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Tencel is an extremely versatile fabric found in shirts, dresses, skirts, and pants made by small sustainable brands, high-end luxury brands, and fast fashion brands alike. Its silky texture gives it a luxe feel. Its manufacturing process has helped it earn its place as a sustainable staple.
But to many consumers, Tencel is a mystery. Is it a fabric type or a brand name? Is it sustainable? Is it as perfectly sustainable as everybody says? I’ve done some digging to help get to the bottom of the elusive fabric.
What Is Tencel?
When we talk about Tencel, we’re generally talking about a specific product: Tencel Lyocell. This is a brand name under the Austrian manufacturing company, Lenzing. Lyocell is a fiber that’s made from processing wood pulp. Because it is both man-made and sourced from natural materials, it’s neither a natural fiber or synthetic. The technical term for fibers like lyocell is “regenerated cellulose,” but you can sort of think of it as a natural-synthetic hybrid. It’s often considered a more sustainable alternative to fabrics like cotton because its wood pulp is responsibly sourced and processed in an environmentally safe, non-toxic way. Additionally, it’s moisture wicking, flexible, and elastic. These qualities also make it a great fabric for blends.
While Tencel generally refers to Tencel Lyocell, there are other Tencel products out there. First, Lenzing also produces Tencel Modal and Tencel Lyocell Filament. The Modal is a much softer fabric than lyocell; whereas the lyocell filament is a yarn-like version.
Tencel has plenty of sustainable features. As mentioned above, it’s made from a wood pulp that is sourced responsibly from trees. According to Lenzing, Tencel Lyocell is sourced in a closed-loop production process where the wood pulp is combined with pre- and post-consumer waste, like cotton scraps. This combination is turned into Lyocell fibers. These fibers become yarn and fabric and those materials are ultimately turned into garments. And, because they’re made of natural fibers and processed in a non-toxic way, some Tencel garments are biodegradable.
It’s important to remember that not all Tencel garments are biodegradable. Once the fabric or yarn is sent off to garment manufacturers, it can be dyed, bleached, or blended with other fabrics that aren’t biodegradable. In other words, don’t just toss any Tencel garment into the compost bin. You’ll want to keep an eye on how it was processed and what the fiber content of your garment is.
With that in mind, Tencel (the brand) has a goal to become more and more sustainable. Currently, they’re working toward a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. To achieve this goal, they’re collaborating with third-party organizations to implement a science-driven plan.
To round things out, Tencel has a few other certifications and awards under its belt. It’s a USDA-certified biobased product (you can read more about USDA certification in my primer on organic cotton). It’s certified biodegradable and compostable by the Belgian company Vinçotte. Additionally, it boasts an EU Ecolabel, which ensures that a particular product has met rigorous standards from material sourcing to the end-of-life measures.
The Not-So Sustainable Side Of Tencel
While Tencel has sustainable initiatives, it’s not perfect. From a consumer and business perspective, the main problem is that it’s expensive. Back in 2015, a Business Insider explainer noted that the technology needed to produce Tencel gives it as much as a 50-100% premium on Egyptian cotton. Of course it’s possible to find less expensive Tencel products, but these are generally made by fast fashion manufacturers.
Another issue is that there’s a lack of information. While we do have some great information from third parties about lyocell fabrics, there are a few gray areas when it comes to Tencel. Part of this is because Tencel is a brand name, so much of the information we have comes straight from the brand itself.
I want to make it clear that we can-and should-commend Tencel for the work they’ve done. As a company they’ve outlined their commitment to sustainability and have created a product that’s become quite ubiquitous in the sustainable fashion space. However, there are several questions left unanswered. For example, what exactly is the process for sourcing their wood pulp? How are the trees affected? How exactly do they curb this impact?
There’s nothing wrong with the information that the company has to offer. They are pretty transparent as far as fabric manufacturers go. However, when a company relies on a natural resource and claims to source that resource responsibly, they owe it to the consumer to be as transparent as possible. We should be able to see their process in more detail and we should also have access to information about the working conditions of their factories.
Once again, Tencel is a great product and there’s a reason it’s so popular. However, we can always push for more transparency, responsibility, and accountability from companies. A little bit more would go a long way for me. I’d imagine the same goes for other conscious consumers like myself.