26 May

Material Guide: How Ethical Is Modal?

Modal is a semi-synthetic fibre that’s found fame in the age of activewear. But as technological advances continue to introduce a new generation of eco-fabrics, it can  be daunting to decipher a garment’s green credibility. Modal is one such fabric.

This cotton alternative is breathable and absorbent. It’s used in the manufacture of underwear, pyjamas, bathrobes, bed sheets and more. Although many brands use modal as a green alternative, the fabric may not be as sustainable a choice as you’ve been lead to believe.

What do we mean by modal?

Modal fibre is the generic name for a semi-synthetic rayon, which was originally developed in Japan in 1951. Today one of the best-known producers of modal is the Austrian company Lenzing AG, who market their version under the name Lenzing Modal®. Lenzing Modal is protected by a global certification system which is registered worldwide.

What is modal and how is it made?

Breathable and silky smooth to the touch, modal is around 50% more water-absorbent per unit volume than cotton. Boasting similar properties to other cellulose fibres, it’s designed to absorb the dye and stay colour-fast when washed in warm water, making it a popular choice in the manufacture of underwear and activewear alike.

With an impressive resistance to shrinkage and pilling, it’s worth noting that modal may be used on its own or in a textile blend.The manufacturing process involves spinning reconstituted cellulose from beech trees. The wood fibres are pulped into liquid form and then forced through tiny holes, creating the fibre. This is then woven together to make the modal fabric.

How does modal impact the environment?

It depends. Lenzing has developed innovative environmental processes for the manufacture of Lenzing Modal which are not commercially available to others. These non-toxic technologies have allowed Lenzing to recover up to 95% of Modal’s production materials, minimising emissions and conserving resources.

The environmental footprint of Lenzing Modal is a positive one – it’s carbon-neutral, requires less land per tonne than cotton fibres and has a water consumption level that’s ten to twenty times less than that of cotton. Many brands, therefore, see Modal as an eco-friendly choice.

So why then has modal received a lower Class D rating from materials experts Made-By?

Made-By is a leading expert in the sustainability impacts of fibres. Their widely respected Environmental Benchmark for Fibres  ranks fibres for their sustainability impact – Class A have the least negative impact and Class E the most. Whilst the trademarked Lenzing Modal is harvested from sustainably managed beech tree plantations in Austria and surrounding European countries, the origins of other modal fibres on the market are often less transparent. For example, less reputable manufacturers have been accused by the Rainforest Action Network of forest destruction in Indonesia. According to sustainable fashion commentator Summer Edwards, “modal that has been produced in Indonesia is known to be manufactured with plantation woodstock that is grown in areas of rainforest that have been clear-felled to make way for monocrop timber plantations”. Modal garments manufactured in China are often made with Indonesian modal.

A key factor in all of this is that Lenzing does not produce ready to wear fabrics. Instead, the company sells yarns to mills and manufacturers who in turn make fabrics. The environmental impact involved in weaving fibres into fabrics can be significant, with conventional methods using high levels of water and chemicals.

Recommendations

It is important to consider both the fibre and the weaving, cutting and transportation process when thinking about the sustainability of a fabric. Be sure to choose brands with transparent production processes to make sure you’re making the most ethical choice.

Here are some brands using modal that we’ve rated as ‘Good’ in the Good On You app:

NICO Underwear

Rated: Good

Bodysuit Black – Ships Internationally from Australia.

NICO carries a great range of mix and match basics, swimwear and underwear. They’ve demonstrated their commitment to sustainability and transparency. In fact, NICO was the first underwear brand to achieve Ethical Clothing Australia accreditation. They use Lenzing Modal in a range of items, with a portion of the modal knitted and dyed in Australia.

See the rating.

Shop NICO Underwear.

Threads 4 Thought

Rated: Good

Venus Tank Red – Ships Internationally from USA

Threads 4 Thought is an American casual and activewear brand that cares about its workers and the environment. They employ manufacturers who are either Fairtrade certified or Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP) certified. You can find a wide range of hoodies, tops and dresses made from Lenzing Modal.

See the rating.

TAMGA Designs

Rated: Great

Journey V-Neck Tee – Ships Internationally from USA

Offers

TAMGA Designs – Dresses

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TAMGA Designs – Tops

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TAMGA Designs – Kimonos

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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 made from 100% Lenzing Modal.

See the rating.

Editor's note: Feature image by Unsplash. Good On You has big plans for ethical fashion in 2019! To support our work, we may earn a commission on sales made using our offers code or affiliate links.

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