Man-made fabrics such as cupro and polyester are some of the most commonly used materials in fashion today. They are quick, easy, and cheap to manufacture. They offer many advantages compared to natural fibers such as cotton.
Cupro is a man-made cellulosic fiber derived from plants or wood. It's a semi-synthetic fabric and very different from polyester. Polyester is a synthetic fabric made from petrochemicals.
Other cellulosic fibers include viscose rayon, modal, lyocell, and acetate. They are made from a natural polymer called cellulose. Cellulose is found in plants, trees, fruits, and agricultural waste.
The transformation of natural cellulose into fabrics for fashion involves chemical-intensive processes. The raw material is dissolved into a viscous solution then spun into fibers to make yarns for knitted or woven fabrics.
Both cupro and polyester are used for apparel such as shirts, dresses, pants, suits, jackets, and undergarments. They readily available, easily dyed, and often blended with other types of fiber to enhance their properties.
Polyester remains the most used fabric for textile and apparel globally. The total production of polyester fibers rose to 55 million tons in 2018 worldwide. It represents 52% of global fiber production.
China is the biggest producer of polyester worldwide. Half of its polyester is made in the Zhejiang region and a third in Jiangsu.
Today's fashion brands and designers use various synthetic and semi-synthetic fabrics for their new collections. Consumers demand stylish and trendy clothes faster at an affordable price.
The popularity of cupro for clothing is rising as an alternative to more expensive fabrics such as linen or silk. The rise of fast fashion over the last 20 years made clothing a disposable commodity.
The fashion industry is the second-largest polluter globally. It's responsible for huge amounts of textile waste, pollution, and carbon emissions.
Fortunately, sustainability is gaining traction in the textile and apparel industry. Conscious consumers are asking for more eco-friendly products. Fashion brands and designers choose more sustainable fabrics.
Synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon, and acrylic are very damaging to the environment. Is cupro fabric any better?
Polyester fabric overview
Polyester fabric is made from synthetic fibers derived from petroleum-based chemicals or petrochemical products. Polyester is also known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
It's a type of synthetic thermoplastic polymer resin. Polyester is the most popular fiber used in the fashion world, for apparel and accessories. Because it lacks elasticity, it's often blended with other fibers such as elastane, also known as spandex.
The manufacturing of polyester fibers involves the polymerization of synthesized polymers compounds made from oil-derived materials.
Polyester has many advantages over more natural fibers such as cotton, linen, hemp, or jute. It's cheap to produce, strong, durable, resistant, versatile, lightweight, and water repellant.
Unfortunately, synthetic materials like polyester have a huge negative impact on the environment.
They contribute to the global plastic waste crisis and microfiber pollution. They endanger ecosystems, land wildlife, marine life, and human health. Polyester isn't biodegradable and will take thousands of years to decompose in the oceans.
Recycled polyester, also known as rPET, is a more environmentally friendly alternative to polyester. It's manufactured from circular sources such as waste materials, PET bottles, post-industrial polyester waste, or used garments.
We can reduce energy consumption by 30-50%, water consumption by nearly 90%, and greenhouse gas emissions by about 60% if we use recycled polyester instead of virgin polyester.
Read up my list of sustainable synthetic fabrics for more information about eco-friendly alternatives to polyester.
Cupro vs polyester
Cupro is considered semi-synthetic and made from regenerated cellulose. It is knitted or woven into fabrics for fashion to replace silk or polyester as a cheap substitute option.
Bemberg is a brand name for a type of cupro fibers. It was owned by J. P. Bemberg, a German rayon manufacturer who began to produce semi-synthetic fibers commercially using the cuprammonium process in 1897.
The most well-known known and largest producer of cupro fibers today is Asahi Kasei Corporation, a Japanese company. The Asahi Kasei Corporation makes Bemberg from post-industrial cotton waste. It uses cotton linter that isn't normally used for textiles: short cotton fibers clinging to cotton seeds after ginning.
Cupro is a man-made cellulosic fiber. The annual production of man-made cellulosic fibers is 6.7 million tons globally. It represents 6.2% of global fiber production.
Viscose rayon is the most commonly used semi-synthetic fiber with 79% market share and 5.3 million tons produced in 2018.
Cupro is a type of viscose rayon fiber. It has excellent properties for fabrics used in fashion. It's soft, lightweight, breathable, and moisture absorbent.
Unfortunately, cupro fabrication requires heavy chemical treatment. To make fabrics from plants or wood, a lot of energy, water, and chemicals are necessary. The natural raw material is disintegrated into a viscous liquid before being regenerated into fibers.
Cupro fabrication is generally very hazardous. It employs chemicals such as copper, ammonia, and caustic soda. These highly toxic substances poison the environment and put workers' health at risk.
Read up my article on why rayon is bad for the environment to learn more about the environmental impact of rayon fabrics.
The term cupro comes from cuprammonium rayon, made from cellulose dissolved in cuprammonium, a soluble compound of copper and ammonia in caustic soda. It's also known as Cupra or ammonia silk.
Fortunately, some cupro and rayon manufacturers are doing their best to protect the environment. Eco-friendly production facilities can almost fully recover and reuse water, waste, and chemicals with closed-loop processes.
Asahi Kasei Corporation has achieved almost 100% zero emissions (99.8% in 2016) by reusing fiber waste as fuel for power generation. It makes constant efforts to reduce and recycle waste.
As consumers, we have the power to drive change in the fashion industry. We choose the clothes we buy and who we support with our money.
Overall, we must make more conscious purchasing decisions. Let's shop for better alternatives that are more sustainable, socially responsible, and eco-friendly.
We can start by looking for certifications that ensure the environmental friendliness of our purchases.
The Global Recycled Standard (GRS) is one to look for in fabrics with recycled content. OEKO Tex Standard 100 is one of the world's best-known labels for textiles tested for harmful substances.
Read up my article on the best eco-certification standards for textiles to understand what you should be looking for.
About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.