Cupro fabric is known by many names—cuprammonium rayon, Bemberg, ammonia silk, and Cupra being just a couple. But regardless of what you want to call it, they’re all referring to the same semi-synthetic textile derived from regenerated cellulose.
And just like these other semi-synthetics, cupro is also made from plant-based materials. And while being made from natural fibers is an alluring aspect of cupro production, there’s plenty more that goes on behind the scenes.
Let’s explore the intricacies of Cupro fabric and whether or not it can be a sustainable material as it is used today.
A Primer To Cupro Fabric
Cupro fabrics have a history that goes back to the late 1800s. Although there are varying accounts for when the method for creating this material was invented, it was commercialized (and, in a sense, popularized) by textile manufacturer J.P. Bemberg.
This is also why cupro is sometimes called Bemberg in certain areas across the globe.
Just like with rayon, the invention of Cupro stemmed from the need for cheaper alternatives to luxury fibers—in this case, silk.
Fast forward to today, Cupro is primarily used in the clothing industry, still as a more affordable variation of luxury fibers. As a semi-synthetic, Cupro has also gotten a lot of attention as a possible sustainable alternative to synthetic fabrics.
Here’s a quick guide on eco friendly fabrics to help you jumpstart your sustainable lifestyle.
Brands sometimes refer to Cupro as a cheap, sustainable solution to some of the deepest woes in the fashion industry. But, the answer isn’t as crystal clear as brands would project.
These days, Cupro is almost exclusively produced across China, although there are still some small producers outside the country. China’s near-monopoly of the fabric’s production is actually an important consideration when talking about the fabric’s sustainability—but more on this in a bit.
Benefits of Cupro Fabric
No fabric becomes popular without having plenty of perceived benefits. And Cupro is no exception.
Cupro is Affordable
The central argument for the value of cupro fabric is the cost. Unlike silk and other natural fibers, manufacturers can acquire Cupro for a relatively affordable amount.
For clothing manufacturers, much of the appeal lies in fat profit margins for clothing items made from this material. But on the flip side, consumers can also enjoy cheap, affordable clothes.
The relative affordability of Cupro can be attributed to several reasons.
First, Cupro is derived from recycled cotton linter. We’ll get into this later, but the gist is that Cupro is essentially made from a by-product of cotton production. This means Cupro can be made at a fraction of the cost it takes to produce almost any other natural virgin fiber.
The second is that Cupro is mainly produced in China. And if you’ve stuck around sustainable fashion long enough, you’d know that China’s synthetic textile factories aren’t exactly havens for fairly compensated labor.
Here’s a guide on sustainable fashion brands you can trust and love.
Cupro is Vegan
Another one of the reasons why Cupro appeals to a specific target market is that Cupro is a good vegan silk alternative.
Unlike ahimsa silk, Cupro is completely plant-based and synthetic, so no animals are directly harmed by its production. And while there are, of course, other vegan silk alternatives out there, few to none of them are as affordable as Cupro.
So for people who want the rich, luxurious qualities of silk without harming silkworms, Cupro can be a viable alternative, notwithstanding any negative environmental impact.
Cupro Clothing feels Luxurious
Staying on the topic of luxury fabrics, Cupro fabric is uniquely fine and mimics pretty well the feel and texture of luxury fibers.
Because Cupro tends to be made with smaller filaments, clothing made from cupro fibers ends up feeling soft and silky, with excellent draping abilities.
Again, this is an excellent benefit for a material that is much cheaper than actual luxury fabrics.
Cupro is Easy to Blend with Other Fabrics
Cupro is also well known for being easy to blend with other fabrics. It is the material’s versatility that makes it such a usable fabric for weaving with other materials like cotton or polyester.
Cupro blends are probably the most accessible way to acquire Cupro clothing.
Cupro Material is Low Maintenance
Luxury fabrics are known for the high degree of care you have to exert to keep them in tip-top condition. Silk, in particular, has numerous washing considerations and requires extra care.
Cupro, unlike silk, doesn’t have as many washing restrictions. You can place it under your machine’s delicate cycle or hand wash for best results. When going through a gentle machine wash, make sure to use cold water and the lowest temperature setting.
Do not use hot water to wash cupro fabric as it has the tendency to shrink when doing so.
Downsides of Cupro Fabric
There are many benefits to using Cupro. But just like many other fibers, it also has plenty of cons, such as the following:
Cupro is Made With Harmful Chemicals
The name Cupro is shorthand for Cuprammonium rayon, the name of which refers to the chemicals used in the Cupro manufacturing process.
Similar to rayon-type fabrics, making Cupro involves extracting cellulose and processing it with harmful chemical solutions. We will be discussing the process of making Cupro in a later section.
The bottom line is that these toxic chemicals are terrible for the environment. Although Cupro doesn’t need as much water as conventional cotton, much of its environmental impact has to do with the process of turning wood pulp into a semi-synthetic fabric.
Lack of Transparency
Cupro is not as popular as fabrics like cotton or silk. Therefore, there is quite limited information about the Cupro fabric industry and how they truly operate behind the scenes.
And if there’s one thing we’ve learned about sustainability, it’s that transparency and honesty within the supply chain is the very first step to selling a product that people can trust.
Without transparent industry procedures, we’re pretty much in the dark about the conditions Cupro fabric is produced in and whether to not workers are paid fairly for their labor.
How is Cupro Fabric Made?
We’ve mentioned that Cupro fabric is quite similar to rayon and other semi-synthetic fibers. That is because Cuprammonium rayon is just another regenerated cellulose fabric. Meaning, that it is a fabric derived from the heavy processing of plant cellulose.
The cupro production process begins with the cotton plant. More specifically, it begins with a part of the cotton that is too tiny to spin and often sticks out of the plant’s seeds.
This part of the plant will not yield usable fabric when processed the same way as conventional cotton, therefore, it can technically be considered waste or a by-product of cotton cultivation.
It’s actually this part of cuprammonium rayon production that leads many consumers to believe that it’s a sustainable fabric. After all, isn’t anything made with waste good?
Not exactly. Our conversations around waste and the environment need to go beyond face value, and the same is true for this material. Before the cotton lint becomes fabric, it needs to undergo a major chemical transformation achieved through ammonium, copper, and caustic soda.
More specifically, the raw material is dissolved in a combination of ammonium and copper, hence the names cuprammonium rayon or ammonia silk.
The next step of the process is to submerge the resulting material in caustic soda, which creates a substance that can be extruded from spinnerets.
A spinneret is a manufacturing device with plenty of little holes where the mixture can pass through and become molded into long strands of fiber for weaving.
From there, cuprammonium rayon can be woven into Cupro silk, blended with other materials, etc.
Although the process sounds pretty simple, in reality, it is anything but. These harmful chemical solutions may eventually end up in our environment and water systems, potentially harming animals and people.
Cupro production is also unregulated, which poses concerns about how the production process may breach basic air and water protection regulations.
Rayon manufacturers in countries where these safety regulations are not strictly enforced may take advantage of the situation—posing a health risk to workers and the nearby community.
An ideal situation would be if the chemicals were used in closed-loop processes, similar to how Tencel lyocell is produced. Unfortunately, we currently have no way of telling if such is the case.
We are also unable to determine if the linter fibers were sourced from cotton plantations that respect workers and try to minimize their environmental impact.
Is Cupro Fabric Sustainable?
Now that we’ve learned about how Cupro is made, we can better assess its environmental impact. At the end of the day, is Cupro sustainable? Or is it just another greenwashing tactic brands have employed to gain customers?
Plainly speaking, Cupro is not sustainable.
Sustainability is a spectrum, and while Cupro’s raw material may be an amazing way to use cotton waste, the fabric itself is not eco friendly.
There are too many loopholes and parts of production that remain a question. For most fabrics to be considered sustainable, transparency is key. We should be aware of where the fabric was made, where the materials are sourced, and what working conditions are like.
Because Cupro cannot hit many of these marks, it’s unjustifiable to call it a sustainable and eco friendly fiber.
Other Fabrics Like Cupro
Fortunately, Cupro is not the only option! There are plenty of other types of fabric that can match Cupro’s quality and are made at a lesser environmental cost.
First on the list is, of course, Tencel lyocell. This semi-synthetic fiber has become increasingly popular over the last decade due to its excellent properties and eco friendly nature.
Although it’s still part of the rayon family, lyocell is made in a closed-loop process that significantly lessens its environmental impact.
The fabric itself isn’t perfect, but it’s far from the unsustainable solution practices that characterized rayon production in its infancy.
We know that Cupro is essentially a form of vegan silk, but hear us out—there are other materials that can work as a vegan alternative to silk, those that are reasonably more sustainable than Cupro.
Lyocell can actually be a good fabric to replace real silk, but it is not specifically used today as a silk alternative.
Microsilk is one of the best options available if you’re looking for a good fabric that can act as a vegan and completely cruelty-free alternative to silk. You can read more about it in our discussion on ahimsa silk (and no, ahimsa silk is not vegan and cruelty-free).
Lotus silk is also an option but it can get really expensive so it isn’t a viable alternative to Cupro if you’re buying it mainly for its low cost.
Recycled Polyester (Satin)
Another close vegan alternative would be polyester satin. While we would not typically use or recommend polyester, recycled variants may be used responsibly.
If you are looking for an affordable and less damaging alternative to Cupro, recycled polyester may be your answer.
A satin finish is achieved through weaving techniques that result in a (typically) glossy front and dull back. Many satin clothing items today are not necessarily made from silk and can be made from polyester.
That said, we still highly suggest going for the recycled versions of polyester. These have a significantly lower environmental impact than virgin polyester and also help deal with plastic waste.
However, be wary of microplastics as even recycled polyester can shed microscopic pieces of plastic that may end up in the ocean or our water systems.
Cupro fabric is well-known for its many features. It’s cost-effective, soft, silky, vegan, and plenty more.
But is Cupro sustainable? Unfortunately not.
Too many elements of Cupro production make it unsustainable, and the lack of transparency within the industry is an immediate cause for concern.
So the next time you see any brand advertising Cupro fabric as the up-and-coming vegan and cruelty-free silk alternative, you’ll know it’s most likely just greenwashing.