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Is Lyocell a Sustainable Fabric?

It’s not perfect but lyocell is more sustainable than most new fabrics

There is no question that discarded or secondhand fabric are our most sustainable options. Even if a manufacturer is extraordinarily careful about sourcing and production, they’re still extracting resources and omitting waste. That is not to say that all new fabrics deserve the same shame. As far as I can tell, lyocell is one of the most sustainable virgin fabrics you can find.

modern darling Lyocell fabric pants and secondhand shirt
modern darling Lyocell fabric pants and secondhand shirt

What makes lyocell sustainable?

A relatively new invention, lyocell has only been around for about 30 years. It is made through a similar process as its predecessors rayon and modal: wood pulp undergoes chemical processing and physical manipulation until it can be woven or knit into a textile. Due to the use of natural raw materials (wood pulp) and synthetic processing these fibers are considered neither natural nor synthetic. Lyocell is more sustainable than rayon and modal, however, because the chemical processing is non-toxic (to your skin and the earth when it inevitably winds up in a landfill) and 99.5% of the dissolving agent can be used again and again so it requires a lot less water (as little as half of what cotton production requires).

modern darling Lyocell fabric pants and modern darling wool shirt
modern darling Lyocell fabric pants and modern darling wool shirt

Sustainability of lyocell production varies

Lyocell is especially sustainable when the raw material is sourced responsibly. Eucalyptus and bamboo are great options as they grow quickly without much irrigation or pesticides. Even these materials, however, can have a detrimental impact on the environment, when native and biodiverse forests are destroyed to farm them. Lyocell also gets sustainability points for its ability to absorb liquid, dry quickly, and resist odors. With these attributes a garment can be washed less and ultimately worn more than quick-to-stink synthetic alternatives.

What are other benefits of lyocell?

Sustainability aside, I really like lyocell for its drape (how it falls on the body), its hand (the feeling of it against the skin), and it’s weight. It flows so beautifully around the curves of the body but is heavy enough to be a suitable pant. 

Furthermore, Lenzing, the inventor of lyocell (branded as Tencel) promises transparency, which is necessary if we are going to build a humane and environmentally sustainable alternative to fast fashion within the confines of global capitalism. 

It’s important to be wary of greenwashing, but in a world where many garment and textile manufactures don’t consider sustainability at all, there is something to be said for supporting manufacturers that at least attempt sustainable production. Although secondhand and recycled textiles are more sustainable options, I don’t think they could support the clothing needs of 7.6 billion people, even if we drastically reduced our current buying habits. The long term solution to our fast fashion nightmare is inevitably going to include some virgin textiles. Lyocell lays the groundwork for what that could look like, and that is something I’m proud to put my dollar towards.