Bamboo Fabric

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Bamboo fabric belongs to a class of fabrics that are made from regenerated, renewable natural sources, namely plant cellulose or plant or animal proteins. The regenerated fabrics are all biodegradable and require less pesticide than conventional cotton.

According to Eco-Fashion Fabrics, "Although the process for transforming cellulose into regenerated fabrics is usually chemically intensive, some of these regenerated fabrics, notably Tencel®/lyocell, Modal®, and bamboo, may qualify as eco-friendly. Manufacturers of Tencel®/lyocell and Modal® claim to use a relatively environmentally friendly “closed loop” system for processing wood pulp into fabric in which 99.5% of the chemical solvents are recycled and reused. Bamboo gets eco-points insofar as it is created from rapidly renewable plants that do not require pesticide or fertilizer to grow and that take larger amounts of carbon dioxide out of the air than other plants because of its rapid growth rate.”

Because it is created from a rapidly renewable resource and is soft and attractive, bamboo fabric has become a popular alternative in the eco-fashion industry. However, it does pose some difficult issues for the ethical consumer who is faced with weighing the benefit of reductions in carbon emissions against possible harm caused by replacement of more diverse eco-systems and the likely use of toxic chemicals in processing.

One significant problem for the consumer is lack of information. In order to make an informed decision about the ethical merits of bamboo fabric, we need to be able to answer the following questions.

1. How significant are carbon reductions from bamboo?

This is difficult to answer. At least one bamboo clothing retailer claims that, “Bamboo takes in nearly 5 times the amount of greenhouse gases and produces 35% more oxygen than an equivalent stand of trees,” but the original source of this information is unclear as is the meaning of “an equivalent stand of trees." We can assume that in terms of carbon reduction, a rain forest is not equal to a grove of oak trees. Moreover, if the “5 times” figure is correct, we still need to determine how much environmental benefit that amounts to in order to weigh it against environmental costs of chemical-intensive processing.

2. Are bamboo fields replacing more diverse eco-systems?

Bamboo fabric is currently processed in China. According to Michael Lackman, author of (a veritable gold mine of information about eco-friendly fibers if you are interested in digging deeper into this subject), the Chinese government has turned over much of their forest land to poorly regulated private enterprise, which means that the bamboo fabric industry may be contributing to the replacement of rich eco-systems with mono-cultural stands of bamboo, decreasing habitat capable of sustaining biodiversity. There are initiatives underway in China to restore biodiversity through forest management. The green consumer needs to know the extent and outcome of these efforts.

3. Is the bamboo used in fabrics grown without use of pesticides or fertilizers?

We know that bamboo can be grown organically and grows very quickly without chemical fertilizers, but if using chemicals creates even more rapid growth of plants and profits, they are likely being used by some commercial growers. According to Lackman,

“It seems that Jigao Chemical Fiber Co., Ltd. of China is the actual holder of the patent for manufacturing bamboo fiber in China . . . The tens of thousands of tons of bamboo fiber produced by Jigao Chemical Fiber Company for export . . . are manufactured from hundreds of thousands of tons of bamboo plants raised on many thousands of bamboo plantations across China under a wide variety of environmental farming conditions. How can any manufacturer claim that their bamboo fabric is only produced from bamboo grown on environmentally sustainable farms?”

Organic certification would provide the consumer much needed reassurance and transparency in this case. Fortunately, according to April Fembrite, President of Naturally Bamboo, “Yes, there are now certified organic bamboo crops growing in China as certified by the USDA.”

4. Is the bamboo processed using harmful chemicals?

Caustic soda, toxic bleaching agents such as chlorine, carbon disulfide, and sulfuric acid can be used in creating fabric from bamboo, producing an environmentally hazardous chemical cocktail that is dumped into waterways or landfills. On the other hand, bamboo fabric can be processed through a closed loop system in which harmful chemicals are either repeatedly reused or treated so that they do not harm the environment. Moreover, according to Fembrite, bamboo fabric created through a chemical-free process is on the horizon:

“Better methods for processing the raw fiber are happening as we speak. There is a factory in China that does process bamboo fiber with no chemicals at all - only water. The problem is - they can't get anyone to buy their fiber. Our US government will not recognize the difference between chemical processing methods and water-based methods and will not allow this company to label their fiber as ‘natural bamboo’. Since the water-based method is more time-consuming and thus more expensive - the factory is not getting the benefit of selling the fiber as natural because of our USA labeling restrictions. I feel that eventually this will get changed with time . . . just as it took a while to finally achieve organic certification.

Another European company that I have been in contact with has developed a natural enzyme process with no added chemicals to produce a biobamboo stem (bast) fiber. This fiber is getting ready to hit the USA market; however I do not know yet where they stand with our labeling regulations.”

Once again, lack of information is limiting the green consumer’s ability to make an informed decision about bamboo fabric. We need third-party certification and labeling in this case in order to be able to identify bamboo clothing that is unambiguously eco-friendly.

This article was originally entitled Is Bamboo Fabric Eco-Friendly? and is reprinted here with permission of the author.