Bamboo is one of the most beloved plants of all time. Its been used for thousands of years to create everything, from mega buildings in Asia, clothing, cooking utensils, bicycles in Alabama, musical instruments, a source of food, and much more. Bamboo is one of the fasting sources of renewable biofuel, and is an incredible resource for health and beauty products…BUT, is it a “safe choice” (eco-friendly, environmentally safe, and sustainable) for clothing?
In this article, we’ll be focusing on three areas.
- What is the process for making bamboo textile?
- Is bamboo textile environmentally safe?
- Is bamboo textile sustainable?
Bamboo’s natural properties are astounding, which is why the clothing industry is so attracted to use the fiber from bamboo. It’s incredibly soft to the touch and drapes over your body nicely. It has natural antibacterial properties, is UV blocking, and provides instant moisture evaporation.
Wikipedia: Most of the bamboo used to make bamboo fibre and bamboo clothing is grown in China by Hebei Jigao Chemical Fiber Company, which holds several patents on processes for turning bamboo into fibre. The bamboo is certified organic by OCIA (The Organic Crop Improvement Association). To strictly control the quality of raw material, Hebei Jigao Chemical Fiber Company has built its own bamboo plantation in Sichuan Province, China, and keeps strict control over it. The bamboo is grown in accordance to the international organic standard of OCIA/IFOAM and the USDA National Organic Program, so as to ensure each bamboo stalk is of 100% natural growth and without any chemical pesticides. The proof of the ecologically sound methods behind bamboo production is the fact that all of the fibre produced at the facility in China is Oeko-Tex 100 certified. This certifies that the finished fibre has been tested for any chemicals that may be harmful to a person’s health and has been found to contain no trace chemicals that pose any health threat whatsoever. This means that every company working with bamboo starts with the same raw material and that this material is not contaminated.
Bamboo Production Methods:
There are two types of bamboo production methods. One of the production methods is called the viscose process, which uses harsh chemicals and an environmentally harmful processes to manufacture the plant into a usable fiber. On the other hand, you have a more natural and mechanical process that doesn’t use the harsh chemicals, however it’s labor intensive, and the energy consumption in the manufacturing process is much greater.
Because of this controversy, Todd Copeland of Patagonia stated, “Patagonia’s material developers have been investigating bamboo since 2003, but since almost all available bamboo fabric is made using the viscose process, we don’t use bamboo fabric in our product line.”
To help you understand The Viscose Process you can watch the video below, starting at the 2 min and 40 second mark. Basically, the bamboo is churned up in a solution of sodium hydroxide, chilled, carbon disulfide is added, and even more sodium hydroxide is added, then the access is evaporated off, and the fibers are spun into yarn that is essentially no different than rayon. The only difference is the source of the fiber, but the process and chemicals used are basically the same.
In this video (above), you can see how scientist Tara Afrin is trying to create a new way of producing bamboo fiber that doesn’t use the standard harsh chemicals which the viscose process employs. She’s basically developing a closed loop system to process bamboo, which has little measurable waste, and used less energy to produce the fiber.
The new way of chemical bamboo textile production embraces the lyocell process, also used to manufacture TENCEL®. N-methylmorpholine-N-oxide is the preferred chemical and is a member of the amine oxide family. Amine oxides are weak alkalines that act as surfactants and help break down the cellulose structure with hydrogen peroxide being added as a stabilizer. After being spun into thread, the fiber uses a hardening solution of water and methanol, ethanol or a similar alcohol. This lyocell processing is substantially healthier and more eco-friendly because N-methylmorpholine-N-oxide is supposedly non-toxic to humans and the chemical manufacturing processes are closed-loop with 99.5% of the chemicals reclaimed and recycled to be used again.
To learn more in-depth about all the chemical manufacturing processes (a more systematic step-by-step approach), visit Organic Blogs and read this article by Michael.
Mechanically produced bamboo fabric requires no harmful chemicals! Using a process similar to the one that produces linen from flax, bamboo fibers are raked and combed into long strands, thereby preserving their anti-bacterial and anti fungal characteristics. Because the bamboo remains unchanged chemically, it’s softer and less likely to cause irritation, even on sensitive skin. See slideshare presentation here.
Mechanical bamboo production is far more costly and time consuming to produce than chemically processed bamboo, so it’s not a “favorite” method for profit hungry companies…but rather one sought after by smaller organizations who want to “do good” for all people.
Is Bamboo Textile Sustainable?
To fully understand this question, one must investigate the full lifecycle of a bamboo plant. I can’t dive into the full lifecycle of the bamboo plant in this article, but I will suggest the few points.
- There are over 1600 species found in diverse climates from cold mountains to hot tropical regions.
- It is a grass and so regenerates after being cut just like a lawn without the need for replanting.
- Bamboo can grow up to 1 meter per day.
- Average yields for bamboo of up to 60 tonnes per hectare.
- One hectare of bamboo sequesters 62 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year while one hectare of young forest only sequesters 15 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.
- There is no need for pesticides or fertilizers when growing bamboo.
- Most of the bamboo used to make bamboo fibre and bamboo clothing is grown in China by Hebei Jigao Chemical Fiber Company.
As you can see by many of the above points, the “growing” part of bamboo is highly sustainable, and costs very little for the amount of raw material provided. That said, with the current high cost of mechanical manufacturing, and the harmful effects in the chemical manufacturing process, make it a tough bargain.
Not only are chemicals in the bamboo fiber manufacturing process harmful, they’re not “natural” which is not easily sustainable. It takes energy and composition of materials to make the chemicals needed, and it take energy to process the bamboo (chemically or mechanically) into a pulp which can be spun into a yarn.
The up side of bamboo, is it can be grown in nearly every climate (meaning it’s CLOSE to you) and the processing of it could be handled at the point of textile manufacturing (if we would all buy and sell locally). This greatly reduces the carbon footprint of transporting the garments created to the end user or customer.
Should I Buy Bamboo Clothing?
I believe there are facilities who are honestly trying to produce environmentally friendly, earth conscious, bamboo textiles…but they’re few and far between. It may be a couple more years before a North American facility, capable of handling mechanical bamboo production in an energy efficient way becomes available. When purchasing bamboo clothing, always make sure you choose bamboo textile that was NOT made using the viscose chemical process. It simply is not a good idea to use such chemicals in a way they cannot be reclaimed.
Instead of purchasing bamboo, consider organic cotton, linen, tensile, and hemp. I will dive into these materials in the future, with more to come on HEMP soon.
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In the below Sustainability in the Modern World show, my friend Andy Brine of The Entrepreneur’s Journey and I, speak with Jessica Maynard of Ava Grace Fashions (then Nouriche Boutique) about “The Evolution of Sustainable Clothing.”