How Sustainable Are Cupro Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
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Cupro fabrics are silk-like materials made with cellulose fibers extracted from cotton waste. Consequently, cupro fabric is hyped as a recycled, vegan silk alternative without animal cruelty. However, the chemical process which turns cotton fibers into cupro fabrics is problematic. So we had to ask: How sustainable are cupro fabrics?
Cupro is generally not a very sustainable fabric. Manufacturing cupro fabrics is a chemical-intensive process; and though chemical solutions can be reused, the final disposal is toxic and requires strict control. Yet, producing cupro fabrics is a good way to utilize cotton waste.
In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of cupro fabrics used for clothes. Then, we evaluate its sustainability, potential, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable products made with cupro fabrics.
Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Cupro Fabrics
Cupro, or cuprammonium rayon, fabrics are generally considered not very sustainable textile materials. Cupro fabrics are made in the Cuprammonium process – a chemical process similar to viscose or modal – the first and second generations of rayon fabrics. The synthetic chemicals used in the cupro manufacturing process have more adverse environmental effects than, for example, the organic solvents used in producing lyocell – the third generation of rayon fabric.
“Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”Oxford Dictionary
To understand the sustainability of cupro fabrics, we must assess their life-cycle and each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of products and materials. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. So, let’s have a look at the LCA of cupro fabrics!
In this article, we’ll use the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA, examining the five stages of the life-cycle of clothes and bedding made with cupro fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments.
|The life-cycle stages of cupro fabrics||Each stage’s sustainability|
|Sourcing of cupro fabrics||The main raw materials for cupro fabrics are cellulose fibers recycled from cotton waste. Sourcing these raw materials utilizes cotton waste instead of growing new cotton plants. Thus, this stage could be sustainable, providing that the original cotton is organically grown.|
|Manufacturing of cupro fabrics||Manufacturig cupro fabric can be energy and chemical-intensive. That could have serious knock-on ecological impacts, especially if fossil fuels are the main energy sources at the manufacturing locations. However, integrated and closed-loop manufacturing processes can recover part of the energy during production while optimizing materials.|
|Transporting of cupro fabrics||Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with cupro fabrics due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Cupro fabrics typically travel from fields or recycling centers, where raw materials for cupro are grown or collected, to processing factories, sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfills.|
|Usage of cupro fabrics||The usage of cupro fabrics is generally not very sustainable because cupro clothing has relatively low durability. However, cupro fabrics are highly breathable and require relatively fewer washes.|
|End-of-life of cupro fabrics||The end-of-life stage for cupro fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable.|
Overall, we can say that cupro fabrics are not very sustainable textile materials. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, like a dress or PJ, depends on more specific factors, including the sourcing of the fibers, the manufacturing process, and the distance and mode of transportation.
Let’s dive deeper into each life-cycle stage and find out how you can buy cupro fabrics more sustainably.
How Sustainable Is the Sourcing Raw Materials for Cupro Fabrics?
The main raw materials for cupro fabrics are cellulose fibers recycled from cotton waste. Sourcing these raw materials utilizes cotton waste instead of growing new cotton plants. Thus, this stage could be sustainable, providing that the original cotton is organically grown.
What Raw Materials Are Used for Cupro Fabrics
The main materials used for cupro fabrics are natural cellulose fibers extracted from cotton waste. Specifically, two cotton sources for cupro fabrics are:
- Very small cotton fibers around the cotton seeds, known as linters: These fibers are too small to be spun into cotton fabrics, so they’re usually considered discarded waste (i.e., pre-industrial waste)
- discarded cotton fabrics (pre-consumer waste from factories and throughout the supply chain and post-consumer waste from consumer homes)
(Synthetic chemicals are also used in making cupro fabrics, but we will discuss those agents in the manufacturing stage.)
How Do the Raw Materials Sourced for Cupro Fabrics Impact the Environment
The main raw materials used in cupro fabrics come from cotton waste. Sourcing these materials reduces waste. It also decreases the pressure to grow new cotton plants. However, as conventional cotton cultivation is plagued with harmful synthetic chemicals, it would be more sustainable to source organic cotton fibers for cupro fabrics.
Sourcing Used Cotton for Cupro Clothing Reduces Waste
Globally, a truck-full load of used clothes is dumped into a landfill site every second. That is a lot of waste, considering all the resources used in making those clothes. (It takes 2,700 liters of water to make a single cotton shirt – as much as the amount of drinking water for one person in two and a half years).
Recycling discarded fabrics and turning them into new materials, such as cupro, is a good way to reduce waste. There is much room for recycling because the current recycling rate of used clothes is rather low.
Sourcing Cotton Waste for Cupro Reduces the Pressure to Grow New Cotton Plants
Cotton crops use a lot of resources:
- The global average water footprint for cultivating and ginning (i.e., separating the cotton fibers from the seeds) is 2,235 m3 (for 1,000 kg of cotton fibers).
- Cotton crops use 11% of the world’s pesticides while accounting for only 2.4% of the world’s arable land. Meaning that cotton was responsible for nearly five times as much pesticide usage as their acreage amounts would indicate.
- The common monoculture practices in cotton cultivation deplete nutrients in the soil, resulting in the need for a lot of fertilizers.
Sourcing cotton waste, especially organic cotton waste, for alternative fabrics would help reduce the pressures on virgin resources, including fresh water for irrigation and fossil fuels for synthetic agrochemicals.
Where Are the Raw Materials for Cupro Fabrics Usually Sourced From
Cotton fibers for cupro fabrics come from either the linters of the cotton seeds or the fabric waste from making and consuming cotton textiles.
Where Are Cotton Linters for Cupro Fabrics Usually Sourced From
Cotton linters are the very small fibers around the cotton seeds. After the ginning process (where the long fibers are extracted for making cotton fabrics), these tiny fibers can be removed using a linter.
Cotton linters are considered a by-product waste from harvesting the longer fibers of cotton.
The following are countries among the top producers of cotton:
- Burkina Faso
- The US
Using cotton linters for cupro fabrics is a good way to utilize the waste. However, these fibers are associated with virgin cotton crops and the critical environmental challenges they pose in some cotton-growing countries. These challenges include:
- water stress in cotton-growing regions
- water pollution in cotton-growing regions
- biodiversity loss due to the widespread use of genetically modified cotton seeds
Where Are Discarded Cotton Fabrics for Cupro Fabrics Usually Sourced From
Cotton fabric waste can be collected before or after being used by a consumer.
The former type of waste (pre-consumer textile waste) can occur at any point during manufacturing and selling. Some examples of these discarded cotton fabrics are:
- Cutting scraps
- Semi-finished clothing products
- Returned clothing products
The latter type of waste (post-consumer textile waste) is generated at consumer’s homes. Some examples of these discarded cotton fabrics are:
- Household items
Discarded cotton fabrics can be collected around the world. The main challenges with using these as raw materials, or feedstock, for cupro fabrics are labor regarding the sorting of the material and the carbon footprint regarding transporting them to manufacturing facilities.
How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Cupro Fabrics
Manufacturing cupro fabrics is generally not sustainable. Cupro fabric production uses a lot of toxic synthetic chemicals. In some closed-loop manufacturing processes, the chemicals can be reused a few times. However, there are associated risks with leaking toxins into the environment if the final disposal is not handled properly.
How Sustainably Is Cupro Fabrics Generally Manufactured
Cupro fibers are semi-synthetic fibers made in chemical manufacturing processes that break down natural cellulose fibers, coming from either virgin cotton linters or recycled cotton fabrics, and then regenerate new fibers with desired properties.
Regenerated cellulose fibers, especially cupro fabrics, are similar to cotton fabrics in the sense that all of these fabrics contain cellulosic fibers. However, the fibers in cotton (or linen or hemp) are natural (instead of manufactured).
The standard manufacturing process of cupro fabrics, using cotton linters, follows these steps:
- Extract cellulose fibers from cotton linters: This can be done in two stages:
- Mechanical treatment to loosen the fibers and remove impurities
- Chemical treatment to finally extract the fibers
- Dissolution of cellulose fibers: Expose cotton fibers in a mixture of ammonia and copper, creating a new substance
- Create the spinning solution: Submerge the mixture into caustic soda before feeding it through a spinneret.
- Reconstructing the fibers: Use handling baths to rebuild the fibers and remove ammonia, copper, and caustic soda.
- Wash, beach, finish, dry, and weave the yarn into cupro fabrics
Manufacturing cupro fabrics from discarded cotton waste doesn’t go through step 1 above but involves all other steps.
Manufacturing Cupro Fabrics Is Chemical-Intensive
The manufacturing process of cupro fabrics uses large quantities of copper, ammonia, and caustic soda, all of which can be toxic to both people and the planet when not disposed of properly.
For example, caustic soda can damage the skin and eyes and have other health risks.
Manufacturing cupro is less environmentally friendly than lyocell – the third generation of rayon, which uses an organic solvent instead of artificial and toxic chemicals to dissolve the cellulose fibers.
The finishing steps are also often done with chemicals, but manufacturers can improve the sustainability of production by opting for eco-friendly or less harmful substances.
Closed-Loop Processes Increase the Sustainability of Cupro Fabrics
Some manufacturers of cupro fabric use a closed-loop process that recycles the chemical solutions several times. Water is also reused in such a process. A closed-loop process reduces the demand for virgin resources to produce new chemicals.
However, when the chemical solutions eventually need discharging, there are still health and environmental risks if the handling of the disposal is not strictly controlled.
Where Are Cupro Fabrics Usually Manufactured
Cupro fabrics are mostly exclusively produced in China. In the US, cupro fabric production is banned due to the inability of manufacturers to comply with basic air and water protection regulations.
Textile manufacturing in China is infamous for lacking transparency and regulations, leading to unsafe working conditions. For example, the Changing Markets Foundation reported in 2017 about fashion brands such as Zara, H&M, and Marks & Spencer and their links to highly polluting factories in China, India, and Indonesia. These factories make viscose and modal fibers – other rayons made in chemical processes comparable to cupro.
How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Cupro Fabrics
Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with cupro fabrics due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Cupro fabrics typically travel from fields or recycling centers, where raw materials for cupro are grown or collected, to processing factories, sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfills.
In the life-cycle of cupro clothes made with cotton linters, transportation typically occurs as below:
- From fields where cupro raw materials are grown to the cupro fiber manufacturing locations
- From the cupro fabrics manufacturing location to the clothing manufacturing location
- From the clothing manufacturing location to sorting centers/physical shops
- From sorting centers/physical shops to the consumer’s house
- From the consumer’s house to the centers for recycling/ disposing of
In the life-cycle of cupro clothes made with discarded cotton fabrics, transportation typically occurs as below:
- From places where cupro raw materials are collected, including factories, warehouses, and recycling centers, to the cupro fiber manufacturing locations
- From the cupro fabrics manufacturing location to the clothing manufacturing location
- From the clothing manufacturing location to sorting centers/physical shops
- From sorting centers/physical shops to the consumer’s house
- From the consumer’s house to the centers for recycling/ disposing of
Traveling Distances of Cupro Fabrics Vary
It is not uncommon for regenerated cellulose fabrics like cupro to have their supply chain spreading globally, meaning that cotton crop cultivation or cotton waste collection, fiber production, fabric spinning, and clothes manufacturing might happen in various towns, countries, or even continents.
Here are some scenarios of transporting cupro fabrics:
- Cupro fabric manufacturers can source cotton linters from crops in China, process it into cupro fabrics and clothing in a nearby factory, and sell cupro textile products to US consumers.
- Other cupro fabric producers might collect cotton waste from factories around Europe, transport the waste first to sorting centers, then to fiber factories in China, and finally to consumer markets around Asia.
- Used cotton garments are collected in the US to be sent to China for sorting and cupro manufacturing before the final cupro clothes are sent back to the US to sell to consumers.
You can reduce the transporting carbon footprint by choosing cupro fabrics that travel a shorter distance from the fields or recycling centers.
The Carbon Footprint of Transporting Cupro Fabrics Depends Largely on the Vehicle of Transportation
During its life-cycle, a piece of cupro clothing can be transported using various types of vehicles, including:
- Large container ships
- Freight trains
- Long-distance trucks
- Short-distance delivering vans
And these various types of transportation vehicles have different carbon footprint impacts:
- Large container ships are generally the most carbon-efficient option for international transportation of goods, while planes are the heaviest carbon emitter.
Large container ships emit, per unit of weight and distance, half as much carbon dioxide as a train and one-fifth and one-fiftieth as much as a truck and a plane (respectively).
- Deliveries made by planes – for example, to fulfill fast shipping options for clothing – are the mode of transportation with the highest carbon footprint.
For example, as a consumer, you can choose not to pick the fast delivery option when ordering cupro clothes to reduce the carbon footprint of your cupro items.
How Sustainable Is the Usage of Cupro Fabrics
The usage of cupro fabrics is generally not very sustainable because cupro clothing has relatively low durability. However, cupro fabrics are highly breathable and require relatively fewer washes.
An environmentally favorable property of cupro fabric is its breathability. It allows air to pass through to a greater extent than all the breathable rayons (lyocell, modal, and viscose).
Thus, clothes made with cupro fabrics don’t start smelling too quickly. That fewer washes are needed means lowered environmental impacts of this stage.
Laundering behavioral changes can further reduce such impacts. These changes include:
- Switch to line drying instead of using tumble driers
- Do cold washes with appropriate detergents
- Use energy-efficient washing machines
Cupro fabrics are, however, not very strong. Compared to lyocell, modal, and viscose, cupro is the easiest to break.
Long-lasting clothing is generally more sustainable because you don’t need to replace it too frequently (thus, no need for more resources to make the new one).
How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Cupro Fabrics
The end-of-life stage for cupro fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable.
Cupro fabrics are 100% cellulose, making them a biodegradable material. Thus, at the end of the fabric’s life, there are three available options:
A study showed 92% of cupro fabric mass was decomposed after four weeks (the rate increased significantly with coffee grounds mixed into the compost).
- Other regenerated fibers (viscose, modal, and lyocell) from six to eight weeks
- Natural cellulose fibers of untreated linen take about two weeks
- Natural cellulose fibers o untreated cotton take up to five months
- Plastic-based items could take up space in the landfill for up to 100 years
How Circular Are Products Made of Cupro Fabrics
In the textile industry, a circular economy is designed to keep products and materials in use for as long as possible, especially through reusing and recycling. It also covers regenerating natural systems that support the industry and reducing polluted waste released into such systems.
“The circular economy is a systems solution framework that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution.”Ellen MacArthur Foundation
Regarding regenerated cellulose fabrics, there have been incentives for recycling materials and energy in closed-loop manufacturing processes.
Since 2000, new technologies have emerged to produce cellulose fibers to keep harmful toxins from being released into the environment. Such closed-loop systems have excellent control to minimize the emission of gases to the environment and recover the solvent carbon disulfide up to 90-95%. Later technologies also improve the recovery of other resources (water and energy) used in manufacturing.
How Can You Buy Cupro Fabrics More Sustainably
The key to sustainably buying cupro products is to check on relevant environmental and original certifications.
- Recycled Claim Standard (RCS): The Textile Exchange RCS was originally developed as an international, voluntary standard that sets requirements for third-party certification of Recycled input and chain of custody.
- The Global Recycled Standard (GRS): The Global Recycled Standard (GRS) is an international, voluntary, full product standard that sets requirements for third-party certification of Recycled Content, chain of custody, social and environmental practices, and chemical restrictions. It can be used for any product with more than 20% recycled material.
- STeP by OEKO-TEX®: STeP by OEKO-TEX® is an independent certification system for brands, retailers, and manufacturers from the textile and leather industry. It communicates organizational environmental measures, including reducing carbon footprint and water usage.
- OEKO-TEX® STANDARD 100: A label for textiles tested for harmful substances.
Some certifications are signaling brands’ efforts toward lowered environmental impacts and a circular economy are:
- B Corp Certification: The label B Corp is a certification reserved for for-profit companies. Certified holders are assessed on their social and environmental impacts.
- Cradle2Cradle certification: Cradle2Cradle provides a standardized approach to material circularity. It assesses whether products have been suitably designed and made with the circular economy in mind covering five critical categories: material health, material reuse, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.
Where to Buy Sustainable Cupro Fabrics
As we have established throughout the life-cycle assessment, curpo fabrics are generally not very sustainable (class E fabric), yet not all cupro clothes are made equally.
The sustainability of cupro fabrics can be increased with the following:
- Usage of organic cotton linters or fab
- Closed-loop manufacturing process
- Chemical controls during disposal
Consequently, you want to buy cupro clothes from brands that are transparent about their raw materials and committed to proper handling of chemical usage and disposal. Here are some of such sustainable brands (in alphabetic order):
Why Is It Important to Buy Products Made of More Sustainable Fabrics
It is important to buy products made of more sustainable fabrics because a sustainable textile industry has a lower carbon footprint, helps save natural resources, and is better for forests, animals, and humans.
Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Your Carbon Footprint
The production of clothing and footwear is estimated to contribute 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions – more than all international flights and shipping combined. If the fashion industry were a country, it would be the fourth largest emitter of carbon dioxide.
One way to reduce the carbon footprint of the clothes you buy is to opt for sustainable fabrics. Sustainable fabrics, which are often made with natural or recycled fibers, have relatively low carbon footprints compared to petroleum-based fabrics. For example, organic cotton made in the US has a carbon footprint of 2.35 kg CO2 (per ton of spun fiber) – a quarter of polyester’s carbon footprint.
Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Demand For Natural Resources and Waste Management
The textile industry uses water and land to grow cotton and other fibers. It is estimated that 79 billion cubic meters of water were used for the sector worldwide in 2015. For example, producing a single cotton t-shirt requires as much water as one person drinks for 2.5 years (2,700 liters of fresh water).
Worse yet, the textile economy is vastly more linear than circular: the largest amount of resources used in clothes ended up in landfill (instead of being recycled to remake clothes). According to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation,
- Less than 3% of materials used in the textile economy in 2015 came from recycled sources.
- In other words, more than 97% of resources used in making clothes are newly extracted.
When clothing items are disposed of within a short period of time – under a year in the case of half of the fast fashion clothes – the natural systems that provide raw materials for fabrics don’t have enough time to recover and regenerate, which could lead to ecological breakdown.
Sustainable fabrics are made with less water and emissions while lasting longer:
- Because they are durable, you don’t need to buy new clothes too often.
- Thus, you help reduce the pressure to extract more resources for making new items.
Similarly, making and consuming sustainable fabrics made with recycled materials reduces the demand for virgin materials while helping tackle waste management.
Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Sustainable Management of Forests
Sustainable plant-based fabrics are made with raw materials from forests and plantations that are sustainably managed, such as complying with FSC standards.
When you buy sustainable plant-based fabrics, you discourage unsustainable forestry practices like illegal logging. You can help reduce deforestation, biodiversity loss, and the effect of climate change.
Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Animals
The fashion industry is rife with animal mistreatment when it comes to making animal-based fabrics like cashmere or leather. Every year, billions of animals suffer and die for clothing and accessories.
Buying sustainable vegan alternatives can help to reduce the pressure on raising more and more animals to meet the demand for animal-based fabrics while sacrificing their well-being and lives.
Suppose you have to buy fabrics made with, for example, leather or wool; make sure you only choose brands committed to cruelty-free products. In that case, you help advocate better treatments for animals raised within the textile industry.
Using Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Textile Workers
Recent statistics from UNICEF estimated as many as 170 million child labors worldwide, many of whom were engaged in some form of work in the textile industry. They don’t get paid minimum wages and often work long hours.
When you buy sustainable fabrics from brands transparent about the working conditions at their factories, you discourage the use of child labor and help promote better working conditions for textile workers.
Cupro fabrics are generally not very sustainable. The dependence on harmful, synthetic chemicals makes it less environmentally friendly than, for example, lyocell – another regenerated cellulose fibers made using organic solvents.
However, it is possible to find sustainable versions of cupro fabrics made with organic cotton waste and in closed-loop manufacturing systems.
To make it even more sustainable, buy second-hand cupro clothes, use clothes for as long as possible, upcycle the material to extend its usage, and arrange for it to be recycled.
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Is Viscose Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Is Modal Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Is Rayon Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Is Lyocell Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
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