Are Tencel fibers the solution to fashion’s waste crisis? Potentially, but it’s complicated. What is Tencel, anyway?
When you think about plastic pollution, the first image that pops into your head might be a tragic image of a turtle with a straw stuck up its nose. Or perhaps, it’s a floating bottle in the middle of the ocean. Packaging waste is a major issue. But there’s another major source of plastic pollution: clothing.
Many of the garments hanging in our wardrobes today are made from plastic-based synthetic fibers, like polyester or nylon, and they do not biodegrade. Fast fashion produces more than 92 million tons of waste per year, and much of this will sit in a landfill, leaching all of the chemicals used to produce it into the soil for centuries. It’s an environmental disaster.
But there are alternatives for fashion brands. Tencel, for example, produces two fibers: lyocell and modal. Both are renowned for their durability, quality, and most importantly: their sustainability. The production process is far more eco-friendly than synthetic materials, and both fibers biodegrade at the end of their life.
Let’s take a closer look at what Tencel is and its benefits, but also some of its drawbacks, too.
What is Tencel?
Tencel is not a fabric, although its name has become synonymous with lyocell fibers. Tencel is actually a brand. It was first owned by Courtaulds, a British chemical company, but in 2004, it was bought by the Austrian company Lenzing, a specialist in cellulose fibers.
Today, Tencel makes two fibers. It’s most well known for its lyocell fabric, a regenerated cellulose fiber. But it also makes modal, another cellulosic fiber, often used in gym gear and other activewear. Both are similar to viscose and derived from tree pulp. But while the latter is known predominantly for its softness, the former is associated with strength and efficiency.
How is Tencel made?
Tencel makes its materials by dissolving wood pulp from trees with chemical solvents. This is then pushed through an extruder, and the fibers are formed. While lyocell and modal can both be produced by many companies, Tencel is known for paying particularly close attention to sustainability.
While, like viscose, its production process is chemically-intensive, it operates a closed-loop system. Instead of sodium hydroxide (which is toxic to the environment and to humans), Tencel uses an organic compound called N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide to treat its lyocell fibers, which, like all of its chemicals, is recovered and used again. This minimizes external pollution.
In the production of viscose, which is frequently created with bamboo, sodium hydroxide and other toxic chemicals can often be dumped into the natural environment. There, they pollute waterways, ecosystems, and harm surrounding communities.
According to Lenzing, however, its Tencel technology allows 99 percent of its chemicals to be recovered and reused.
Is Tencel really a perfect sustainable solution?
The closed-loop manufacturing process, and the fact that they are biodegradable, means that Tencel fibers are easily more sustainable than many others on the market.
It’s for this reason that Lenzing was recently awarded platinum status by EcoVadis, a leading provider of business sustainability ratings. The status puts Lenzing in the top one percent of its industry in terms of environmental responsibility and fair working conditions.
But things get complicated when Tencel’s fibers enter supply chains. How the brand’s fiber is used after it’s been produced can reduce its sustainability credentials.
For example, its website proudly states that its materials are incredibly versatile, and can be blended and combined with other fibers, including polyester. This inevitably impacts the biodegradability of a garment. Tencel’s lyocell or modal will break down, sure. But the synthetics won’t.
There is also the issue of dye. While Tencel doesn’t necessarily need to be dyed, thanks to its natural white color, that doesn’t mean it isn’t. And many conventional dyes used in the fashion industry are toxic. For example, in 2019, fast-fashion brands like Pretty Little Thing and Fashion Nova were linked to the use of AZO dyes. Research suggests these are severe health and environmental hazards, and some are even carcinogenic.
Mass industry change is essential
The problem with fashion, and particularly fast fashion, is that brand supply chains aren’t transparent.
This year, on Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index, not one single brand scored above 80 percent. Most only managed to reach 24 percent. And this means it’s difficult to know what is going on in their supply chains.
Ultimately, what this shows is that fixing fashion’s colossal waste problem and toxic environmental impact will not come from any single source. But, that said, Tencel does offer a more eco-friendly and responsible piece of the puzzle, which is a step in the right direction.
As consumers, we can look for the Tencel brand name on a tag and know that at least some of the garment has been produced responsibly. But for clothing to really become sustainable, it’s time for processes across the whole industry to step up and follow its lead.
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