Tencel Clothing: The New Cotton?

Tencel clothing has become a go-to solution for many eco clothing brands in recent years. We explain what it is and what makes it so popular.

A popular fabric among eco clothing brands as well as consumers, Tencel is a set of very versatile fibers that can be found in anything from bed sheets and casual clothes to underwear and activewear. It’s also soft. Very soft. According to one recent evaluation, Tencel clothing is softer than cotton. Of course, there’s much more to Tencel than versatility and this special softness. The fabric is light, doesn’t wrinkle easily, and has good color retention properties. It’s breathable, too, and unfavorable for bacterial growth, which makes it particularly suitable for activewear. Most importantly, however, Tencel clothing is said to be sustainable. But is it really sustainable or is it just more sustainable than the alternatives? 

tencel clothing photo of forest used to make eco clothes

And What Is It Exactly?

Like Band-Aids and bandages or Kleenex and tissue, Tencel is actually a brand name. It consists of two fibers made from wood pulp that belong to the viscose family called lyocell and modal. These fibers are obtained by dissolving wood pulp in a chemical solvent to produce a wet mixture that is then dried and pushed through small holes to form threads, which are ultimately woven into cloth.

The versatility of Tencel fibers as blending partners with other fibers can enhance the aesthetics and functionality of fabrics for several different applications. This means that the material can be combined with many other fibers, including cotton, wool, silk, and polyester. But it can also be used on its own. One of the  eco clothing brands we work with, Basic Rights, offers many products that are made of 100% Tencel. With a strong emphasis on circularity, theeco clothing brand believes in “style over fashion” and only produces small batches of clothes so as to limit waste. Where possible, it uses recycled or deadstock fabrics, otherwise relying on more sustainable alternatives like Tencel.

aerial photograph of trees used to make tencel clothing

While Tencel does have a natural origin (it’s made from wood), the finished fibers don’t qualify as natural fibers. They’re considered man-made because the wood pulp is chemically dissolved and then extracted. As a result, rather than “natural” or “synthetic” fibers, the textile industry calls Tencel “regenerated cellulose.” Question now is, does this make Tencel clothing any less sustainable?

Pure but Man-Made 

Natural or not, Tencel is arguably produced more sustainably than other similar fabrics, including natural fibers like cotton. Compared to cotton production, making Tencel requires less energy and 20% less water  according to some studies, and generates less waste as both water and chemicals get recycled during the production process. In fact, 99% of chemicals and solvents used in Tencel production processes are recovered and recycled, which also results in lower exposure to toxic chemicals for garment workers. This production process has earned Tencel  the European Award for the Environment  from the European Union.

While 30% of similar fibers used by fashion companies come from endangered or ancient forests, the wood pulp used to make Tencel comes from trees from sustainably harvested forests. One of the things this implies is that, for every tree cut down to make Tencel clothing, another tree is planted to replace it. Like other plant-derived fibers, Tencel is biodegradable and compostable. However, its disposal remains fully sustainable only as long as it hasn’t been mixed with unnatural dyes or synthetic fibers. If it has, the dye or other fibers end up in the soil together with the biodegradable Tencel. The good news here is that Tencel doesn’t necessarily have to be dyed.

photo of pure white tencel used to make tencel clothing

A Step in the Right Direction

Despite not being fully natural, Tencel’s overall footprint on the environment is likely lower than that of most alternatives, whether synthetic or natural. It’s also softer, more versatile, and more breathable, and rates better with consumers. It’s made more sustainably and enjoys growing popularity not only among brands but also within mainstream fashion.

basic rights jacket tencel clothing

Still, Tencel clothing needs to be produced and more often than not, it needs to be dyed; wood still needs to be cut and transported — and so do the end products, sometimes from one end of the world to another. All this requires energy, water and chemicals, among other things. Tencel just requires less than other fibers. And while we should of course be grateful for an innovation like Tencel and do our part by opting for it instead of less sustainable alternatives, we mustn’t forget that we’re still a long way from achieving sustainability in fashion. Tencel is just one of the steps in the right direction.

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