Meet Lyocell, a Potentially Sustainable Fabric That Could Become Your New Favourite Textile

Made from wood cellulose, lyocell is extremely versatile, feels great on skin, and is good for the environment.

Recently, while doing some online window shopping, I noticed a new material popping up everywhere: lyocell. Once I noticed it, I couldn’t stop noticing it. I found sportswear, underwear, blouses, pants and even bedding made from lyocell—and most of the brands selling these products claimed that lyocell was more sustainable than other fabrics like polyester and conventional cotton. Even fast fashion brands like Zara were getting in on it.

I started to fall down a bit of a lyocell Google rabbithole. Is the material really sustainable? Or are fast fashion brands just using it to greenwash their products and rehabilitate their reputation? And what about the claim that lyocell is softer than good ol’ cotton?

Here’s everything you need to know about lyocell.

(Related: 11 Important Single-Use Plastic Swaps to Make for 2021)

What is lyocell?

Lyocell is made from wood cellulose that’s made by dissolving wood pulp and mixing it with amine oxide to create a wet, sticky mixture. Then, the mixture is pushed through a machine with holes to make the lyocell fibres, which are ready to be spun into yarn and eventually woven into fabric, after being washed and dried. Lyocell is usually made from eucalyptus trees, but it can also be made from birch or oak trees. The finished fibres are often processed with another material (like cotton, polyester or silk) to enhance the texture, look and functionality. But, lyocell is also often found alone, especially in clothing. “[Lyocell] is typically referred to as a natural fibre because it’s made from plant-based materials,” says Candice Batista, environmental journalist and the editor-in-chief of the Eco Hub. “So, if you don’t add any synthetic fibres, it’s actually fully biodegradable.”

What does it feel like?

Though lyocell can have many different textures (it all depends on how it’s processed), the basic fabric is soft to the touch, hypoallergenic and doesn’t cling. It’s also more absorbent and breathable than cotton, making it a favourite for activewear manufacturers. The ability to mix lyocell with other fibres gives a wide range of uses. Aside from clothing, lyocell is used to make underwear, towels and bedding.

(Related: What Canada’s Ban on Single-Use Plastics Will Mean For Canadians—and the Environment)

How sustainable is lyocell?

Lyocell is considered sustainable because it’s typically made from eucalyptus trees, which grow super fast, can be grown virtually anywhere and don’t need a lot of irrigation, water or pesticides. Lyocell can use less less than half the amount of water during production than cotton does, helping to reduce the fashion industry’s massive water consumption. (It takes 2,720 litres of water—as much water as you’d drink in three years—to make a single T-shirt.)

What gives lyocell an extra eco-boost is that it doesn’t require any toxic chemicals to produce. Typically, textile manufacturers use highly toxic chemicals like trichloroethane, and according to the World Bank, 20 percent of the world’s water pollution comes from textile dying and treatment. Lenzing AG, an Austrian company that manufactures Tencel lyocell (a branded version of lyocell), is able to recover more than 99 percent of the solvent used to make their product in a closed chemical loop that feeds back into the production process.

So, is lyocell actually good for the environment?

In the end, it comes down to how the entire product is made—and the manufacturing system behind it—not just the material used. While lyocell itself has a lot of potential, how sustainable it is depends on who’s making and selling it.

While a fast fashion brand like H&M, for example, does make 100 percent Tencel lyocell products (meaning they haven’t blended the lyocell with anything else, so it’s fully biodegradable), their final garments aren’t manufactured in a way that’s sustainable or ethical. Fast fashion companies buy Tencel lyocell in bulk and then ship it to factories scattered around the world, where working conditions are harsh. “That’s really where the problem lies, says Batista. “Most of their clothing is made in factories where workers aren’t being paid well or treated fairly.”

On top of how workers are treated, it’s important to think about the environmental footprint of the factory. Let’s be real, fast fashion inventories are massive, and these so-called sustainable products make up a tiny fraction of their stock. A couple lyocell garments won’t offset the negative environmental impact of a factory that uses a ton of fossil fuels or coal or dumps its waste into waterways and landfills. Pretending otherwise is just greenwashing.

(Related: Everything You Need to Know About Reusable Q-tips)

How do I know I’m making the most sustainable choice?

Check out the label and do a bit of research before buying an item. If you’re looking into a 100 percent lyocell product, see if you can figure out who made the lyocell. Since Lanzing trademarked Tencel lyocell, it’ll show up that way on your products’ labels. Tencel is definitely the most common lyocell and looking for 100 percent Tencel lyocell ensures that you know where the fabric came from and how it was made. If the label just says “lyocell,” it might be worth it to dig around on the brand’s website to see what you can find out about its manufacturing processes.

Brands that are sustainable and ethical will typically trip over themselves to tell you about the good work they do when it comes to making their products. “They’ll tell you online, ‘This is the factory it comes from, this is a photograph of the people who make the clothes.’ They’re unbelievably transparent,” says Batista. “And those are the brands that you want to align yourself with.”

Another way to make sure you’re making the most sustainable choice is by looking at the third-party certifications, which brands will stick on their labels to prove that they’ve reached certain standards of sustainability. Since there aren’t laws in Canada in place to make sure that clothing brands that say they’re sustainable actually are, looking for reputable third-party certification like Certified Organic, B Corp and Ecolabel can back a brand’s claims.

Now that you know about lyocell, find out if shampoo bars, a low-waste alternative, is worth the swap.

Originally Published in Best Health Canada