You may have seen the name ‘Tencel’ knocking around the sustainability space. Tencel is a business with their toes dipped in both fashion and science. They have their own trademarked fibres including ‘Lyocell’ and ‘Modal’ – both made from wood. Their slogan vows to “define a new standard of sustainability”; but do they?
Tencel fibres are created by wood being chopped and made into pulp, then ‘transformed’ into cellulosic fibres. The fibres are used to create their own Tencel branded fabric, or to create part of a blended fabric through being combined with cotton, polyester, acrylic, wool or silk.
What is Tencel fabric like?
100% Lyocell fabric is strong and long lasting, yet soft and breathable and less prone to wrinkles and creasing than cotton. It will retain strength and softness if washed correctly but it does have a tendency to pill.
As we have discussed previously on this blog, in order for clothing to be sustainable it needs to be high quality. The more times clothing is worn the more sustainable it becomes. By description, Tencel does seem to tick these boxes.
Where does Tencel come from?
Tencel claims their fibres are produced by “environmentally responsible processes” from sustainably sourced” wood from Austria and neighbouring countries.
Tencel describe their wood-derived fibres as “cellulosic fibres of botanic origin”. Wood is a plant fibre so like organic cotton, it is inherently renewable, compostable and biodegradable. In practice this ‘biodegradable’ quality can be achieved by recycling, incinerating or digesting in sewage. According to Organic Clothing Blogs, in waste treatment plants the Lyocell fibre should completely degrade in 8 days!
It therefore can create a cycle where the fabric reverts back to nature in a healthy way. Naturally sourced fibres are generally better for the planet because of these qualities.
However Tencel occupies a new space as a “bio-based material” – not entirely natural, but definitely not synthetic either.
The non-natural element comes in the processing. In order for the wood pulp to be ‘transformed’ into fibre it is dissolved in a chemical solvent and pushed through an extruder, meaning it is not as natural as cotton production which does not require this chemical treatment.
This process requires energy and workers may be exposed to harsh chemicals and dyes, especially because the fabric doesn’t always “accept dyes well” according to Organic Clothing Blogs. Lyocell has “a relatively low surface energy, which makes it difficult for dyes to bind to it”. Heavy use of “chemical processes, enzyme baths and dye treatments” that could be toxic, mean the production of this fibre has the potential to be environmentally damaging.
However, Tencel claim that their production process operates as a ‘closed loop’ system, meaning material waste is recycled and reused using circular principles.
“The MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) for Lyocell rates the amine oxide solvent used to digest the wood pulp as being non-toxic and about 99% is recovered and recycled during the manufacturing process.” – Organic Clothing Blogs
Compare Ethics also reports that Tencel processes produce low emissions. So in terms of sustainability and production, things are looking pretty good!
Is Tencel mainstream or niche?
Because of its potential to be used as a blend, it is versatile and could help fast fashion become more sustainable while remaining largely the same in terms of business model, still targeting the cheaper price point. Tencel has been adopted by high street retailers including H&M, who produce cheap and accessible clothing.
However, in offering itself as a fibre combinable with cheaper plastic-based fibres, Tencel panders to these fast fashion giants instead of demanding them to change their practices. By making small sustainable changes here and there, fast fashion giants avoid being held accountable for their unethical and unsustainable practices. There are inherent problems in the hyper consumerist model of the fast fashion industry that adopting a small percentage of a sustainable fibre simply cannot fix.
On the other side of the argument, if the demand for Tencel grew, could its sustainable sourcing keep up? Trees are renewable but they grow incredibly slowly and Austrian forests are only so large. Trees an incredibly vital resource for the planet and to counteract climate change, they must be protected and supported, not deforested to create clothing. This is something which Tencel would need to be mindful of if their production was scaled up.
Plus, blending with poly/acrylic fibres still creates an unsustainable fabric that produces microplastics which pollute water systems and the planet. In conclusion, Tencel as a concept is great, but its sustainability depends on its usage.