woman facing backward wearing Tencel fabric shirt dress

Forest fashion – would you wear wood fibre?

Check your labels, you may already be wearing a garment made from wood fibre.

Viscose/rayon, Lyocell/Tencel, modal and several other types of fabric are almost always made of yarn spun from wood fibres. A small percentage is made of bamboo, soy or sugar cane and a smaller again portion from recycled clothing.

Wood-based fabric is made out of cellulose that comes from fast-growing hardwoods, often eucalypts, beech or pine and most of it comes from PEFC or FSC-certified plantations that are sustainably harvested. As they grow, those forests are ‘thinned’, removing young trees that are underperforming to leave more room for the rest to grow to their full size. It’s exactly the same process gardeners used when thinning vegetables and it mimics the natural processes of woodlands, except instead of leaving those trees to die off on the forest floor, where they can become a fire risk, they’re used as a resource. 

Here’s where things get a bit complicated. At the moment, most wood-based fabrics are made using glamorously named ‘dissolving pulp’, which is mostly cellulose. Some of the processes that break down the bonds in that pulp to turn it into yarns use toxic chemicals that are dangerous to both workers and the environment. 

Lyocell was developed in the 1970s with the express aim of finding a less harmful process. It uses an organic oxidation process to break down the bonds in the pulp before forcing the solution that results through devices with tiny holes in them. This forces the cellulose molecules into filaments, which are then treated with air and water to strengthen the yarn, that can be mixed with natural fibres to make fabric or treated and woven to resemble cotton, silk or wool.

A more recent variation, TENCEL™ Modal, is globally certified for its environmental processes, which include less-toxic technologies, high recovery rates for chemical ingredients (minimising emissions and conserving resources), reduced carbon emissions and 10-20 times less water than cotton uses in its manufacture. 

In early 2021 a new Indigo TENCEL Modal fibre was launched, which is being used in manufacturing ‘eco’ jeans and uses just a fraction of the resources –especially water – required to make traditional blue jeans.

The good news for all these fibres and fabrics is that they’re just as biodegradable as the trees they came from. And there are new fibres and fabrics on the drawing board that will be even more sustainable, including Finnish Spinnova, which uses wood pulp with no chemical processing and hopes to also use recycled clothing and agricultural waste in the future. Another product in the making is called Bananatex, made from… you guessed it.

As consumers, we can help nudge the fashion industry in the right direction by choosing certified materials made with the most environmentally sustainable processes. And if the label fine print doesn’t tell you exactly which fibre is in your garment, you can use an app like Good On You, DoneGood or Shop Ethical to help you find clothes that are as good to the planet as they are to your personal style.

So, would you wear wood?

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