Most of the people who are interested in sustainable living are probably familiar with bamboo fabric. Bamboo fabric was supposed to become an all-around better alternative to cotton. And why wouldn’t it? Bamboo grows fast, isn’t too sensitive to the climate and the fabric itself is supposedly very soft, breathable, and hypoallergenic.
As usual, reality is a bit more complicated. While bamboo farming can be a very sustainable process, it isn’t always like that. Besides, there are different types of bamboo textiles with some being much less eco-friendly than the others.
The first aspect that should be taken into consideration when analyzing a material’s sustainability is its origins. So where does bamboo come from? Even though bamboo is a very low-maintenance plant and can grow pretty much everywhere, the vast majority of it comes from China. There are various reasons for that. Firstly, bamboo has been a part of Chinese culture for centuries, so it’s natural that the country exports so much bamboo fabric.
However, a long-standing tradition isn’t the only thing that makes China the world’s biggest bamboo exporter. Unlike many other countries, China has yet to create strong incentives for manufacturers to make their processes more sustainable and less damaging to the environment. That, of course, makes the fabric production much more affordable, so many companies choose to manufacturers from China.
As far as bamboo farming is concerned, no one really questions bamboo’s benefits. Indeed, it doesn’t require lots of fertilizers, doesn’t need much water, and grows very fast. However, just like many other plants, bamboo can be used for several types of fabric. And not only do they differ in terms of fabric properties and prices, but also in the amount of environmental damage they cause. Let’s take a closer look at the three most common types of bamboo textiles.
Bamboo viscose is the cheapest and the most common type of bamboo fabric. It is used by hundreds of companies to make clothing, bed linen, and other household items. Thanks to bamboo’s antibacterial properties, the material can also be used for sanitary (like cloth diapers) and medical supplies as well.
In general, viscose is a type of rayon that began to be used in the 20th century and was meant to become kind of a low-cost silk. On the first look, it may seem like a perfect option: the customers get all the beneficial properties of bamboo without having to pay a lot. Unfortunately, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Although bamboo viscose is very affordable, bamboo’s unique benefits get lost in the manufacturing process that is also very harmful to the environment.
Just like any other type of viscose, the production of bamboo viscose starts with extracting cellulose from the wood pulp. Small pieces of wood get in contact with a chemical that helps remove the cellulose from the wood. Afterward, the cellulose gets pressed into sheets and carbon di-sulfide is added. To make strands out of cellulose, the cellulose is put into a spinneret. Finally, the strands get immersed into yet another type of chemical, sulfuric acid, which aids the formation of filaments that are then spun into yarn.
Since carbon sulfide is a toxic chemical, a large amount of waste is created in the manufacturing process and it is hard to deal with it in a sustainable manner. Besides, carbon sulfide is a neurotoxin, which makes the working environments very dangerous for the employees. The law in China doesn’t protect the workers either, so many of them risk getting organ damage, psychosis, or even heart attacks.
Evidently, bamboo viscose is just a feel-good marketing ploy. Since bamboo is so cheap and easy to grow, manufacturers use it to create items that they label as “sustainable”. However, with all the chemicals involved, the plant loses all of its beneficial properties by the end of the production cycle, not to mention all the harm these processes do to the environment and human health.
Luckily, viscose is not the only kind of textile that can be made from bamboo. Although they are more expensive, there are also ways to create bamboo fabric in a closed-loop production process. In this case, the structure of cellulose isn’t altered by any chemicals and the fabric can be considered fully organic.
High-quality bamboo fabric doesn’t involve cellulose extraction or toxic solvents. A natural enzyme gets added to crushed bamboo wood fibers, which are washed and spun into yarn afterward. Since no chemicals are used, such productions are much safer for the factory workers and the environment. Besides, it’s the only production method that keeps the special properties of bamboo until the very end of the production cycle.
This kind of bamboo fabric truly is breathable, comfortable, durable, and antibacterial. That’s why many high-end clothing brands use it for apparel and undergarments.
The third most popular type of bamboo textile is bamboo lyocell. Although the fabric itself is quite similar to viscose, the manufacturing process is much more sustainable. No toxic chemicals are involved in lyocell production. Amine oxide, a non-toxic solvent, is used to break down the pulp. This method allows the manufacturer to reuse up to 99% percent of the solvent and water, which minimizes the amount of waste created and water used. Since bamboo lyocell consists of mostly organic ingredients, it is actually biodegradable and can break down in about 8 days.
Such production methods don’t only make the manufacturing process very sustainable, it also lets bamboo retain its unique qualities, so bamboo lyocell is a very soft and light fabric. While bamboo lyocell can be used to make clothing, the most common industry where it can be found is bed linen. Lyocell sheets are very soft, breathable, and hypoallergenic, which makes them perfect for a good night’s sleep.