Modal: Sustainable textile or another case of greenwashing?
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 chemical processing, just as are bamboo, rayon (viscose) and lyocell. In the case of modal, the cellulose 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, the modal supply chain is known to utilise woodstock that is grown in areas of rainforest that have been clear-felled to make way for mono-crop timber plantations, as well as using the ancient woodstock. 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). Some modal in the supply chain is therefore a significant contributor to climate change because Indonesia’s largest contribution to climate change is the deforestation of its vital rainforests.
I faced some push back on the earlier version of this article, from a designer in the sustainable fashion space who uses modal, and who asserted that only beechwood could be used to produce modal. This led me to do some additional digging on the issue, and I spoke directly with the Briannala Morgan, of the Rainforest Action Network for her clarification on the issue.
Destructive plantations in Indonesia produce dissolving pulp, which is manufactured into all wood -based fabrics, including modal. You mention that only beechwood is used to produce modal — this is not accurate — rainforest pulp is also used. It’s impossible to separate modal from rayon and viscose when discussing it’s environmental and social impacts.
I heard the same from Canopy, another global NGO that campaigns on forest protection. They also run a certification process that audits textile producer supply chains and ranks them for their commitment to eliminating unsustainable woodstock from their supply chain.
So is modal another case of greenwashing? I wouldn’t got so far as to describe it that way. In many cases the brands who use modal, and the people that buy and wear it, genuinely want to minimise their environmental impact. In fact, I own few garments made from modal, which I purchased when my options have been limited, and from when I mistakenly believed that modal was more sustainable than it seems to be. In some cases modal may well be the most sustainable choice, even if not ideal. A biodegradable textile is better than a synthetic one that is made from virgin petrochemicals.
However, as I rule I do try to avoid modal when I have alternatives, and would recommend that you consider this too. The lack of transparency in the supply chain makes it difficult to ensure that the modal you are wearing is not implicated in deforestation. But if you are looking for something very specific- such as nursing bras- and you can’t access a better option, the occasional unsustainable modal is better than resorting to synthetic textiles. But in most cases you can modal by choosing a different textile entirely.
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