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.
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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.
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.
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:
Poppy 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
Modal Pullover Hoodie in Blue Night | Ships within the USA only
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
Briefs, 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
Pocket 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.