by Elizabeth BurtonWhile flax, cotton and other celluloid fibers used for bedsheets, clothing and curtains are all fairly sustainable, tencel repeatedly comes out on top. Each of the three is drought-tolerant, but tencel far outpaces both cotton and linen in low water usage. Furthermore, linen and cotton both require a fairly labor- and emissions-intensive fiber production process. Both linen and cotton production emits high amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gases before they even enter the marketplace. Fewer pesticides and lesser soil erosion are also associated with Tencel when compared to flax (linen) and cotton. According to the EcoMall article “What is Tencel?” lyocell -- or Tencel when branded --l is one of the most environmentally-friendly regenerated fabrics, for several reasons [including the fact that] Tencel fibers are grown sustainably.” Follow below to learn more about why Tencel is better for the environment than cotton and linen.
What is Tencel?
According to the Threefold article “Why is Tencel The New Hot Sustainable Fabric?” “Tencel is a sustainable fabric regenerated from wood pulp, much like rayon and bamboo.” The innovative celluloid fabric was “first invented in a fabric plant in Enka, North Carolina in 1972." However, it has only recently gained significant popularity across the United States, Asia and Europe. According to Good on You’s article “Material Guide: How Ethical is Tencel?” Tencel is “made by dissolving wood pulp and using a special drying process called spinning.” Before the wood chips are fully dried, they are “mixed with a solvent to produce a wet mixture…[which] is then pushed through small holes to form threads.” These threads are “chemically treated and the lengths of fiber are spun into yarn and woven into cloth.”
Why Tencel is Better for the Environment than Cotton and Linen
Tencel Was Invented to be Eco-Conscious
Tencel Uses Fewer Natural Resources
According to the post “Fabric Faceoff: Tencel vs. Organic Cotton” by GreenStory, Tencel production requires less water than cotton. The article explains that while “organic cotton uses 85% less water than conventional cotton,” Tencel still uses less than organic cotton. GreenStory notes that the “closed-loop production system” used in manufacturing Tencel fibers “captures and reuses 99.5% of water and solvents.” This makes Tencel much more sustainable than cotton. Though flax harvesting requires 20% less water consumption than does Tencel production, Tencel’s closed-loop system makes it superior in terms of preservation. In addition, the Common Objective brief “Fibre Briefing: Linen” notes that “after harvesting flax needs to be ‘retted.’" This process involves separating "the binding between the long fibers and the woody stem.” This step is completed with water, over the course of a “few days to a few weeks.” Despite the fact that the Eucalyptus trees “are water intensive,” Tencel still comes out on top.
Direct LandNot only does Tencel use less water than cotton and linen during production, it also uses less land. “Material Deep Dive: Tencel” from Design for Longevity notes that the Eucalyptus trees from which Tencel is made use less land than field crops like flax or cotton. The article explains that because “eucalyptus trees grow quickly in dense stands on low-grade land,” they require “significantly less land intensity than cotton.” The Eucalyptus plantations created for pre-Tencel pulp “can be established on nearly any type of land." This can even include "exhausted cropland or degraded and heavily logged areas.” Because the trees from which Tencel is created can be planted anywhere, farmland can be allocated to other crops.
The chart describing energy use, water use, greenhouse gas emissions, water waste and direct land use by various fibers was created by D. A. Chapman and O. Hollins for their “Review of Life Cycle Assessments of Clothing” from 2010.
Because cotton and flax both require fairly flat, well-irrigated land in order to grow, they require similarly sized and planed plots of land. Both of these plots are wider in area and more costly to maintain than those used for Eucalyptus trees. Gemma Alexander notes in her article “Good, Better, Best: Shopping for Natural Fibers” for Earth 911 that cotton and flax use more direct land per plant than many other fibers. These fibers include hemp, viscose and modal, jute, PLA and lyocell (unbranded Tencel). This is demonstrated in the above chart. The chart was created by D. A. Chapman and O. Hollins for their “Review of Life Cycle Assessments of Clothing” from 2010.
Tencel is Stronger and Lasts Longer
According to Lyocell.info, lyocell -- which is unbranded Tencel -- “wrinkles less than cotton and is fairly easy to maintain.” It is also easy to maintain and “is less likely to shrink or deform when washed." Tencel fabric is more resistant to strain and stress when compared to cotton or linen. Tencel also "does not tend to lose weight over time.” Because Tencel has a tighter weave than either linen or cotton fabrics, it has superior strength and flexibility. The Tencel website describes these qualities as a result of the hybrid makeup of the fabric. For instance “lyocell fibers...can be combined with a wide range of textile fibers such as cotton, polyester, acrylic, wool, and silk." Each of these combinations "enhances the aesthetics and functionality of fabrics.”
Business Insider writer Christina Sterbenz attests to the durability of Tencel in her recent article “I bought a plain, white button-up made of this 'luxury' fabric.” In her article, Sterbenz writes that lyocell’s hydrophilic nanofibrils “make the fabric better at absorbing moisture.” This wicking quality “‘gives Tencel unique moisture absorption ability, which in turn makes [it] breathable, softer, [and] less prone to wrinkles.’" Requiring fewer washes, Tencel fabrics degrade less quickly than either cotton or linen fabrics. Overall, Tencel offers superior strength, water conservation and land conservation when compared to linen and cotton.