Material Guide: Is Bamboo Fabric Sustainable?

Bamboo_Kazuend_Unsplash

Bamboo might be the natural food for adorable pandas, but our big question is whether or not bamboo as a fabric is actually as sustainable and eco-friendly as it’s touted to be.

Panda munching on bamboo

The fast growing grass has made its mark as an eco-crop. From construction to homewares to fabrics, bamboo is certainly having its moment in the limelight. But given that some claims associated with bamboo have been disputed, such as its sustainability, UV protection, and antibacterial properties, is it really the miracle crop many are claiming it to be? Just how sustainable is bamboo?

Growing Bamboo

It starts out looking good. Bamboo can be a very sustainable crop; a fast growing grass, it requires no fertilizer and self-regenerates from its own roots, so it doesn’t need to be replanted. When compared to cotton cultivation, which requires large amounts of water, pesticides and labour, the advantages are pretty clear.

But wait! Before you run off to stock your wardrobe full of panda-friendly fashion, there are a few things to consider. For starters, although bamboo is fast growing and requires no pesticides, that doesn’t mean that it is being grown sustainably. The majority of bamboo is grown in China, and there is no information regarding how intensively bamboo is being harvested, or what sort of land clearing might be underway in order to make way for the bamboo. Also, although bamboo doesn’t need pesticides, there is no guarantee that they are not being used to maximise outputs.

Creating Fabric

Okay, you think, so bamboo might have some issues, but it still uses way less chemicals, and is more environmentally friendly than cotton, right? While this is almost certainly true for the cultivation phase, the same can’t be said about the manufacturing process. There are several ways to turn bamboo into a fabric.

The first process involves combing out the bamboo fibres and spinning these into thread. This results in a slightly coarse fabric that is usually called “bamboo linen”. Creating this “linen” is labour intensive and expensive and the result not suitable for the soft, intimate products for which bamboo is most in demand. 

The second and much more popular method is the process used to make the silky soft bamboo fabric you find in sheets, underwear and more. This “bamboo rayon” is produced through a highly intensive chemical process,  similar to the process used to turn wood chips into rayon. This is where the sustainability of bamboo gets a little prickly. Rayon is essentially a raw material converted through a chemical process. The end product of this process ultimately falls into a category that is somewhere between naturals and synthetics. The source of the cellulose can be cotton, wood, and yep, bamboo. So essentially soft bamboo fabric is actually processed in the same fashion as semi-natural rayon.

Bamboo rayon is most commonly made through what is known as the viscose process, which involves dissolving cellulose material (such as wood chips or bamboo) in a chemical solution to produce a pulpy viscous substance. This is then pushed through a spinneret, and “spun” into the fibres that can then be made into threads and fabrics.  The chemicals used in this process are highly toxic and a risk to human health. About 50% of hazardous waste from rayon production (including the bamboo variety) cannot be recaptured and reused and goes directly into the environment.

Not quite the ecological delight we dream of!

As a side note, there is no conclusive evidence that many of the claimed qualities of bamboo, such as it antibacterial properties or UV resistance, are still present in the fibre after it has been put through such an intensive process.

Monocel® UltraDye® yarnsMonocel® UltraDye® yarns

Finally the good news: a similar fabric called lyocell (also known by the brand name TENCEL®) uses a closed-loop process to recapture and reuse 99% of the chemical solution. Tencel is often made from sustainably farmed eucalyptus trees, and the fabric was awarded the “European Award for the Environment” by the European Union. The lyocell process can also be used to create fabric from bamboo. There are very few brands doing this now but there are new innovations getting close to production – watch out for products made using Monocel.

So what does all this mean?

Bamboo itself can be a highly sustainable crop, if grown under the right conditions (and it often is). However, most bamboo fabrics on the market are a form of rayon where the manufacturing process is highly intensive and involves many harmful chemicals.

While lycocell is a more sustainable alternative with much less impact, but it’s harder to find lycocell products made from bamboo. For some types of clothing look for ecofriendly fabrics like organically grown hemp. In most cases organic cotton will be a better choice from the point of view of the environment, all other things being equal (especially the fabric dying process).

We should know that the majority of products labelled as “bamboo” are actually rayon, involve intensive chemical emissions and likely without the same beneficial properties as the unprocessed bamboo plant. Bamboo fabric is much less costly to produce than cotton (and avoids the extensive use of pesticides in non-organic cotton production), and production is not as chemically intensive as polyester, but bamboo fabric is sadly not the perfect answer to all our ethical clothing conundrums; in fact European NGO Made-by rates bamboo viscose on a par with conventional cotton at the bottom of its A to E rating scale. As the LA Times has said, bamboo “has largely been discredited as an [eco friendly] alternative source.”

Bamboo has advantages over cotton when it comes to it’s sustainable farming potential. But there’s a lot of work done to develop and make widely available cost-effective and environmentally sustainable ways of creating the soft and silky bamboo fabrics that we’re dreaming of.

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What do you think? Know of any brands using sustainable bamboo fabrics? Let us know in the comments below!


Feature image: Kazuend_Unsplash

Other Images: Andrew Lawson_Flickr and Monocel.

Yvette Hymann

Author Yvette Hymann

Yvette likes writing, reading and long walks on the beach. She has been described as a crazy cat lady more than once in her time, and is actually quite okay with that.

More posts by Yvette Hymann

Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • Aly says:

    Look at this bamboo lyocell product made in Australia. 100% Bamboo Lyocell Ettitude is the first company in Australia to make 100% organic bamboo lyocell bedding. It is one of the most sustainable and contemporary textile materials of the 21st century. In the lyocell process, raw bamboo is dissolved using a non-toxic solvent producing non-hazardous effluent. Together with the water used in the production, the solution is recycled and reused in a closed loop system. Therefore, there are no residues of harmful chemicals and water consumption is reduced significantly. It is also stronger and softer than rayon. If you want to know more about the difference between rayon and lyocell, you can read the article here.

  • Aurora says:

    A big thank you from the Netherlands: just the information I was looking for.
    Bummer the app can’t be downloaded here.

    • Gordon Renouf says:

      Hi Aurora
      Thank you for you comment. The Good On You app will be launched in the US and Canada in the next few weeks. Following a successful launch there we will look at a timetable for other countries including Europe. The app includes a lot of country specific information about brand availability etc.
      Best wishes
      Gordon

  • Bec says:

    Thanks for your article, it explains the bigger picture succinctly! It’s not all about the plant but the processes we use to get the fabric!

  • Rach says:

    Really well written and thorough piece on bamboo – thanks heaps Yvette!

  • Susan says:

    Awesome article.
    Thank you.

  • Thank you for this article, it’s a great insight into the production of bamboo – cuts right to the chase.
    I admit I have fallen for the silky soft bamboo, with bed sheets the most heavenly upgrade in my life. But I have often wondered if “all bamboo is created equal” and this answers it. The same level of transparency is needed as with all brands and production processes – and I’d love to hear which brands are producing sustainably! Boody? Body Peace?

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