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#FantasticFibres: Soy, the Comeback Kid

December 6, 2019
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Ah yes, soy, somehow both the wunderkind of plant-based cuisine and the bane of environmental activists worldwide. Its rich protein content and incredible versatility make it a bit of a contradiction – it’s a staple of eco-conscious diets, but its massive demand fuels massive deforestation. Today, we are looking at a lesser-known use of soy: fabric. It can be used as an alternative, more sustainable, and often lower cost silk and cashmere, but it hasn’t received the same hype as many other options. This week on #FantasticFibres, we’re making a case for soy fibre making its eco-fashion comeback.

A Promising Start

Soy is certainly a #FantasticFibre, but it isn’t really a new one. Soy fibre blends have been in production since the 1940s in a variety of textiles, but the advent of cheap oil-based cloth edged it out of the market for a few decades. It’s been making a comeback in recent years as an eco-friendly fabric because of its many benefits. You’ll most likely find it marketed as ‘soy silk’ or ‘vegetable cashmere’ made by a variety of different firms. It’s typically created using cast off materials from the soy food industry then spun into textiles. Are you noticing a trend yet? A lot of our #FantasticFibres highlight materials made by diverting waste from agricultural practices!

Soy fabric is a pretty cool product for a lot of reasons. First, it can be used as an alternative to both silk and cashmere. These are both traditionally high-cost luxury fabrics that have tricky production methods very different from one another, so it’s pretty impressive soy fibre can be manipulated to mimic both. Silk and cashmere also tend to be less sustainable fabrics that raise concerns for animal welfare. Reports are showing that exploding demand for cashmere is causing mass desertification in Mongolia, where ⅓ of all cashmere is sourced. Similarly, conventional silk is biodegradable, but often uses heavy chemicals in manufacturing. Instead, soy fibre is vegan, and its materials are byproducts of a booming existing industry and therefore require very few extra resources to create.


One Plant, Big Punch

So that is point 1 in soy’s favour! It is versatile enough to replicate both the light, drapey, cool sensation of silk, or the fuzzy, soft, warmth of cashmere – both very in-demand fabrics – with one base material. Being a plant, it is also breathable, usually biodegradable, and not going to leak pesky microplastics into the water with each wash. Plus, soy fabrics are typically created using a closed loop process, so all the chemicals are saved to continually reuse for each new batch and diverted from polluting water and land.

And, like we’ve touched on in both of our previous #FantasticFibres blogs, using agricultural byproducts as the main source for their fibres means big wins for resource conversation. These soy beans would have been grown regardless, and waste from soy production manufacturing is diverted from landfills or being burned to create a valuable product instead. The water, land, and energy required to cultivate and harvest the soy is utilized to the max by also contributing to clothing fibres. That’s a lot for one little plant.

So What’s the Hold Up?

But nothing in life or sustainability is perfect. Fact is, soy cultivation is also responsible for mass wildlife habitat destruction in key biodiversity hotspots like the Amazon and for the displacement of different Indigenous peoples in the same area. It’s also been the focus of many disputes over harmful GMOs and predatory corporate behaviour. This makes soy a no-go for a lot of people. Most soy fibre manufacturing also appears to use formaldehyde, a potentially toxic chemical for the people who have to work with it in production. That said, there are organic and OEKO-TEX certified soy manufacturers out there as well! And the destructive soy cultivation is driven by hunger for beef and soy to feed cows, not by tofu or its siblings where fabric materials come from. As always, prioritize organic and byproduct soy fabrics, check for certifications to ensure there are no harmful chemicals, read the fine print, and check out manufacturing details.

All of this info has been around for a couple years, and yet, soy fibre-based fabrics haven’t really caught on. It could be a very valuable replacement for unsustainably produced silk and cashmere, making it a true #FantasticFibre. It just needs to overcome its so-so reputation first.