A vegan silk option? What is cupro fabric & is it sustainable?

Girl waving cupro fabric clothes above head

A vegan silk option? What is cupro fabric & is it sustainable?

As we all work towards a sustainable future, eco-friendly fabrics are increasingly under the spotlight. While many of us have heard of the big players like organic cotton and recycled nylons, cupro fabric may be one you don’t know as much about.

And while perhaps not as well known as other fabrics, it is an interesting alternative to many conventional textiles. But what is cupro fabric, and is cupro actually sustainable?

This soft and silky fabric is commonly used for blouses and dresses and provides a valuable alternative to often unethical silks. First invented in Germany in the 1900s, cupro is unique in that it blends synthetic, natural and recycled elements to create a versatile material.

But what is cupro fabric?

Made from regenerated cellulose from cotton waste, cupro is similar to many commonly available viscose and rayon textiles, also of a cellulose origin.

First invented in Germany in the 1900s, the fabric is composed of linter, tiny fibres from the cotton seeds, too small to spin into regular cotton fabric. Technically, this means that cupro is created from a waste product of the cotton trade, going in favour of its sustainable credentials.

It mimics the properties of silk, however usually has a lower price point. These silk-like properties mean cupro holds particular value in the eveningwear and lingerie sectors.

Linters to lingerie: How is cupro made?

Technically called cuprammonium rayon, cupro undergoes a production process similar to other viscose and rayon fabrics. It must undergo a chemical process to be turned into a viable fibre to create textiles for the fashion trade.

Once the linter is collected, it’s washed and then treated in a mixture of copper and ammonium. From there, the substance is treated with caustic soda to make cuprammonium solution (where cupro gets its name). The solution is then spun into fibres that are turned into yarn and then a finished textile.

 Cupro is sometimes also called ammonia silk.

To learn more about how viscose is made and whether it is sustainable, see Is viscose environmentally friendly: Your complete guide.

So, is cupro natural or synthetic?

When reading up on how cupro is made, you can understandably be left wondering if it falls into the category of natural or synthetic. The answer is that it’s somewhere in between. Cupro starts life as a natural product, but then it is treated with chemicals to break it down and build it back up again.

So, this mixture of natural materials and chemical processes, means that it is classed as a ‘semi-synthetic fabric’ like the viscose rayon family of fabrics. It isn’t a completely synthetic fabric, like polyester or nylon which are quite literally made from plastic, but it isn’t the completely natural fabric of organic cotton, linen or hemp either.

Cotton buds
Cotton buds, from which cupro is a waste product. Photo by Tijana Drndarski on Unsplash

Advantages and disadvantages

There is no perfect fabric, and like all materials, understanding what cupro fabric is and if cupro is sustainable involves understanding its key advantages and disadvantages.

Advantage: Vegan friendly

Cupro requires no animal-derived products to be made, making it a vegan-friendly fabric. As the fashion industry has a history of animal rights abuses and exploitation, cupro’s animal-friendly credentials are a refreshing change.

Advantage: Using a by-product

Cupro is also created from a by-product of the cotton trade. As cotton production is already resource-intensive, the more products that can be made from one yield, the better. Its by-product origins mean that no extra resources and energy go into growing the cotton linter to make cupro. It’s simply an extra by-product of the cotton trade. 

Advantage: Biodegradable

As cupro is derived from a natural product, it is biodegradable. This means that, unlike unsustainable polyesters, it won’t be shedding microplastics with every laundry cycle. It also won’t end up littering landfills or oceans for the next hundred years.

When a cupro product is no longer needed it can simply break back down into nature as if it had never been. In a world struggling with intense plastic pollution, this is good news.

To read more about which fabrics are biodegradable, see Styles that don’t last forever: Which fabrics are biodegradable?

Disadvantage: Environmental concerns

One of the biggest disadvantages of cupro fabric is its chemical production process. There is no escaping the fact that the harsh chemicals used to treat and create cupro fabric are not kind to the environment.

Cupro is not always produced in a closed-loop system, meaning the risk of environmental chemical contamination from cupro production is significant. In closed-loop systems, chemicals are either re-used or disposed of safely. Where production is not closed-loop, harsh and toxic chemicals are often released where they pollute local water sources and groundwater.

There isn’t a lot of information available about cupro supply chains and exact instances of contamination. However, information on what happens when the same chemicals used in cupro production get into the environment is well documented. Copper pollution, for example, is known to impact soil health, impact the activity of microorganisms and negatively impact decomposition rates.

In the instances that cupro is made in a closed-loop process, this concern is significantly lowered. If you are purchasing a cupro product, be sure to check supply chain information on this which sustainable fashion brands are sure to give. 

Disadvantage: Human concerns

Just as cupro production poses a risk to environmental health, it also poses a risk to human health. Workers in cupro production facilities face a high risk of exposure to dangerous chemicals.

The chemicals in cupro are so toxic, that its production is banned in the United States. 

Ammonia, for example, one of the core chemicals used for production can cause severe burns, irritation, lung damage and even death. There is also not a lot known about cupro supply chains in China, the largest cupro producer. However, in these supply chains, there have also been concerns raised regarding forced and slave labour.

Disadvantage: Washing and wrinkling

People commonly ask if they can wash cupro and if it will wrinkle. While cupro can be washed in the washing machine, it can’t be washed in hot water. It also must be washed on a delicate cycle to avoid shrinkage or damage. Nor can that new cupro dress be put in a dryer, and it will wrinkle easily.

So, if you are planning on looking slick in your new cupro style, it may require a very careful iron to look wrinkle-free. While this may not be a massive point against cupro, it can make it an inconvenient fabric for those of us with busy lives.

In a busy modern world filled with fabrics that wash, dry and stay looking in tip-top condition with minimal effort, cupro’s delicate nature is a disadvantage.

Cupro vs silk: Is cupro more sustainable

Cupro is often touted as the more sustainable and ethical alternative to silk. Unlike many traditional silk production techniques that include killing silkworms, cupro is vegan-friendly.

Cupro also gets points for ease of care when compared to silk. While cupro may not be the easiest of materials to care for, it is easier to look after than silk which often comes with a ‘dry clean only’ label.

These credentials alone make cupro more sustainable (dry cleaning is often an unsustainable process), more ethical and more convenient than the silk it imitates.

However, while it may be more ethical and sustainable than traditional silk production, it isn’t necessarily the best vegan silk out there. Silk alternatives, such as Citrus Fibre silk, also offer imitation silk without so many of the environmental and worker wellbeing concerns. There are more vegan alternatives in our Silk article mentioned above.

So, is cupro sustainable?

When we have explored what cupro fabric is and weighed all the pros and cons, we are left with the question, is it sustainable? When compared to virgin synthetics, conventionally grown cotton or unethical silk, cupro has some clear advantages and is, in many ways, a more sustainable option. But, is it the most sustainable option out there? Probably not.

One of the key pillars of the fashion sector is innovation, and while there’s no perfect fabric, there are options, such as orange fibre silk, that represent a more sustainable and ethical outlook than cupro.

However, if you’re buying a cupro product, make sure it’s one with supply chain traceability. While it may not be the most sustainable fabric out there, it certainly is a better choice than unsustainable virgin synthetics or unethically produced silk that is common in the fashion sector.

For more on sustainable fabrics see What is the most sustainable fabric? Your ultimate guide.

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