Material Guide: How Ethical is Modal?

It can sometimes be daunting to decipher a garments green cred. This is especially true as technological advances continue to introduce a new generation of eco-fabrics. Modal is one such semi-synthetic fibre, finding fame in the age of activewear.

With the increased demand for breathable and absorbent fabrics in everyday life, this cotton alternative is 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.

With the rise in popularity of fashionable activewear, this soft and stretchy fabric is more in demand than ever. It has lead to manufacturers producing various forms of Modal to suit demand.

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. Lenzing Modal® COLOR


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How does modal impact the environment?

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.

Lenzing's innovative environmental technology

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 GoY-Ratings_4

Poppy Tee - Bottle Green by NICOPoppy Tee in Bottle Green | 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.

Threads 4 Thought GoY-Ratings_4

Modal Pullover HoodieModal Pullover Hoodie in Blue Night | Ships within the USA only

(Note: Australian eco-marketplace Thread Harvest stocks select items)

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.

Ken The Label GoY-Ratings_4

Ken The LabelBriefs, Bras and Bodysuits | Ships internationally from Australia

Ken produces lingerie and loungewear with functional and attractive silhouettes. They use Lenzing Modal in many of their pieces, combined with elastane and silk. Ken knits, dyes, cuts, sews and packs all their designs in Melbourne, Australia.

Stanley & Stella GoY-Ratings_4

Pocket Rada in ModalPocket Rada Tee | Ships to Australia and New Zealand only

Stanley & Stella use Lenzing Modal alongside GOTS certified organic cotton and recycled polyester. They’ve taken substantial steps to reduce their climate impact, including reducing water use and complying with the OEKO-TEX® Standard 100 on chemical use.

Editor’s note: Ratings are correct at time of publication.

Feature image via Pexels. Additional images via Lenzing, NICO, Fair Tees and Ken The Label.

Nikki Brogan

Author Nikki Brogan

Nikki is a writer at Good On You. She also makes radio for independent broadcaster FBi Radio and likes her clothing to look good, feel good, and be good.

More posts by Nikki Brogan

Join the discussion 13 Comments

  • Fabian says:

    Thanks for the in-depth explanation. I second Paul’s question about international brands. There are some young clothing brands here in The Netherlands that use micromodal so it would definitely be beneficial to know if they’re as sustainable as they say they are.

  • Pamela Strandquest says:

    Hi. I have become a Gudrun Sjöden customer mostly because of her use eco friendly fabrics and fair trade. They fit, they’re pretty, feel wonderful. But ARE they as sustainable as they claim? I used to never wear anything synthetic except rayon but modal and lyocell have been great new discoveries for me.

  • Pierre Schlumberger says:

    Hello,

    I don’t understand why brands don’t simply use Tencel instead of Modal, its production comes with much less harmful byproducts. I’d love to hear more about this. Also, could you shed some light as to what brands should use to get fabric for sweatpants? I’m looking for recovery and possibly will use a Tencel/recycled cotton blend. Looking for any and all advice! Thank you!

  • TCGRAY says:

    Modal is rayon. I’ve found that when cotton, rayon, and spandex or polyester are blended it’s almost certain to pill. I personally hate it for sleepwear because the pills feel like grit to me. Personally I avoid it.

  • marie rodgers says:

    i ve got a nasty red rash from wearing lingerie 95 % modal

  • Michelle says:

    Thank you for this article!

    I’m curious about the modal (& modal blend) used by the American company, Nordstrom for their Nordstrom brand undergarments & pajamas. I’ve so far traced two different countries of origin for the fabrics themselves, am concerned that they may not be as sustainable as marketed, but am not certain. Any information is greatly appreciated if you happen to know!

  • Paxton says:

    What about Calvin Klein undergarments made in Egypt? It uses the word Modal in the list of what it’s made of, along with spandex.

  • Paul N Wolinsky says:

    I’m in the states and it deems that the brands you mention using modal are only in Australia/NZ. Any in the States?

    • gordonrenouf@gmail.com says:

      Hi Paul
      Thanks for your comment. We’ll look at revising the article with additional brands from other countries!
      Best

  • Mags says:

    Enjoyed the article. Are there any companies from Europe that you can recommend, please?

    • Michelle says:

      Wolford is one of the companies that use modal as one of their main materials in their clothing they are an Austrian company

  • Carolina says:

    Thanks for this explanation! I was doing research on this because Lenzig is not inherently a bad technology, but I hadn’t thought of the other downstream processes.

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