While everyone knows cotton is the fabric of our lives, others haven’t quite fit into everyday vocabulary. Modal is one of them. This silky-soft fabric is made from plants and is a favorite with athleisurewear and intimate apparel brands. But, it’s also man-made, so is it truly environmentally friendly?
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What Is Modal?
Modal is a particular type of rayon, a fiber made from cellulose (a plant fiber). This man-made textile is sourced from the pulp of beech trees. Soft and with a luxurious smooth finish, it’s often used for loungewear, intimates, and bedsheets. Part of its appeal is that it’s breathable and has cooling properties -making it ideal for the sheets you’ll pull out in summer or your favorite activewear basics. Often, it’s blended with cotton to make it more durable.
Originating in Japan in the 1950s, most of the fabric produced today comes from the Austrian company Lenzing AG, which has the trademark for its fabric brands Lenzing Modal, China Modal, and Formatex. Other types of modals- MicroModal and Modal Air by Lenzing- are a finer knit which makes them softer and more luxurious.
How Is Modal Made?
It all begins with beech trees. These trees are characterized by their short sturdy trunks, wide-spreading branches, and light gray bark. To make modal, the trees are harvested, chopped into chips, and the cellulose is extracted. Next, the cellulose is made into sheets that are soaked in various liquids like sodium hydroxide. Through a series of steps, these cellulose sheets are broken into smaller pieces and soaked in other solutions to create fibers to form yarn. The created fibers are soaked in sulfuric acid to form yarn. From there, the yarn is washed, bleached, dyed, and spun onto spools to be woven into a fabric.
What Are Modal’s Eco-Benefits?
Unlike other manmade fabrics like nylon or polyester, modal is 100% biodegradable. That means while plastic-based fabrics like polyester can take hundreds of years to decompose, modal can take as little as twenty years. It is also known for absorbing dyes quickly, even plant-based and natural dyes. When compared with plant-based materials like cotton, it has the added eco-benefit of requiring 10-20 less water to produce.
From a wearer’s standpoint modal is smooth to the touch and is a great material to wear again and again, because it doesn’t pill as easily as other fabrics. As mentioned before, it’s breathable. And, it’s 50% more absorbent than materials like cotton, which make it an ideal material during warmer months. Not to mention that its stretchy and durable with a strong weave that makes it great material option for active-wear basics.
Is It Bad For The Environment?
The biggest negative impact of rayon and other fabrics made from cellulose is that entire forests are lost. Each year we lose a disturbing 150 million trees to produce rayon fabrics. Because of this unsustainable use of resources we’ve lost nearly 80% of the world’s ancient forests.
The other negative environmental impact comes from the chemicals used to turn the wood fibers into soft pulp. Toxic chemicals used throughout this process leave workers exposed to harm and local waterways become polluted from the runoff chemicals. These chemicals also pollute the air during the production process and can release sulfur, nitrous oxides, and chlorine into the atmosphere.
There are ways to sustainably produce modal as a way to offset the negative impacts. Companies like Re:newcell recycle previously used cotton and viscose to create new textile fibers. Organizations like the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) ensure sustainable forest management of the trees used for fabrics. And the EU ECOlabel ensures that modal fabrics have been created with sustainable methods to use resources efficiently and restrict the use of harmful chemicals.
How Do You Care For Modal Clothing?
This fabric maintains its shape fairly well so it’s not a difficult one to care for. In fact, caring for modal is fairly similar to how you’d launder cotton or linen. Simply wash it in cold water using a gentle detergent. For delicate items, you can place them in a mesh garment bag before placing them into the washer machine. As always, if you want to maintain the life of clothes and reduce your carbon footprint opt for air drying instead of using a clothes dryer.
So, Is Modal Sustainable?
Like most things in the sustainable fashion industry, there are positives and negatives when it comes to the environmental impact of a particular item. Much like how organic cotton can alleviate some of the water waste, pollution, and labor issues that plague conventional cotton, sustainably sourced modal is an environmentally friendly alternative. Certifications like FSC, Ecolabel, and OekoTex 100 help to ensure the modal has been sustainably sourced and produced. Other certifications like B Corporation look at the company as a whole and let customers know that brands are making balanced decisions to positively impact their communities while still making a profit.
Of course, if you’re unsure whether or not a brand’s modal is sustainably sourced, reach out to them with your concerns to let them know that you love and support them, but you just gotta know if their materials are sustainable.