Is bamboo fabric really eco-friendly?

The manufacturers and retailers of bamboo clothing and textiles are singing its praises. They say this wonderfully soft fibre is so eco-friendly, you’re saving the planet just by wearing it. Too good to be true? Probably.

Following our recent blog post on the sustainability of bamboo as a wood alternative, we are looking at bamboo fabric with the same objectivity. So what do we already know about bamboo as a fabric?

  • Bamboo fabric is super soft, strong and lightweight.
  • It has good drape characteristics and allows the skin to breath making it ideal for clothing.
  • Bamboo also imparts it’s absorbent and anti-bacterial properties into its fabric form which is great for medical uses.
  • Plus textiles made from bamboo require less energy to wash and dry than other natural fibres.

Doesn’t that all sound fabulous so far? It almost reads like an advert from a retailer of bamboo clothing…

However, as with any resource or product, we need to look at the entire process – from harvesting to retailing – to understand the impact on the environment. It’s worth noting at this point that nothing has zero impact. When you cut down a tree or harvest a cotton crop there is an energy cost and direct effect on the immediate environment (“Hey, where’s my tree gone?” said the squirrel). Among other things, sustainability considers how that cost is balanced against providing income and education for farm workers and how easy it is to replace or regrow a resource.

Eco-recap on growing bamboo

Whilst there are energy costs associated in its transportation, the production of bamboo can be super-sustainable:

  • It grows at a fast rate, absorbing C02 from the atmosphere as it matures.
  • Growing in its natural environment, bamboo does not require irrigation or pesticides.
  • Bamboo production supports small-scale farming in areas that are too inaccessible for large machinery.
  • It has a larger utilised biomass than cotton i.e. more product per plant per acre.
  • Once harvested, bamboo continues to grow so there is less destruction that leads to soil erosion.

Well, this sounds even better! Bamboo is great to grow and its great to wear. Sign me up!

But between plant and product, there is a significant area that needs exploring before bamboo can claim it’s eco-credentials.

Turning bamboo into fabric

Bamboo is not naturally soft. It’s a hard, woody plant that requires significant processing to turn into a textile. There are two methods for this: chemical and mechanical.

Chemical production of bamboo fabric

Those of you currently wearing any bamboo clothing may wish to slip into something with a higher cotton content whilst reading this.

The leaves and stalks of bamboo are effectively cooked-up in a vat of toxic chemicals including carbon disulfide, chlorine and sulfuric acid. Because it isn’t a closed loop system, the resulting cocktail, that is a risk to the environment, gets into waterways and landfills. Plus, these chemicals pose serious health hazards, including neural disorders, for the workers employed in the manufacture of bamboo fabric using this method.

Great.

This manufacturing process is neither eco-friendly nor sustainable. And it’s this method that produces the silky soft, wearable fabric that gets bamboo all that positive attention.

Mechanical production of bamboo fabric

Good news is that the mechanical method is more eco-friendly than the chemical method (but it would be difficult not to be). The bad news is that it is more expensive. The woody bamboo is crushed and left to ferment in a mushy mess using natural enzymes that break down the fibrous structures. The natural fibres are then mechanically drawn out and spun into yarn. This process is basically the same for making textiles from flax or hemp and the result is a linen-like fabric. It’s labour intensive and produces a low yield of fabric.

The reality is the vast majority of bamboo textile is not organic. Or at least any claim it has in being a truly organic fibre has limitations. Bamboo fibre can be organic – but it’s rare, expensive and unlikely to be fully traceable.

Bamboo and China

Any commodity, where it’s production is overwhelmingly dependant on China is not sustainable. China has one of the most unregulated markets in the world and hardly the best track record on workers rights. Plus a significant pollution problem. So even if bamboo is a better crop for the environment that does not automatically make it sustainable. At least not yet. China is stepping up with new environmental policies, mostly in response to the smog issues across its cities. So perhaps there is hope yet for Chinese bamboo to save us all. If only if wasn’t on the other side of the planet…

Here’s a handy infographic on bamboo

bamboo sustainable infographic

Bamboo infographic

It’s easy to be defeatist. Trying to make good, sustainable choices for our businesses and personal selves sometimes feels impossible. We, as consumers, often only have access to the information that retailers want us to know about their products. The result is we are sometimes left feeling naive, conned or like a failure when we’ve tried so hard to make the right choice.

But the positive in all this is just that – choice. Is bamboo fabric a better choice for the environment than organic cotton from a fair trade source? Maybe, maybe not. Is it better than polyester? Yes. Can bamboo production help protect deforestation in South America? Yes. Is the farming of bamboo across China likely (if not already) to be exploited if the west continues to view bamboo as a magic bullet? Probably. Is it a competition of bamboo vs cotton? No. Is it about making informed decisions? Yes.

The use of bamboo is a step in the right direction. It shows we are looking for alternatives. But bamboo, certainly for European consumers, shouldn’t be considered the final destination of that search. It’s a stepping stone in our journey towards sustainability.

 

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