What is Modal? Material Guide, Ethics and Sustainability
31 Jan

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 led 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’s widely respected Environmental Benchmark for Fibres ranked 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, according to the nonprofit Canopy. 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”.

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.

As a consumer, it’s hard to know where the modal used in your clothes come from.

How does modal compare to other rayon fabrics?

Modal is often compared to other types of rayon, like viscose or lyocell.

Although the production for modal and viscose are similar, the resulting modal fibres are much stronger (especially when wet), but also lighter and more breathable. What’s more, modal is considered better for the environment than viscose, since less chemicals are needed to produce it.

It is said, however, that lyocell is even more environmentally-friendly since it’s made using an organic solution that replaces the sodium hydroxide used in modal production.

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 are rated ‘Good’ by Good On You:

Beaumont Organic

Rated: Good
women wearing black modal jumpsuit from beaumont organic

Margaret Modal Jumpsuit – Ships internationally

Beaumont Organic is a UK-based slow fashion brand that blends simple style with ethical production practices. Founded by Hannah Beaumont-Laurencia, the brand also has its own charitable foundation which supports people in Fiji.

See the rating.

Shop Beaumont Organic.

The R Collective

Rated: Great

Cotton and Modal Donovan Tank – Ships internationally

The R Collective's womenswear collections are made by reusing rescued excess materials from leading luxury brands and reputable manufacturers. The brand uses a high-proportion of eco-friendly materials, which limits the amount of chemicals, water and wastewater used in production. It also ensures the payment of a living wage in its supply chain, which is why we rated it 'Great'!

See the rating.

Shop The R Collective.

Shop The R Collective @ ourCommonplace.

LANIUS

Rated: Good

Modal Top – Ships internationally

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tied blue skirt by sustainable fashion brand LANIUS

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striped ethical pants by LANIUS brand

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“Love Fashion, Think Organic, Be Responsible” are the maxims of Lanius. It uses eco-friendly materials, like GOTS certified cotton. All Lanius facilities are SA8000 certified and it is a member of the Fair Wear Foundation.

See the rating.

Shop Lanius.

In addition to choosing a more ethical and sustainable fabric, it is important to take care of your modal clothes once you’ve bought them. In fact, it is best to wash your item with cold water and dry it on low to medium heat. Bonus point, contrary to other rayon fabrics, modal doesn’t easily lose its shape and doesn’t need dry cleaning. As always, check the item’s washing instructions as these may vary.

Learn more about sustainable and ethical materials.

Editor's note

feature image via The R Collective, all other images via brands mentioned. Good On You publishes the world's most comprehensive ratings of fashion brands’ impact on people, the planet and animals. Use the Directory to search more than 2,000 brands. To support our work, we may earn a commission on sales made using our offer codes or affiliate links.

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