Textile Review: Bamboo

Bamboo has recently been hailed a boon to sustainable fashion. But is this textile as sustainable as it is claimed? Or is the use of bamboo in fashion a form of ‘greenwash’ designed to give consumers a false belief that their clothing is good to the environment?

Fabric made from bamboo- bamboo cotton as it is often called- is actually a form of viscose, a manufactured fiber which is derived by processing the cellulose from fast growing softwood with a number of chemicals to eventually produce a fiber suitable for cloth. The use of chemicals in itself does not exclude a fiber from being considered a sustainable textile. There are many textiles such as modal and lyocell which are manufactured using chemical processes that are considered sustainable. The critical consideration is the type of chemicals and how these are used and whether any waste is created by the process, and how any waste is treated and disposed of. In light of this, let’s examine the sustainability credentials of bamboo.

Bamboo is an extremely fast growing crop which requires no chemical fertilisation or pesticides, and minimal care. As opposed to cotton, which requires fertile soil that could otherwise be used for growing food, bamboo can grow on degraded land and can reduce soil erosion and improve soil quality. Bamboo requires half the water of eucalyptus (commonly used for both wood and fiber production) and a fraction of the water required to grow cotton. Crops can be grown and harvested in a short amount of time, making it an extremely productive crop. Bamboo can be harvested over and over again and does not need replanting, whereas other wood crops will need to be replanted after harvesting. The production process for the raw material- growing and harvesting the wood from bamboo- is considered a carbon neutral process, where carbon that is given out during harvesting is less than or equal to the carbon that was absorbed by the plant during growing. As a raw material for furniture, homewares and even flooring, bamboo is an extremely eco-friendly renewable resource with a much lower environmental impact than wood.

Whilst the environmental credentials of bamboo as a raw wood crop are remarkable, this is only one part of the picture. In order to understand whether bamboo is a sustainable textile, we need to first understand the environmental impacts of the processing of the wood into fiber. As touched upon earlier, processing bamboo into fiber requires intense chemical processing. The bleaching process usually follows the conventional method of bleaching, which involves harmful heavy metal pollutants. The post-bleach phase involves processing the wood pulp with acid, generating emissions to air of sulphur, nitrous oxide, carbon disulphide and hydrogen sulphide, all harmful air pollutants. This chemical processing, which is highly water intensive, results in water discharge that is also highly polluting if released untreated. The great majority of bamboo textile is produced in China, by the Jinggao Chemical Fiber Company, which holds a patent on the specific process for manufacturing the fiber. The company holds a international certification for it’s environmental management system, and purports to recapture the chemical discharge (both air and water) for treatment. But it does not operate on a closed loop system, so chemical processing does have an environmental impact. The production process is also highly energy intensive, and it is well known that the bulk of China’s energy still comes from burning coal, so while the raw material is carbon-neutral, the process  for creating bamboo cotton is not. Some bamboo fiber is also produced outside of China, including by the Swiss company Litrex which uses enzyme action instead of harmful chemicals to produce the fiber for a more environmentally process. However, the fiber produced in this way is only a small fraction of the total global production of bamboo fiber.

The bamboo fiber production process of Jingao Chemical Fiber Company www.jghx.com

The bamboo fiber production process of Jingao Chemical Fiber Company www.jghx.com

So bamboo is far from a ideal as a sustainable fashion textile and has many drawbacks, but it does have some definite benefits. Bamboo is cheap and has been readily adopted by many mainstream stores, so it is easy to come by. It is also keeps it colour and shape, and pills less readily than many other textiles. Many cheap fast fashion stores have incorporated bamboo garment as an ‘eco’ line in their range. The cynical view may be that they have done this so that they can claim eco credentials without any real attempt to change their practices. Indeed, the vast majority of bamboo clothing on the market is still produced in conventional factories, by companies promoting disposable fashion consumption habits, and with minimal consideration to the wellbeing of workers. So it is not an ethical fashion choice. However, a more positive view may be that this is a first ‘baby’ step in the progression towards stronger environmental practices in the fashion industry. Only time will tell which it is.

It is clear that bamboo as a textile is not a black and white issue. Bamboo lies somewhere in the middle on the continuum between unsustainable and sustainable textiles. Bamboo is a more environmentally friendly choice than nylon, polyester, conventional cotton, and viscose from wood, but it is less environmentally friendly than lyocell (Tencel), modal, organic cotton, hemp and linen. There is a small amount of bamboo lyocell available, which can be considered a very sustainable textile. But the bulk of the bamboo on the market is viscose, and this is the fabric that I have referred to throughout the post.

So what are my recommendations when it comes to buying bamboo garments? I consider bamboo a ‘maybe’ textile. As a general rule, I try to avoid it and choose more sustainable fabrics. However sometimes it can be difficult to find the exact thing that I need, so I have bought the occasional item in bamboo when alternatives haven’t existed. I personally avoid buying bamboo in mainstream stores, and only stick to stores that produce their garments ethically. However, if you have a limited budget and you can only afford to shop in cheap fast fashion stores, buying the bamboo range gives you a better quality fabric with a lower environmental impact than conventional cotton and synthetic fabrics.

Research and development into improving the processing of bamboo into fiber is continuing. In the future, bamboo may be considered a highly sustainable textile if processes can improve enough to avoid the use of some many harmful chemicals. If there comes a time when bamboo fabric is predominantly lyocell, then this will be the case. However, in the meantime consider bamboo clothing with a bit of caution.

For further reading on sustainable textiles, check out Fashion & Sustainability: Design for Change or Sustainable Fashion & Textiles: Design Journeys

 Guide to Sustainable Textiles
If you enjoyed this post and learned something new, you will enjoy my Guide to Sustainable Textiles. If you want to be able to cut through the greenwash and assess the sustainability of your favourite brands, this guide is a fantastic resource.
Covering the 15 most common textiles, as well dying processes and texitle certification systems, Guide to Sustainable Textiles includes everything you need to support you to shop in line with your ethics and commitment sustainability.
Available for only $9. Visit the Guide to Sustainable Textiles for more information and to buy.

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