Brands advertise bamboo as a highly sustainable miracle material and our chance to finally be as eco-friendly as possible to save the planet. Many questions about the fabric are still unanswered, so let’s try to find some answers today. What we already do know is that pandas love the leaves of the plant and munch on them 24/7, but how is the bamboo fabric sourced? How sustainable is bamboo?
What is bamboo? What is the fabric made from?
Do you know that saying that if something is too good to be true there has to be a catch? Well, to start off we have to understand what bamboo is exactly. While the pandas love the leaves we are not talking about those. Bamboo fabric is a natural fabric made from the pulp of the grass without using any fertilisers. On top of that, bamboo is very fast growing, doesn’t have to be replanted and only relies on rainwater, which is why people call it the most renewable and sustainable material. Sounds like a sustainable dream so far, doesn’t it?
How is bamboo fabric made?
There are over 1000 different types of bamboo in the world that can mostly be found in Asia and South America, as well as Central America and even Australia. However, the most commercially used one comes from China. To extract the fabric from the grass there are two methods. Either by a mechanical process or a chemical process. In the mechanical process, that usually creates a type of bamboo linen, the plants get crushed and natural enzymes break down the fibres. Workers then comb out the fibres and spin them into yarn. Therefore, this process does not require the use of dangerous chemicals that could hurt the people working with it or the environment.
However, this process is labour intensive and more expensive. Besides, this type of bamboo fabric is often not soft enough, which is why the more common and cheaper form of bamboo fabric is bamboo viscose, a form of bamboo rayon. As we know, all dreams have an end and we have to wake up to reality. Bamboo rayon is produced in a chemical process. I know, I was bummed about this too! This makes the natural bamboo fibre into a semi-synthetic one – not a natural fabric anymore – as the bamboo yarn is produced with the viscose method that was developed in the early 20th century. If you remember the chemistry lesson from the article on viscose you know this is bad news.
The two chemicals used in this process to source the bamboo are sodium hydroxide, commonly known as lye or soda, and carbon disulfide. Both of them can be highly dangerous to the workers. So far, so… not good. Sodium hydroxide can lead to severe chemical burns and can be harmful to wildlife if not disposed correctly. Carbon disulfide is highly inflammable and can be harmful to the nervous system as studies have shown. Remember the catch we were talking about at the beginning of this? This is it and there is more. Get ready!
But what are the benefits of bamboo? Is it really as sustainable as everyone is saying?
As we have now realized, commercially used bamboo is often not even a natural fabric anymore. Bamboo is only a natural fabric if not treated with chemicals. Are there benefits, though? Well, yes! Bamboo can be eco-friendly and sustainable. It is often said to be harvested on managed farms and not only preventing erosion but also improving soil quality while also only relying on rainwater. There can also be benefits for us as consumers. The fabric is hypoallergenic and antibacterial, as well as temperature regulating and protecting the wearer from UV rays. An impressive list right? It depends. The benefit of UV protection has been debunked as almost every fabric can protect your body from the sun or as stated in this The Guardian article , “so would wrapping yourself in cardboard”. Other than that, natural bamboo can possibly be great! There is a lot to look out for, though.
All just marketing?
So far it seems like the benefits of bamboo that are most talked about are simply a marketing strategy, right? This gets especially clear if you consider that not even those environmental benefits are really true as it gets a little tricky once you look at the country of origin. The material is usually sourced in China and is becoming more and more profitable for the farmers there. This can lead to mono-crops and therefore the loss of biodiversity and possible pests. Then leading to the need of pesticides – the one thing people claim is never used in bamboo production.
Additionally, there are no clear environmental standards or information for buyers and consumers. The sustainability of the fabric is questionable, especially due to the chemical processes used to make the fabric and the many possible environmental issues. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) even took steps against bamboo labeling forcing companies to truthfully label their chemically produced bamboo products as rayon made from bamboo. The possible dangers for the workers due to the chemicals used to make bamboo rayon is the cherry on top. Just like you we feel a little bamboozled right now.
Already got some bamboo hanging in the closet?
Bamboo is becoming a staple fabric for supposedly eco-friendly underwear and sportswear more and more, next to being used for toothbrushes and other everyday articles. So, in case you already have some clothing made from bamboo hanging in your closet, how do you best care for it to ensure its longevity? A gentle wash cycle with cold water up to 40° C is best. Air dry them instead of machine drying and keep in mind that bamboo can wrinkle easily. If your bamboo clothing has been dyed with natural dyes keep it out of direct sunlight when drying. You can iron your garments while they’re still a little damp. Always make sure to check the labels, though, of course!
So, what now?
All in all, bamboo sounds like a miracle fabric, but too many questions are left unanswered. While it could possibly be a great more eco-friendly alternative, this is not always the reality and it can be difficult to find out if the bamboo you consume is actually sustainable.
Not all bamboo clothes are bad and you can still find sustainably grown and eco-friendly clothes made from bamboo. Some versions of it are better than straight bamboo rayon. Bamboo lyocell is a form of bamboo viscose that is also produced in a chemical process however, requires less chemicals in the production process and is therefore better than the rayon or viscose versions. Bamboo linen is still the best option, though. Make sure to look out for Fair Trade certification for the bamboo linen or a similar certification to make sure the workers who made your clothes have been compensated fairly for their hard labour.
What else can we do? We suggest making sure to check for a certificate like Oeko-Tex 100 or GOTS if you consider buying bamboo clothing. You can also try going for other natural fabrics like linen which is often produced locally and with clear environmental standards.