Modal: Sustainable textile or another case of greenwashing?

Since I researched and published this post I have some concerns that I may have made a mistake based on an unreliable source. The environmental concerns I had around modal may be overstated or mistaken, and I am currently working to try and find some independent research to clarify whether this is the case.  There is little independent information on this textile, as the majority comes from industry producers, and I am reluctant to rely on their evidence alone. I consider the facts to be of the utmost importance and I will rewrite this post when I am confident of the facts and my sources. In the meantime, the passages that I am concerned about have been marked with a strike-through. You can rest assured that providing readers with the highest standards of information on sustainable textiles is of the utmost importance to me. This post will be updated as soon as I can feel confident of the information I have gathered on this textile. 

Modal is soft man-made fibre that is made from natural materials and is completely biodegradable. It is soft and strong. and is commonly used as an alternative to cotton jersey (t-shirt fabric). It is used for t-shirts, soft dresses and cardigans and just like cotton when used in this way, modal is easy to care for. It doesn’t wrinkle and it holds the quality of it’s surface well. It is also resistant to shrinkage and, for this reason, it is often seen as a much better choice than cotton.

Modal is often touted as a sustainable textile. But as we learn time and time again, the story is much more complicated.

Modal is manufactured from cellulose using chemcial processing, just as are bamboo, rayon (viscose) and lycocell. In the case of modal, the ceollulose comes from softwood trees.  The manufacturing process is closed loop, which means that the chemicals used in processing are captured and reused. The small amount of discharged is considered non-hazardous. The finished textile is biodegradable and also takes well to natural dyes, eliminating the need for more harmful chemical dyes. Although in most cases modal is still dyed with conventional chemical dyes.

Modal is manufactured from a renewable crop, so the raw material is considered carbon neutral if it is taken from a responsibly managed source. However, 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. This contribution of fashion to deforestation is so significant that the Rainforest Action Network run a global campaign- Out of Fashion– to pressure brands away from their use of unsustainable modal (along with rayon/viscose). Indonesian modal is therefore a significant contributor to climate change because Indonesia’s largest contribution to climate change is the deforestation of its vital rainforests. Modal garments manufactured in China are often made with Indonesian modal. Modal is also manufactured in North America and Europe. It is not a guarantee that modal manufactured in these regions comes from sustainably manufactured forests, but the likelihood is far greater.

So is modal another case of greenwashing? I wouldn’t got so far as to describe it that way. In most cases I think that brands who use modal, and the people that buy and wear it, genuinely do want to minimise their environmental impact. In fact, I own few garments modal when my options have been limited. In many cases modal may be the most sustainable choice, even if not ideal. A biodegradable textile is better than a synthetic one that is made from virgin petrochemicals.

If you can avoid modal garments from China or Indonesia I would do so. You don’t want your dress to contribute to deforestation if it can be avoided. But if you are looking for something very specific- such as nursing bras- and you can’t access a better option, the occassional unsustainable modal is better than resorting to synthetic. But in most cases you can avoid it by choosing modal that was manufactured in North America or Europe, or choosing different textiles altogether.

Guide to Sustainable TextilesIf you enjoyed this post and learned something new, you will learn a lot from my Guide to Sustainable Textiles. This thoroughly researched guide takes you through all the ethical and sustainability considerations in textiles to enable you to make purchase decisions that are in line with your ethics and commitment to sustainability. The 60 page guide covers all the major textiles, including leather and vegan leather alternatives, as well as a run down on textile certification systems which demonstrate sustainable processes. If you want to be able to assess the sustainability of your favourite brands, the Guide to Sustainable Textiles is a valuable resource. Prices at only $9 it is affordable and accessible too.

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  • Passport Couture

    Always wonderful to learn more about textiles and their sustainability factors from you. I knew very little about modal and it’s good to see that there are some sustainable options. I also appreciated knowing what to be aware of as far as modal from China and Indonesia is concerned. Reading your posts about textiles always makes me a much better shopper!