It’s been praised as one of the more eco-friendly textiles, but it’s also been criticized as another instance of greenwashing. Regardless, modal fabric has got people talking.
A breathable and semi-synthetic fabric, modal fabric boasts being made of sustainable materials. Increasingly found in underwear, robes, and bedding, it’s about time consumers got acquainted with the fabric.
Soft and easy to care for, it’s unlikely that those who use modal fabric will have complaints. The sustainability of modal fabric is complicated, though. For all its benefits, a darker side may lie underneath.
What Is Modal Fabric?
Modal fabric, a type of rayon, was first developed in Japan in the 1950s as a silk alternative and is made from harvested beech trees. Also called “high wet modulus” rayon, the fabric is similar to the more traditional viscose rayon. It boasts multiple differences from viscose rayon, however, such as being stronger and more breathable. It also boasts a higher water resistance.
Modal is considered a “semi-synthetic” or “natural synthetic” fabric, since the beech tree pulp is mixed with other materials, commonly carbon disulfide. The process gives the resulting fabric a silky smooth feel while making it last longer. With its plant-based materials, no animal products are used in its creation, so modal fabric is vegan. It is also cruelty free. No animal testing takes place during modal’s production. Premium sustainable fashion brands use it regularly because of these eco-friendly qualities.
Who Manufactures Modal Fabric?
Lenzing AG, an Austrian company, leads the way in modal production and the harvesting of beech trees for the process, with Lenzing modal being a popular brand. Dedicated to sustainability, the company uses a closed loop production system to create modal rayon in which they reuse anything that can be applied to subsequent processes. These sustainable practices are highlighted by Lenzing’s primary brand, TENCEL. Not only does the brand recycle water, but TENCEL modal—or Lenzing modal—also reuses 99% of the solvents used in production. Overall, this manufacturer’s production process is as carbon neutral as it gets.
Lenzing modal is far from the only option, however. There are multiple others across Europe and beyond, with many modal textile manufacturers being dispersed throughout the following Asian countries:
- The Philippines
These modal fabric worldwide manufacturing centers can be found under various brand names, including Formatex, MicroModal, China Modal, and Modal Micro Air.
How Is Modal Fabric Produced?
The rayon family isn’t typically considered an environmentally friendly or sustainable fabric because the rayon production process involves a great deal of waste and pollution. Modal rayon fabrics differ, however, because modal production doesn’t involve these harmful processes, but uses harvested beech trees instead.
A complex production process turns wood chips from beech trees into cellulose, which then forms sheets. These sheets are submerged in sodium hydroxide, which is the part of the process that earns criticism from environmental activists. Sodium hydroxide is a toxic chemical and partly comprises the waste from fabric industries.
Unlike viscose rayon, which has received plenty of criticism for this, much less sodium hydroxide is needed for modal rayon fabrics, meaning less toxic waste. After breaking down in the solution, the resulting crumb-size pieces are mixed with carbon disulfide to create sodium cellulose xanthate. The substance is then immersed in sodium hydroxide again, before being put through a spinneret.
Sulfuric acid is then used on the modal fibers to create the finished material. The modal rayon fabric is now ready to create various modal clothes and other products. Depending on the specific type of product it’s used to make, you can assume that a fair amount of bleaching, washing, and dying will be involved.
What Is Modal Fabric Used For?
Modal fabric is quickly emerging as a textile giant and is increasingly used to make a wide variety of products in a number of industries.
Modal fabric is used in the fashion industry for multiple reasons, not the least of which being its smooth feeling. Thanks to this smooth feel and luxurious appearance, it’s a natural alternative to fashion’s traditional fabrics. The sustainability and vegan factors are added bonuses on top of this. In the fashion industry, consumers wear modal fabric as T-shirts, bras, activewear, pajamas, and more.
Seen as a vegan and inherently sustainable alternative to synthetics, modal is becoming increasingly used by eco-friendly brands:
- Amour Vert
- Threads 4 Thought
- Organic Basics
- Paneros Clothing
Modal fabric is also growing in use around the home. The many beneficial properties of modal fabric make it an ideal material for pillows and bedding, towels, and bed sheets, as well as upholstery, furniture, carpets, curtains, and even home decor.
What Are Its Properties?
So what’s so great about modal that it’s infiltrating all these markets? Well, modal fabrics are quite unique. They look and feel like luxury fabric and boast many of the same properties as silk.
Modal fabric feel
It’s soft, comfortable, and lightweight. That’s been the primary motivator for its use in the fashion industry, as it feels and looks similar to cotton.
Durable and breathable
Its durability and breathability, thanks to its tight weave, has also made modal appropriate for the activewear and fitness industry. Modal fabric can withstand repeated wash cycles, making it a better material for fitness clothing than cotton. These same properties also make modal clothing less likely to shrink than cotton. Also unlike cotton, modal resists wrinkles, and most modal fabric resists pilling, as well, making it a recommended fabric for everyday use.
Absorbent and dries quickly
With benefits such as these, it should come as no surprise that modal fabric has emerged as a semi-synthetic alternative for pajamas and bedding.
Cheaper than other textiles
Modal typically requires fewer costs to manufacture and sell, and consumers will reap the benefits of this low cost at the cash register.
A few downsides
Modal fabric is not without its kryptonite, however. It doesn’t stand up well in sunlight and doesn’t sustain heat as well as cotton or other semi-synthetic fabrics. It’s also known to discolor because the fabric absorbs dye, and it occasionally causes textile—or clothing—dermatitis, which presents in allergic reactions. The condition is caused by the dyes and other chemicals used in modal fabric’s production process.
How Sustainable Is Modal Fabric?
As its rising popularity would suggest, modal fabric boasts multiple benefits. Its durability and smooth feel are the tip of the iceberg. Modal has a lower environmental impact than alternatives, with modal fabric needing 10–20 times less water to produce than cotton. Yields also produce 10 times as much fabric, so less land is needed to make the same amount.
Modal is also biodegradable and compostable, so environmental impact is minimal, a fact enhanced by its longevity and durability.
But modal fabric’s overall sustainability is contested. It’s seen as an environmentally friendly and sustainable fabric, but how sustainable is it really? Critics claim that it mightn’t be as sustainable as consumers are led to believe, unless it meets certain criteria, explained below.
By all indications, it uses up less land per ton and releases fewer chemicals into the environment. In comparison to alternatives, it would seem the more attractive option. It’s not as harm free as may be expected, though, particularly when it comes to chemicals and deforestation.
Modal fabric is created using cellulose from softwood trees, but it’s not without chemical additions. To minimize dangerous chemical waste, modal manufacturing uses a closed-loop process in which the waste from one batch of fabric is reused in the subsequent batch. The chemicals used in modal’s production are known to be harmful and include, though, and some of these chemicals are concerning:
- Carbon disulphide
- Sodium hydroxide
The closed-loop system prevents these harmful effects, for the most part, and eliminates the chemical impact seen in other forms of rayon, cotton, and other fabrics.
While there is a small amount discharged during this process, it’s considered nonhazardous. The finished textile is also biodegradable and doesn’t release any toxins into the environment. Its chemical impact on the environment is minimal.
Biodiversity and forests
Modal fabric needs much less land per ton to be produced, limiting the deforestation necessary to sustain the product. In turn, that removes the biodiversity impact that many fabrics have on the environment, especially in the fashion industry. Modal is also produced in a carbon-neutral way and from a renewable crop, minimizing the amount of land needed to produce it long-term.
Pulp from beech trees used in modal fabric is harvested in forests certified as sustainable by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). An industry standard, PEFC outlines sustainable forest management standards based on a region’s unique geography. Modal fabrics with this certification—which are farmed from over 300 million hectares of land—are certified as following these sustainability standards.
While there are a couple of concerns about modal fabric’s sustainability, overall it does seem to be a more sustainable alternative to traditional textiles.
How Does Modal Compare to Other Fabrics?
Modal vs. cotton
Modal fabric is regularly compared to cotton, as both have a soft and silky feel when fully processed and are used for similar purposes, such as for underwear and loungewear.
That’s about the extent of their similarities, however. Modal is more durable and tolerates more washing without fading, while cotton is more breathable and retains heat better than modal.
These two fabrics have different environmental impacts as well. While both are biodegradable, modal fabric uses more sustainable production practices, and cotton’s growth and production processes aren’t eco-friendly. Modal’s durability and longevity also adds to its environmental friendliness, as it needs to be replaced less often. Not quite zero waste perhaps, but there’s certainly less waste involved.
Speaking of waste, ten times less water is used in modal’s production than cotton, reducing the textile industry’s burden on natural resources. This water saving applies to both the beech tree growth and the fabric manufacturing processes, with TENCEL modal needing less land per ton than cotton.
Modal vs. bamboo
Modal and bamboo fabrics are both seen as breathable and absorbent fabrics, while also being sustainable and environmentally friendly. That’s where the similarities end, though. As the names suggest, they’re made from entirely different materials, which results in different features:
- Look—Modal fabrics drape a body more fittingly and are more densely packed, resulting in a thinner overall fabric.
- Feel—While both materials are soft, modal has a smoother and silkier feel, making it more appropriate for sleepwear.
- Maintenance—Modal needs less maintenance than bamboo, making the care for modal is easier. It’s also more resistant to fading and damage, and can even be put in a washing machine, whereas bamboo can’t.
- Temperature—Modal fabric retains less heat than bamboo, making it a recommended option for warmer climates. Bamboo is the better option for colder climates, however.
Modal vs. nylon
Modal and nylon have several similarities, especially their look and feel. There are some distinct differences between them, too, with their environmental impact being one of the more notable. Nylon’s manufacturing process is one of the more energy intensive, driving carbon emissions and harming the environment.
The process also releases nitrous oxide, which is known to be more harmful than carbon dioxide. In fact, it has up to 300 times the potency, compounding its impact on the environment. Though both modal fabric and nylon can have a soft feel, modal is by far the more eco-friendly alternative.
Modal vs. polyester
While modal fabric is a semi-synthetic fabric, polyester is completely synthetic, which is the beginning of the two fabrics’ differences. Modal is biodegradable and offers a more breathable and softer feel, while also being more absorbent. On the other hand, polyester is more durable, lasts longer, and is more durable.
The environmental impacts of modal and polyester are also drastically different. Polyester is not biodegradable, so it doesn’t decompose in landfills. It can also shed toxic microfibers and microplastics as it does degrade, with 1,900 fibers being washed off standard polyester clothing every year. Polyester is a petroleum-based fabric, with over 70 million barrels of oil being used to make it every year.
On an environmental scale, modal fabric takes the win.
Modal vs. other forms of rayon
Modal, a type of rayon, is regularly compared to other fabrics within that category, such as lyocell and viscose rayon. Modal fabric boasts multiple differences to both viscose rayon and lyocell, despite the similarities in the production process.
Modal fabrics last longer and are more durable, while also being lighter and more breathable than its counterparts. It also boasts being more environmentally friendly and sustainable than both options, although TENCEL lyocell may be more eco-friendly than modal. Lyocell is made from plant-based materials, such as eucalyptus and beech trees, making it the more eco-friendly option. It’s the most organic form of rayon consumers can choose and replaces modal’s sodium hydroxide with an organic solution.
Despite this, modal fabrics need fewer harmful chemicals during production than most rayon fabrics, which reduces its environmental impact. As fewer acres are needed to produce it, its contribution to deforestation is also minimal.
Many environmental certifications that apply to other fabrics apply to modal fabric. They’re an easy and effective way of determining whether a fabric is sustainable. Be on the lookout for the following certifications:
- Oeko-Tex—Focusing on harmful substances and toxins, Oeko-Tex certification guarantees a fabric doesn’t harm humans. It also guarantees that fabrics are made in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way.
- Forest Stewardship Council—Sustainable forest management is integral to reducing carbon emissions, combating deforestation, and protecting ecosystems. With Forest Stewardship Council certification, a fabric is made using responsible forest management techniques. A similar certification comes from the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification.
- EU Ecolabel—A European Union trademark, the EU Ecolabel certifies a service’s or product’s environmental performance and eco-quality. It’s awarded to a service or product that has a lower environmental impact than alternatives.
The Sustainability of Modal Fabric: Wrapping Up
Though it has its issues, modal fabric is seen as one of the more environmentally sustainable and eco-friendly fabrics available. With modal’s various uses in such categories as loungewear and activewear, it can easily replace many of the more harmful textiles.
If you’re in need of a durable, lightweight fabric with a fancy feel to it that won’t damage the environment, look for modal fabric on the tag of your next purchase.