Bamboo is one of a handful of eco-friendly fabrics that include organic cotton, hemp, and tencel which have sustainable characteristics, whether grown organically with little to no chemicals are used in its production, produced in a closed loop system or created from recycled materials.
The early stages of processing bamboo into a fiber are typically considered sustainable - from producing the fast-growing bamboo plants, with one species of bamboo that can grow 3 feet in a single day to harvesting. Bamboo has many amazing qualities that have made it an attractive resource for the textile industry. Because of its natural rapid growth characteristics bamboo does not require fertilizers or insecticides for its production and also does not require as much water as alternatives such as cotton, where one t-shirt requires 400 gallons of water to produce from start to finish.
But it doesn’t stop there, bamboo’s miraculous qualities and sustainable impact on the environment is most evident in its ability to improve water quality, purify air quality, and remove toxins from contaminated soil, all with less water consumption than cotton. Moreover, bamboo’s dense root structures prevent soil erosion and is often planted on hillsides to prevent landslides. Additionally, bamboo produces 30% more oxygen and absorbs 12 tons more of Carbon Dioxide compared to similar plant species.
When evaluating fibers and fabrics, a complete manufacturing assessment is necessary to determine the final label and characteristics. Even if Bamboo is grown organically, not using chemical pesticides etc., by the time it goes through the various stages of processing, it is an entirely different material and can no longer be considered an “organic” fiber. The subsequent stages that transform the bamboo plant into a textile aka Rayon that may feel soft like silk, it requires harsh and often toxic chemicals. As we stated in our previous blog, rayon, is a fiber that can be made from the cellulose of any plant or tree. In fact, The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has taken the position that it does not feel that textiles made of bamboo can rightfully continue to be labeled as Bamboo fabric after processing, because at that point they cease to be bamboo.
Fake Silk made from Bamboo Fiber comes in lots of colors!
Jekyl or Hyde: Bamboo's Multiple Personalities
There are several ways of processing bamboo all lending the fabric a different chemical profile:
Bamboo Rayon or Viscose - This process utilizes dissolving the bamboo pulp in toxic chemicals, making a slurry and then forcing it through spinnerets in a bath of acid to create the fiber. This is a highly toxic process in which Carbon Disulfide, a poisonous gas is emitted, and long-term exposure can have catastrophic implication for the health of workers in rayon plants.
Bamboo Lyocell - Is a similar process to the viscose except 99% of the chemicals are recovered during the manufacturing process. Some companies claim that using this process, they are creating organic fabrics since they started out with organic bamboo. The question remains if a fiber can still be labeled organic, after toxic chemicals are utilized to create the fibers?
Bamboo blends - Bamboo rayon or lyocell can also be blended with cotton fibers in which case the resulting fabric may be slightly more durable than a viscose or rayon.
Bamboo Linen - This may be the better method of processing Bamboo as natural enzymes are used to break down the bamboo grass into fibers, and then fibers are combed to create the fabric, a process similar to creating conventional flax linen. However, this is more expensive that the cheaper Rayon and lyocell processes.
Garment Assembly + Dyeing + Finishing
Bamboo Rayon, Lyocell and blends have all the same issues as outlined in our last blog post regarding the dyeing and finishing characteristics of this fabric class. However, linen created from bamboo has similar characteristics to linen fabrics that are relatively easier to dye. The linen fabric does require more ironing during the manufacturing process as linen tends to wrinkle easily. However, this may be a pleasing aesthetic for people who prefer the natural worn-in linen look.
Hold Your Breath - The Historical Stench of Rayon
In a well-researched book, Fake Silk, The Lethal History of Viscose Rayon, author Paul David Blanc delves into the brutal history of rayon production, from its origins to modern day. Carbon Disulfide that impacts bodies nervous system, causes brain degenerative disease, and heart damage has remained constant in the manufacture of Viscose Rayon, for the last 150 years. All through the 19th century, Carbon Disulfide exposure adversely impacted thousands of workers in rayon manufacturing all through Europe and the United States in the absence of regulatory oversight and the lack of organized labor. In this regard, most upsetting was the deplorable use of forced labor sources from concentration camps in Rayon plants belonging to the Reich in Germany. Today, Rayon production has shifted to developing countries such India, China, Thailand and Indonesia, subjecting workers there to similar risk in a relatively lax regulatory environment.
Buy High Quality for Long Lasting Durability
Our mantra, remain the same, make informed decisions! Product sustainability should not just be about fiber choices but the entire lifecycle of the product. Consider multiple metrics including natural resource (water) consumption, toxicological profile reflecting the spectrum of chemicals used in production, the impact on the health and welfare of people involved in the manufacturing, and the potential to recycle and/or upcycle. Don’t be bamboozled by pictures of cute Pandas chewing on Bamboo leaves that tug at your heart strings! Make an informed choice that do not adversely impact the people and the planet, and go for long-lasting durability.