How Sustainable Are TENCEL™ Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

How Sustainable Are TENCEL™ Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

By
Quynh Nguyen

Read Time:16 Minutes

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TENCEL™ is a fabric trademark that has become a common fabric for many products. The Austrian company Lenzing AG trademarked TENCEL™ for their two rayon fabrics: TENCEL™ Modal and TENCEL™ Lyocell. However, the term “Tencel” is often used interchangeably for only lyocell, one of the more sustainable fabrics. So we had to ask: How sustainable are TENCEL™ fabrics?

TENCEL™ Modal and TENCEL™ Lyocell are generally sustainable fabrics. Lenzing AG, the company that trademarked TENCEL™, uses closed-loop and integrated manufacturing processes, which recover chemical substances and energy. Also, the raw materials used for TENCEL™ mostly come from renewable resources.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of TENCEL™ fabrics (TENCEL™ Modal and TENCEL™ Lyocell) used for clothes and bedding. Then, we evaluate their sustainability, potential, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable products made with TENCEL™ fabrics. 

Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of TENCEL™ Fabrics

TENCEL™ fabrics are generally sustainable and some of the most sustainable rayon fabrics. These breathable, durable fabrics mainly come from renewable raw materials. Also, the manufacturing processes recycle chemicals and energy, reducing the overall environmental impacts. 

Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”

Oxford Dictionary

TENCEL™ Modal and TENCEL™ Lyocell are two types of semi-synthetic fabric made with regenerated cellulose fibers extracted from wood (beech and eucalyptus).

There are three groups of regenerated cellulose fibers or so-called rayon: 

  • Viscose, or the 1st generation of rayon
  • Modal, or the 2nd generation of rayon, in which TENCEL™ Modal belongs 
  • Lyocell, or the 3rd generation of rayon, in which TENCEL™ Lyocell belongs 

All three generations (viscose, modal, and lyocell) are made with cellulosic fibers regenerated during manufacturing. They are similar to cotton or hemp in that all of these fabrics contain cellulosic fibers, but the fibers in cotton and hemp are natural (instead of manufactured). 

To understand the sustainability of TENCEL™ fabrics, we must assess their life-cycle and each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of products and materials. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. So, let’s have a look at the LCA of TENCEL™ fabrics!

In this article, we’ll use the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA, examining the five stages of the life-cycle of clothes and bedding made with TENCEL™ Modal and TENCEL™ Lyocell. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments

The life-cycle stages of TENCEL™ fabricsEach stage’s sustainability
Sourcing of TENCEL™ fabricsThe sourcing stage is generally sustainable as the raw materials for TENCEL™ fabrics come from relatively fast-growing trees in managed plantations. TENCEL™ Modal is made with beechwood, while TENCEL™ Lyocell uses a mix of beech and eucalyptus pulp. 
Manufacturing of TENCEL™ fabricsManufacturing TENCEL™ fabric is energy and chemical-intensive. However, Lenzing AG, which trademarked TENCEL™ Modal and TENCEL™ Lyocell, has integrated and closed-loop manufacturing processes that recover part of the energy during production while optimizing chemical usage.
Transporting of TENCEL™ fabricsTransporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with TENCEL™ fabrics because of the emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. TENCEL™ fabrics typically travel from forests, where raw materials are grown, to processing factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfill. 
Usage of TENCEL™ fabricsThe usage of TENCEL™ fabrics is generally sustainable because TENCEL™ clothing tends to last a long time while requiring comparatively few washes. 
End-of-life of TENCEL™ fabricsThe end-of-life stage for TENCEL™ fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable. 

Overall, we can say that TENCEL™ fabrics are generally a sustainable material for clothing and bedding. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, like sportswear, depends on more specific factors, including the distance and mode of transportation and the sourcing of the wood

Let’s dive deeper into each life-cycle stage and find out how you can buy TENCEL™ fabrics more sustainably.

How Sustainable Is the Sourcing Raw Materials for TENCEL™ Fabrics

The sourcing stage is generally sustainable as the raw materials for TENCEL™ fabrics come from relatively fast-growing trees in managed plantations. TENCEL™ Modal is made with beechwood, while TENCEL™ Lyocell uses a mix of beech and eucalyptus pulp. 

What Raw Materials Are Used for TENCEL™ Fabrics

Cellulose fibers from beech and eucalyptus woods are the main material used for TENCEL™ Modal and TENCEL™ Lyocell

(Synthetic chemicals are also used in making TENCEL™ fabrics, but we will discuss those agents in the manufacturing stage.)

How Do the Raw Materials Sourced for TENCEL™ Fabrics Impact the Environment

The main raw materials used in TENCEL™ fabrics come from the wood pulp of beech and eucalyptus trees. Sourcing wood for raw materials is generally sustainable thanks to timber trees’ carbon sequestration potential and renewability.

  • Carbon sequestration: As trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink, taking greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere and helping to mitigate the climate crisis.

    The carbon stored in wood (the raw material) is transferred to TENCEL™ fibers, resulting in TENCEL™ fibers, in some cases, being close to carbon neutrality (life-cycle carbon emitted is somewhat equal to carbon stored).

    Per tonne fiber (cradle-to-factory gate), the carbon balance for the two TENCEL™ fibers are:
    TENCEL™ Modal: 0.03 t CO2eq / t fiber
    TENCEL™ Lyocell: 0.05 t CO2eq / t fiber
  • Renewable material: Beech trees, one of the main raw materials for TENCEL™ fabrics, grow naturally in the Northern Hemisphere (and in surplus in the US). Beech trees also thrive in higher temperatures and precipitation brought by climate change. 

Eucalyptus trees – the other sources of raw materials for TENCEL™ fabrics – replenish quickly and are easy to grow. Eucalyptus wood can be harvested as raw material for lyocell fabrics after a decade. That is much shorter than other materials like oak wood or birch wood

Growing eucalyptus trees requires much less water than other fiber crops. For example, for the same biomass, an eucalyptus plantation requires only a quarter of the water needed by a cotton plantation

Eucalyptus trees also require little to no pesticide to grow.

Where Are the Raw Materials for TENCEL™ Fabrics Usually Sourced From

The pulp of beechwood and of eucalyptus wood are the two main raw materials used in TENCEL™ fabrics. 

Where Are the Beechwood Raw Materials For TENCEL™ Fabrics Usually Sourced From 

The beech trees that provide the raw materials for TENCEL™ fabrics come from Austria and other European countries, where they grow natively. These European beech forests are grown with neither fertilizers nor irrigation. Wood pulp is transported from forests to the pulp mill by rail and road.

Related: Are you interested to find out more about the sustainability of beech trees? Check it out in the following article: “How Sustainable Is Beechwood? Here Are the Facts?

Where Are the Eucalyptus Wood Raw Materials For TENCEL™ Fabrics Usually Sourced From 

Eucalyptus trees are native to Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, and surrounding islands. They have also been grown in plantations throughout the world’s tropical and subtropical regions, including California and Hawaii in the United States. 

The eucalyptus trees that provide the raw materials for TENCEL™ fabrics come from southern hemisphere plantations of more than 20 years. The wood pulp is transported by transoceanic ship to fiber production sites in Austria.

Related: Are you interested to find out more about the sustainability of eucalyptus trees? Check it out in the following article: “How Sustainable Is Eucalyptus Wood? Here Are the Facts?

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of TENCEL™ Fabrics

Manufacturing TENCEL™ fabric is energy and chemical-intensive. However, Lenzing AG, which trademarked TENCEL™ Modal and TENCEL™ Lyocell, has integrated and closed-loop manufacturing processes that recover part of the energy during production while optimizing chemical usage. 

We will look into the manufacturing process of TENCEL™ Modal and TENCEL™ Lyocell separately because of their significant differences. 

How Sustainably Is TencelTM Modal Fabrics Generally Manufactured

The TENCEL™ Modal manufacturing process follows these steps: 

  1. Preparing the beechwood pulp 
  2. Dissolving wood pulp in caustic soda
  3. Pre-ageing
  4. Mixing solution with disulfide to form cellulose xanthate
  5. Dissolving solution in caustic soda one more time 
  6. Age-ing 
  7. Spinning 
  8. Washing, bleaching, finishing, drying, and weaving the yarn into fabric 

The modal manufacturing process is a modified version of the viscose process (the first generation of rayon. Two modifications that increase modal fabric’s sustainability are: 

Manufacturing TencelTM Modal Fabrics Uses Artificial Chemicals

The TENCEL™ Modal manufacturing process requires a few different artificial chemicals, including: 

  • caustic soda (or sodium hydroxide) 
  • carbon disulfide 
  • sulphuric acid 

Caustic soda, carbon disulfide, and sulphuric acid are all toxic chemicals that could potentially cause serious harm to the environment and workers.

Both caustic soda and sulphuric acid can damage the skin and eyes.

Carbon disulfide has been linked to higher levels of coronary heart disease, birth defects, skin conditions, and cancer, not in textile workers and residents in the vicinity of fabric factories. 

However, in the integrated manufacturing process of TencelTM Modal, these chemicals are strictly controlled for recovering, reusing, and/or safely discharging. 

Manufacturing TencelTM Modal Fabrics Is Energy-Intensive 

The manufacturing process of TENCEL™ Modal fabrics is energy-intensive. Producing input materials (chemicals and wood pulp) and manufacturing modal fibers require significant energy. 

For a tonne of TENCEL™ Modal, the total energy usage is 78 GJ. This amount of manufacturing energy is equal: 

  • 75% of viscose (1st generation of rayon) and lyocell (3rd generation of rayon), which are made by the same company (Lenzing AG)
  • 142% of cotton fiber in the US and Canada.
An Integrated Process Reduces Energy and Chemical Usage in Manufacturing TencelTM Modal Fabrics 

Lenzing AG uses an integrated process to manufacture its modal fabrics. Specifically, the company combines producing pulp and fiber at the same location, saving material and energy in the process. 

Production energy can be recovered and reused. Bark, thick liquor, and soda extraction liquor from pulp production become energy sources for pulp and fiber production. The remaining heat requirements – about 40% of the total heat requirements – come from incinerating externally purchased bark and municipal solid waste. 

How Sustainably Is TencelTM Lyocell Fabrics Generally Manufactured

The TENCEL™ Lyocell manufacturing process follows these steps: 

  1. Preparing the wood pulp 
  2. Dissolving wood pulp in an organic solvent (an amine oxide and water solution) 
  3. Spinning 
  4. Washing
  5. Finishing, drying, and weaving the yarn into fabric 

The significant diversion in TencelTM Lyocell manufacturing from TENCEL™ Modal (and Lenzing AG’s viscose fabrics) is the use of organic solvent instead of toxic chemicals when dissolving wood pulp. 

99,5% of the organic solvent can be recycled to use again and again in a closed-loop process. The small percentage released into the environment is considered non-hazardous waste that doesn’t pose an environmental concern. 

Still, manufacturing TencelTM Lyocell Is energy-intensive. For a tonne of TENCEL™ Lyocell, the total energy usage varies from 65 to 101 GJ, depending on the percentage of fossil fuel used in the factory. For cotton fiber made in the US and Canada, the total energy usage is lower: 55 GJ per tonne of cotton. 

Where Are TENCEL™ Fabrics Usually Manufactured

Both TENCEL™ Modal and TENCEL™ Lyocell are made in Austria.

Because manufacturing these fabrics is energy-intensive, using renewable energy (solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass) significantly reduces carbon emissions at this stage. 

According to Our World in Data, the share of renewable energy in primary energy in Austria is 37.48% – the highest percentage in all countries where modal and lyocell fabrics are made. 

Following are the renewable energy share in primary energy in some countries with modal and lyocell factories: 

  • Austria: 37.48% renewable energy
  • China: 14.95% renewable energy
  • Pakistan: 10.62% renewable energy
  • India: 9.31% renewable energy
  • Indonesia: 10.39% renewable energy
  • Japan: 11.43% renewable energy
  • Germany: 19.46% renewable energy
  • The UK: 17.95% renewable energy
  • The US: 10.66% renewable energy

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of TENCEL™ Fabrics

Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with TENCEL™ fabrics because of the emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. TENCEL™ fabrics typically travel from forests, where raw materials are grown, to processing factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfill. 

In the life-cycle of TENCEL™ clothes, transportation typically occurs as below: 

  • From forests where raw materials (beech and eucalyptus wood) are grown to the fiber manufacturing locations in Austria
  • From the fabrics manufacturing locations to the clothing manufacturing locations 
  • From the clothing manufacturing locations to sorting centers/physical shops 
  • From sorting centers/physical shops to the consumer’s house 
  • From the consumer’s house to the centers for recycling/ disposing
Traveling Distances of TENCEL™ Fabrics Vary 

It is uncommon for clothes to have raw materials grown, processed, sewn, and sold in one town, country, or even continent. 

In the case of TENCEL™ Modal:

  • Transportation between forests and fiber factories is mainly done on rail and road locally within Europe
  • In the later stages of the life-cycle, transporting distances might increase significantly. 
  • For example, clothing factories might be located in Asia, while shops and consumer houses might be in the US. 

In the case of TENCEL™ Lyocell:

  • Transportation between forests and fiber factories involves transoceanic ships as well as trucks and trains.
  • For consumers in the US, the later stages of the life-cycle mean more transoceanic shipping (leading to higher transporting carbon emissions). 
The Carbon Footprint of Transporting TENCEL™ Fabrics Depends Largely on the Vehicle of Transportation 

During its life-cycle, a piece of TENCEL™ clothing can be transported using various types of vehicles, including: 

  • Large container ships 
  • Planes 
  • Freight trains 
  • Long-distance trucks 
  • Short-distance delivering vans 

And these various types of transportation vehicles have different carbon footprint impacts: 

For example, as a consumer, you can choose not to pick the fast delivery option when ordering TENCEL™ clothes to reduce the carbon footprint of your orders. 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of TENCEL™ Fabrics

The usage of TENCEL™ fabrics is generally sustainable because TENCEL™ clothing tends to last a long time while requiring comparatively few washes. 

TENCEL™ Modal fabrics are soft and comfortable yet durable. Clothes made with this fabric will last years of wearing. Specifically, clothes made with TENCEL™ Modal can withstand more washes and dry cycles than cotton. Similarly, TENCEL™ Lyocell fibers are durable and have a long-lasting quality

Long-lasting clothing is generally more sustainable because you don’t need to replace it too frequently (thus, no need for more resources to make the new one). 

Another environmentally favorable property of TENCEL™ fabric is its breathability. Clothes made with TENCEL™ fabrics don’t start smelling too quickly, meaning fewer washes are needed. Because washing during the usage phase is one of the main sources of energy consumption in the life cycle of clothing, breathable fabrics tend to be more sustainable. 

Another pro-environmental point of lyocell fabric is that it doesn’t wrinkle easily. As TENCEL™ Lyocell clothes and bedding wrinkle less, they don’t need ironing very often, which helps to reduce energy consumption during the usage stage. 

How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of TENCEL™ Fabrics

The end-of-life stage for TENCEL™ fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable. 

TENCEL™ fabric (both modal and lyocell) is 100% cellulose, making it a biodegradable material. Thus, at the end of the fabric’s life, there are three available options: 

  • Composting
  • Incineration
  • Landfilling

It takes about six weeks for modal products to decompose and two months for lyocell, contrary to plastic-based items that could take up space in the landfill for up to 100 years. Cotton typically takes 11 weeks to decompose. 

How Circular Are Products Made of TENCEL™ Fabrics

In the textile industry, a circular economy is designed to keep products and materials in use for as long as possible, especially through reusing and recycling. It also covers regenerating natural systems that support the industry and reducing polluted waste released into such systems.

“The circular economy is a systems solution framework that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution.”

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

As a whole, the textile industry is almost linear: 97% of the input are new resources.

When it comes to regenerated cellulose fabrics, there have been incentives towards closed-loop manufacturing processes. 

Since 2000, new technologies have emerged to produce cellulose fibers to keep harmful toxins from being released into the environment. Such closed-loop systems have excellent control to minimize the emission of gases to the environment and recover the solvent carbon disulfide up to 90-95%. Later technologies also improve the recovery of other resources (water and energy) used in manufacturing.

TENCEL™ Lyocell fibers are made in a closed-loop manufacturing process that recycles process water and reuses the solvent at a recovery rate of more than 99%

The manufacturing process of TENCEL™ Modal fibers is integrated to increase the use of renewable energy and the recovery of process chemicals.

How Can You Buy TENCEL™ Fabrics More Sustainably

TENCEL™ Modal and TENCEL™ Lenzing fibers have the following environmental and original certifications: 

  • USDA Certified Biobased Product: The USDA BioPreferred® Certification is a voluntary certification offered by the United States Department of Agriculture. The certification identifies products made from plants or other renewable materials.
  • Ecolabel: Ecolabel is the official European Union voluntary label recognized worldwide for certified products with a guaranteed, independently-verified low environmental impact. The label requires high environmental standards throughout the entire life-cycle: from raw material extraction through production and distribution to disposal. It also encourages companies to develop innovative, durable, easy-to-repair, and recyclable products.
  • Biodegradable/Compostable by TÜV Austria Belgium NV: This green mark signifies that the fabrics are biodegradable and compostable under industrial, home, soil, and marine conditions. Thus they can fully revert back to nature.

Though TENCEL™ fibers are generally sustainable, they can often be used in blends with other fibers to create fabrics. Thus, when buying clothes made with TENCEL™ blends, you still want to check if the clothes manufacturers have (some of) these key environmental and original certifications: 

  • Forest Stewardship Council: An FSC certification ensures that the wood comes from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits.
  • Program for Endorsement of Forest Certification: PEFC’s approaches to sustainable forest management are in line with protecting the forests globally and locally and making the certificate work for everyone. Getting a PEFC certification is strict enough to ensure the sustainable management of a forest is socially just, ecologically sound, and economically viable but attainable not only by big but small forest owners.
  • STeP by OEKO-TEX®: STeP by OEKO-TEX® is an independent certification system for brands, retailers, and manufacturers from the textile and leather industry. It communicates organizational environmental measures, including reducing carbon footprint and water usage.
  • B Corp Certification: The label B Corp is a certification reserved for for-profit companies. Certified holders are assessed on their social and environmental impacts. 
  • Cradle2Cradle certification: Cradle2Cradle provides a standardized approach to material circularity. It assesses whether products have been suitably designed and made with the circular economy in mind covering five critical categories: material health, material reuse, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.

Where to Buy Sustainable TENCEL™ Products 

If you are curious about buying TENCEL™ clothes, here are some sustainable brands that use these fabrics (in alphabetic order): 

Why Is It Important to Buy Products Made of More Sustainable Fabrics

It is important to buy products made of more sustainable fabrics because a sustainable textile industry has a lower carbon footprint, helps save natural resources, and is better for forests, animals, and humans. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Your Carbon Footprint 

The production of clothing and footwear is estimated to contribute 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions – more than all international flights and shipping combined. If the fashion industry were a country, it would be the fourth largest emitter of carbon dioxide

One way to reduce the carbon footprint of the clothes you buy is to opt for sustainable fabrics. Sustainable fabrics, which are often made with natural or recycled fibers, have relatively low carbon footprints compared to petroleum-based fabrics. For example, organic cotton made in the US has a carbon footprint of 2.35 kg CO2 (per ton of spun fiber) – a quarter of polyester’s carbon footprint

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Demand For Natural Resources and Waste Management

The textile industry uses water and land to grow cotton and other fibers. It is estimated that 79 billion cubic meters of water were used for the sector worldwide in 2015. For example, producing a single cotton t-shirt requires as much water as one person drinks for 2.5 years (2,700 liters of fresh water).

Worse yet, the textile economy is vastly more linear than circular: the largest amount of resources used in clothes ended up in landfill (instead of being recycled to remake clothes). According to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation,

  • Less than 3% of materials used in the textile economy in 2015 came from recycled sources.
  • In other words, more than 97% of resources used in making clothes are extracted new. 

When clothing items are disposed of within a short period of time – under a year in the case of half of the fast fashion clothes – the natural systems that provide raw materials for fabrics don’t have enough time to recover and regenerate, which could lead to ecological breakdown. 

Sustainable fabrics are made with less water and emissions while lasting longer:

  • Because they are durable, you don’t need to buy new clothes too often. 
  • Thus, you help reduce to pressure to extract more resources for making new items. 

Similarly, making and consuming sustainable fabrics made with recycled materials reduces the demand for virgin materials while helping tackle waste management. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Sustainable Management of Forests

Sustainable plant-based fabrics are made with raw materials from forests and plantations that are sustainably managed, such as complying with FSC standards

When you buy sustainable plant-based fabrics, you discourage unsustainable forestry practices like illegal logging. You can help reduce deforestation, biodiversity loss, and the effect of climate change. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Animals 

The fashion industry is rife with animal mistreatment when it comes to making animal-based fabrics like cashmere or leather. Every year, billions of animals suffer and die for clothing and accessories.

Buying sustainable vegan alternatives can help to reduce the pressure on raising more and more animals to meet the demand for animal-based fabrics while sacrificing their well-being and lives. 

Suppose you have to buy fabrics made with, for example, leather or wool; make sure you only choose brands committed to cruelty-free products. In that case, you help advocate better treatments for animals raised within the textile industry. 

Using Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Textile Workers 

Recent statistics from UNICEF estimated as many as 170 million child labors worldwide, many of whom were engaged in some form of work in the textile industry. They don’t get paid minimum wages and often work long hours. 

When you buy sustainable fabrics from brands transparent about the working conditions at their factories, you discourage the use of child labor and help promote better working conditions for textile workers.

Final Thoughts

TENCEL™ fabrics are sustainable because they are made with renewable wood fibers and are fully biodegradable at the end of the life-cycle. TENCEL™ fabrics are trademarked by Lenzing AG for their manufacturing processes that recover energy and chemicals, which increases the sustainability of TENCEL™ fabrics. 

You can make it even more sustainable by buying second-hand TENCEL™ clothes, using clothes for as long as possible, upcycling the material to extend its usage, and arranging for it to be recycled appropriately. 

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