel is a great alternative to synthetic activewear. It’s breathable, absorbs moisture and is soft on the skin. While it is pricier than your average workout tank top, something we always try to prioritise at Good On You is quality over quantity. If exercising is part of your daily routine, it’s worth investing in quality and 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’ rated brands that use Tencel:

Patagonia GoY-Ratings_4

Women’s Glorya Tank Top | | Ships internationally

This simple lightweight tank is designed to stay wrinkle and odour free. It’s versatile and durable making it the perfect design for your favourite gym class or a hike in the sunshine.

G-Star Raw GoY-Ratings_4

3301 Slim Jeans | | Ships internationally

G-Star’s classic 5 pockets jean is stripped down to its purest form and combines authentic details with clean styling. It’s a the perfect wardrobe staples.

Reformation GoY-Ratings_4

Becca Dress | | Ships internationally

Tencel works with more than just activewear. Reformation’s Becca Dress showcases how lyocell fabrics can be used to create both comfort and style.

Editor’s note: this article was updated in August 2018. Feature image via Lenzing. All other images via Lenzing and brands mentioned.

Kendall Benton-Collins

Author Kendall Benton-Collins

Kendall has over a decade’s experience working in environmental conservation and communication. She’s the creator of Kindness by Design and a member of the Australia/New Zealand Working Group for Fashion Revolution.

More posts by Kendall Benton-Collins

Join the discussion 9 Comments

  • Minnie says:

    That Becca Dress looks amazing! However, it’s 90% tencel and 10% spandex which means it can’t be recycled. Too bad…

  • Rosey says:

    Can you please clarify the difference between Tencel and Viscose? I understand they’re both made using wood pulp, therefore bio-degradable, but your page about Viscose says it uses a “highly-polluting process” to manufacture.
    Is the process the same for both Viscose and Tencel, except that the Tencel process re-uses the solvents for several cycles of production thereby causing less impact on the environment? Confused… please help, thanks.

    • Gordon Renouf Gordon Renouf says:

      Hi Rosey
      Tencel is a way of making a viscose like fabric that avoids most of the chemical pollution usually involved in making viscose. So yes – Tencel causes less harm to the environment. Tencel is rated a Class B material by (ie at the same level as organic cotton) compared to conventional viscose rated as Class E (the lowest class for environmental impact). Sorry if this not clear above.

      • Rosey says:

        Thanks Gordon, that definitely clarifies things for me. It would be great if you could create a page that compares the pros and cons of all different fabrics on one page on your website – sorry if that already exists I haven’t found it yet. 🙂

      • Rosey says:

        PS: thanks for the link too. It’s a pity that several fabrics aren’t classified yet on that site ( I’m also curious to know more about wool: they don’t have Merino wool in the list at all… & it would be great to have more info on how each fabric gets its rating; for example why is wool is Class E? Land use requirements, energy required to produce it, or farming methods that include cruelty (mulesing)? Please keep us posted if you share more info about fabrics.

  • Isn’t there a significant environmental impact from eucalyptus trees, particularly where they are non-indigenous? I’ve heard that they toxify the soil, so other plants won’t grow around them and that they’re bad for most wildlife when grown outside of Australia. I mean, it’s great that they don’t require a lot of pesticides, but isn’t that because they basically make their own? I’m curious about the cost of growing these materials in places like Africa and South America, and what studies have been done.

  • Livia Lubyova says:

    Some of my clothes are made from tencel, I just fell in love with the fabric. I bought a few pieces from Reformation. They are silky soft, but each type of the fabric is a bit different. I particularly like microtencel, it`s so lightweight, very stretchy and breathable. I can wear them for a few days without unpleasant odour even in very hot weather so I don`t need to wash my clothes after a single wear in heat as those made from cotton. The only thing I`d like to know is that I hope the dyes that were used are not toxic.

  • Rayna says:

    I bought a tencel tunic dress from South African brand Jane Sews. I love the weight and quality – it has some thickness to it, and it’s swingy – but it wrinkles a lot, which makes it problematic for travel or wearing on comfy, slouch-about days, despite the versatility of the style. I will still likely buy from them again, but I do wonder if all their tencel products have the same weave or quality.

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