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What Is Cupro Fabric? Is It Sustainable?

Sustainable Fashion

Last Updated on May 10, 2024

I do my best to cultivate a minimalist and sustainable wardrobe I can wear for a long time. Two ways I do this is by creating a capsule wardrobe and being mindful of the fabrics I choose to wear.  

I try to opt for natural fibers whenever I can. Synthetic materials shed microplastics over time, aren’t as durable, and can’t be composted at the end of their life. Plus, I don’t really like how synthetic materials feel on my skin.

What Is Cupro Fabric? Is It Sustainable?

Synthetic and semi-synthetic materials are also often treated with harsh chemicals during the manufacturing process. 

One such material is cupro fabric. Have seen it before on your clothing tag? It’s not the most common fabric, but what exactly is cupro and is it eco-friendly? 

Cupro is a vegan alternative to silk. It’s a semi-synthetic fabric made from recycled cotton. But that doesn’t automatically make it sustainable. A lot of harsh chemicals are used in the formation of cupro.  

In fact, cupro is illegal to produce in the United States. This means most of Cupro is imported from other countries. There are specific reasons for this we will dive into below.  

If you’re considering buying an item made from cupro, here’s everything you need to know about the fabric, and if it’s sustainable. 

What Is Cupro Fabric? Is It Sustainable?

is cupro natural or synthetic? 

Cupro is a semi-synthetic fabric that is made primarily from cotton waste from the cotton growing industry. Though cupro is derived from a natural source, it’s mixing with various chemicals during the manufacturing process make it hardly pass as a natural fiber. 

The raw material of cupro is natural though: It’s called cotton linter which is a material obtained from the manufacturing process of cottonseed oil. Cotton linter is the short downy fiber enfolding cotton seeds. 

While cotton linter itself is biodegradable and compostable, I wouldn’t recommend composting cupro fabric due to the harsh chemicals used in the manufacturing process. Composting it would release any toxins from production, dyeing, and washing into the ground which is not recommended.  

Cupro is classified as biodegradable (which simply means it will break up over time). Technically, so will plastic, but that doesn’t make it sustainable.  

RELATED: Biodegradable vs Compostable: What’s the Difference? 

Cupro is short for cuprammonium rayon. It got its name because the solution of copper and ammonia is used to make this particular type of rayon. Rayon was created as an alternative to silk and rose in popularity because of its lower price point. 

Rayon made using the cuprammonium process can be labeled cupra, cupro, or cupra rayon under the trade name Bemberg.  

how is cupro made?  

1. First, they expose the cellulose of a plant product to a mixture of ammonium and copper. 

2. Then these two elements are combined with the cellulose to make a new substance. 

3. The mixture is then dropped into caustic soda and extruded through a spinneret. 

4. The extruded strings are immersed into a series of hardening baths that reconstruct the cellulose and remove the ammonia, copper, and caustic soda. 

What Is Cupro Fabric? Is It Sustainable?

is cupro a good fabric? 

Cupro is a good fabric in terms of working as a vegan and cruelty-free substitute for silk. It’s also generally less expensive than silk, with similar look and feel. 

It’s smooth, light, texture works well for clothing that drapes across the body, like dresses and blouses.

However, in terms of the environment, cupro isn’t the most sustainable material out there – and we’ll discuss why.  

environmental impacts of cupro fabric production

Cupro is considered a recycled material. This is because it’s made from a byproduct of the cotton industry, cotton linters.

However, cotton is a crop that is known for using massive amounts of water and pesticides which can pollute ecosystems and waterways. Conventional cotton has been known to cause soil degradation. 

Even if cupro was sourced from organic cotton, which it often is not, it still uses a lot of hazardous chemicals during the manufacturing process, such as copper sulfate, ammonia and caustic soda. 

According to the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), cupro is illegal to produce in the U.S. due to the manufacturers inability to comply with water and air protection regulations. 

Also, chemicals used to make cupro can harm workers. According to CFDA, work accidents can occur from explosions or leaks in chemical storage areas associated with any form of rayon production.   

Cupro can now be made in a closed-loop system, but the only manufacturer to do this is Asahi Kasei in Japan under the trademark Bemberg. Their system ensures that the copper and ammonia used in manufacturing is recovered and reused.  

While this is an improvement, it’s worth noting that most of cupro is still made and exported from China, where there is less transparency regarding the production process. There, the fabric is often referred to as ammonia silk. 

Also, it’s worth noting that any form of rayon production (cupro, viscose, etc.) involves copious amounts of water waste, on top of being an energy intensive process.  

Most factories that manufacture rayon (and cupro) are usually powered by fossil fuels, which release emissions that contribute to climate change. This is not limited to just rayon though, as many factories that generate synthetic materials are often powered by fossil fuels. 

What Is Cupro Fabric? Is It Sustainable?

sustainable alternatives to cupro 

If you’re looking for a more sustainable alternative to cupro, I recommend looking into TENCEL Lyocell and Modal from Lenzing AG. These are both imperfect alternatives, also both sourced from rayon, but they are more transparent with their production processes.  

They are both vegan and cruelty-free and possess similar qualities to cupro. 

When choosing a rayon-based material, it’s important to look for sustainably forested, low-chemical, closed-loop producers with certifications like FSC, EU Ecolabel, and OekoTex 100.  

Here’s a bit more about both TENCEL Lyocell and Modal fabrics from Lenzing. 

tencel lyocell 

  • Their fibers are produced in a closed loop process which recovers water and 99.8% of the solvent, which transforms wood pulp into cellulosic fibers with high resource efficiency and low environmental impact.  
  • Biodegradable and compostable, if it is not combined with any polyester, elastane or nylon fabrics/elements. 

tencel modal 

  • A bio-based, semi-synthetic fabric made from spinning beech tree cellulose.  
  • Carbon-neutral, has a smaller water footprint, and requires less land per tonne than cotton fibers.  
  • Completely biodegradable and compostable under industrial, home, soil and marine conditions. 

Be aware that Lyocell and Modal made outside of Lenzing AG may not be as eco-conscious, because they don’t have to meet their rigorous standards. Modal and lyocell you see without the TENCEL™ certification is likely made in factories that aren’t being transparent about their practices both socially and environmentally. 

Try to always buy from brands that have the TENCEL™ modal and lyocell certification, if you can. 

What do you think about this material? Will you be buying it or avoiding it? Let me know in the comments below! 

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