Is Soy an Eco-Friendly Fabric? Fiber Watch Series Investigates

A soy fabric dress

Often advertised as an eco-friendly fabric alternative to many oil-based textiles, the story behind soy fabric is not as peachy green as it may seem. As with any textile, soy fabric has its pros and cons, which are important to understand. So read on and we’ll give you the skinny on soy in this edition of the Fiber Watch series.

The Lowdown

Soy fabric is soft in texture and comparable to silk in the way it drapes. It is also very durable, and lends itself well to many different types of garments or home textiles like sheets. Thick soy fabric has even been proven to be warmer than wool, and definitely warmer than polyester, making it ideal for winter clothing and soft, cozy cover-ups. Soy fabric is also easy to care for, doesn’t wrinkle easily and is often more durable than natural fabrics of the same grade.

How It’s Made

Soy fabric is considered a man-made cellulosic material, meaning that it undergoes chemical manipulation in order to be turned from a plant into a fabric. The extensive production process involves breaking down the proteins in the soybean by exposing them to heat, alkalis or enzymes, after which they are filtered and pushed through a spinneret to separate the fibers into long strands. The fibers are then cross-linked to lengthen them using formaldehyde, which is an irritant that is mutagenic in certain bacterial and animal species and has been classified as a probable human carcinogen.


The Cons

Although the chemicals used in the process are often re-used, making soy fabric production a mostly closed-loop process, factory workers are totally exposed to the detrimental effects of these chemicals, as is the environment. And how many of the chemicals used end up on the wearer’s skin?

The Pros? 

However, soy fabric is made as a by-product of soy foods like tofu and soybean oil, meaning that the waste of the food industry is utilized by the textile industry, and soy is a renewable resource. This may seem like a positive solution considering that soy is used as an ingredient in many of the processed or packaged foods we eat, but no so much so when considering that 80% of it is GMO soy. The plant requires a large amount of water and pesticides for cultivation, although organic soy can successfully be grown on a smaller, more lower-impact scale. Another agricultural and environmental issue with soy production is the amount of rainforest land becoming compromised for the sake of this crop, which is causing massive habitat destruction, food shortages and rapid environmental change. So, soy’s sustainability and whether it is an eco-friendly fabric can vary depending on how the soy itself was grown.

soy sheets

Things That Make You Go Hmmmm…..

The story behind soy fabric is not cut and dry, which is only to be expected in our agriculturally confused age. If you are tempted by the texture and softness of soy fabrics and soy blends, try to look for garments, fabric or yarns (for the knitters among us) that use organic soy. You’ll find it through labels like Xylem (which is also made in the USA) and Intertwined Designs on Etsy, or by buying your own fabric through Eureka Fabrics. Hopefully the story behind soy can soon turn into a more positive one that involves far less GMOs and chemicals.

Main Image courtesy Intertwined Designs; Second Image: beggs; Third image courtesy Scent Station.

Related on EcoSalon:

Biobased Synthetic Textiles: Actually Better or Another Case of Greenwashing?

Are Eco-Fabrics Better Than Conventional Cloth?