Bamboo Clothing: Green, or Greenwashed?



If you’re looking for more eco-friendly clothing, should you choose bamboo?

Bamboo Annie Bamboo has been touted for the last several years as being one of the most environmentally-responsible fabrics on the market. A hardy grass, it grows like a proverbial weed, sometimes sprouting 4 feet in a single day – and that’s without the assistance of pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers let alone irrigation. Bamboo sounds like the kind of “green” fabric you’d love to love – were it not for the process needed to transform it from a plant into something like a pair of socks.

In August 2009, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission issued "Have You Been Bamboozled by Bamboo Fabrics?" a report that questioned the fiber’s green bonafides. While not challenging how the grass is grown, the FTC warned that transforming the plant’s tenacious stalks into soft fabrics requires the use of toxic chemicals that pollute the air and water,” reducing the cloth’s natural appeal. Many consumers have been wondering ever since if bamboo is green – or being greenwashed.

What concerns the FTC is the manufacturing process. Because bamboo is so hardy, it is also hard to refine into fiber – unless a manufacturer uses toxic chemicals like sodium hydroxide, which can cause chemical burns or blindness, to break down bamboo’s cells into something pliable called viscose.

Some manufacturers claim that sodium hydroxide poses no health hazard if used and disposed of properly.  I’m more reassured by companies that use fabric from bamboo  which has not only been certified as organically grown, but where the chemicals used in processing bamboo into viscose are captured in a “closed loop” system that is supposed to prevent them from being released into the environment. The resulting viscose is Oeko Tex 100 certified, which means that no harmful substances lurk in the finished textile, where they might rub off on your skin. Conventionally produced and polluting "bamboo" might be labelled simply bamboo, or rayon from bamboo.  You can get a more comprehensive explanation on the entire process, and the controvery surrounding the selling of bamboo, here.

So…Cotton, or Bamboo?

Organic cotton is superior to bamboo. But If you’re choosing between conventionally grown cotton and bamboo, given what I can figure out about the growing and processing of both, I would choose bamboo. (Most cotton in use today is not organic.)

Cotton Pesticides:

Cotton is more vulnerable to bugs and disease than almost any other crop grown, so much so that it demands 22.5% of the world’s pesticide use .  Unless cotton has been certified organic, in all likelihood, it has probably been sprayed intensely with pesticides. Be alert: "Natural" cotton means nothing. If you prefer cotton, it should be certified organic.

Bamboo requires little if any pesticide to grow.  

Harvesting:

Cotton is considered a renewable resource – it takes about 3 months to grow, but needs to be replanted and harvested every year, which would make it very energy-intensive to grow.

Bamboo is considered a rapidly renewable resource. Once planted, it can take between three and seven years to reach maturity, depending on the species. But thereafter, the plant continues to grow, as only the top stalks are harvested, not the roots (if you’ve ever tried to eradicate bamboo from your yard, you’ll know the story – it grows and grows and grows…).

Climate Change Impact:

 I haven’t been able to find any information that compares the energy costs of producing cotton fabric to bamboo fabric. However, BambooNow.com says bamboo “is one of the most effective scrubbers of carbon dioxide in the world. It grows four times faster than wood, produces far more biomass, and sequesters 35% more C02.”

Processing:

 The general steps in processing both cotton and bamboo are very similar. They include: spinning  (transform the processed plant threads into yarn), weaving (yarn into fabric),  dyeing , and some kind of finish (for example, a chemical finish may be applied to make the fabric “wrinkle resistant”). Finally the fabric is cut and sewn into the desired product. Both fabrics have a global life cycle, with most bamboo being grown and processed in China, most cotton being grown in China and other countries in Asia, and manufacturing taking place in still other countries. Dyeing either cotton or bamboo can have equally harmful or harmless consequences, depending on the kinds of dyes used.

Water:

By  the end of production, it will have taken about 700 gallons of water to make a cotton t-shirt; a t-shirt made from bamboo would use about 35 gallons.  Cotton is one of agriculture’s thirstiest cultivated plants, requiring 101 gallons of water to create a pound of finished cotton. 

Laundry:

Manufacturers claim that bamboo has natural anti-bacterial properties which help repel body odor, meaning you should be able to wash it less frequently than other materials.  Manufacturers also claim that bamboo dries faster than cotton, possibly reducing dryer use (which is not recommended anyway, as bamboo will retain its shape better if line dried). The FTC has dismissed the anti-bacterial claims; if you are line-drying both cotton and bamboo, it shouldn't matter too much which one dries quickest. One benefit I can personally attest to since I use bamboo towels, is that bamboo seems to be more absorbent than cotton, thus reducing the number of towels needed after a shower or bath.

What about the greenwashing?

One way manufacturers greenwash their products is by touting bamboo on the label – even if only 5% of the product contains bamboo fiber. Consumers might see the word and believe that the entire piece of clothing is bamboo, when only a fraction of it comes from bamboo. Don't pay a premium for what you think is 100% bamboo if the fiber has only been added to spruce up a company's marketing campaign.

As for cotton, don't be seduced by the words "natural" cotton. In all likelihood, cotton grown "naturally" has been showered with pesticides and herbicides in the course of its lifetime. If you're buying cotton new, choose organic.

In a future post, we’ll report on hemp and recycled polyester. We'll also tackle TENCEL Lyocel, which processes wood into fiber using the closed-loop method to capture the polluting chemicals.

Meanwhile, you can read about more eco-friendly options at this month’s Green Moms Carnival.

Thanks to research assistant Tracy Gaudet for help with this article.

 (photo courtesy of AnnieO76 on Flickr)  

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14 Responses to Bamboo Clothing: Green, or Greenwashed?

  1. Anna@Green Talk September 20, 2010 at 9:58 am #

    Here is my problem with bamboo. How do you truly verify that a closed loop system is being used and the waste water generated is being disposed of or teated properly? Aren’t most the factories in Asia? How about third party certification?
    If I was to buy bamboo, I would require that it be third party GOTS certifed so that I could assure the processing including the waste water issue were on the up and up. See http://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2009/08/19/348/ Patty and Leigh Anne are my heroes. Their article (like all of them) is quite in depth about the bamboo industry and a must read.
    Also, what about deforestation since bamboo has become the darling of sustainability? As well as the pesticides to help get rid of the weeds?
    Read this article: http://www.fashion-incubator.com/archive/how-to-avoid-trouble-if-using-bamboo-fabrics/ It is quite eye opening too.
    For me, it depends on the third party certifications. I opt for organic cotton right now.

  2. Diane MacEachern September 20, 2010 at 10:14 am #

    Great suggestions, Anna. And you’re right – ensuring companies do what they say they do is challenging, especially when they’re in a place like China. The points you make ultimately highlight the needs for sustainability standards that compare one fabric to another so consumers can make informed choices, and so manufacturers will be held to the highest possible standards.

  3. Isabel September 20, 2010 at 2:20 pm #

    Thank you for the informative article. Over the past couple years I have moved toward the natural, organic, and sustainable in all areas of life. Information like this is a huge help!

  4. Coral Rose September 24, 2010 at 6:30 pm #

    Thanks Diane for this post.
    Here is an easy to use fact based brochure,
    “Are You Being Bamboozled? A Guide on How to Avoid Mislabeling”
    Created by Dr. Gwendolyn Hustvedt, Texas State University‐San Marcos and Coral Rose, Eco‐Innovations Sustainable Textile Services (Myself)
    http://coralrose.typepad.com/my_weblog/2009/10/how-to-avoid-bamboozlinghow-to-avoid-mislabeling-.html

  5. Coral Rose September 24, 2010 at 6:34 pm #

    “First Clean Coal, Now Organic Bamboo?”
    http://www.sustainablelifemedia.com/content/column/strategy/first_clean_coal_now_organic_bamboo

  6. Diane MacEachern September 27, 2010 at 11:09 am #

    Thanks for the links, Coral Rose.

  7. Ezmelts September 27, 2010 at 3:44 pm #

    I have to admit I had not become aware that bamboo could be used to make textiles until I worked at a home goods store and notice bedding and bath products made from bamboo.
    All in all, considering that bamboo is the better crop it’s a head scratcher for me there isn’t a bigger effort to make bamboo textiles mainstream.

  8. Lisa @Retro Housewife Goes Green October 2, 2010 at 7:44 pm #

    I like the feel of bamboo so I hope someone comes up with a really good natural way to make it in to fibers. It could be a wonderful fabric but for now I choose organic cotton.

  9. Coral Rose October 5, 2010 at 8:47 pm #

    Diane-here are some other articles that I have authored on “Rayon from Bamboo” textiles-beginning in early 2008. They are very educational.
    Sustainable Action Leadership-February 2008
    Have You Been Bamboozled by Bamboo?
    By Coral Rose
    http://coralrose.typepad.com/my_weblog/2008/02/have-you-been-b.html
    ——————————–
    Sustainable Life Media- August 2009
    FTC Mulches False Bamboo Textile Claims
    By Coral Rose
    http://www.sustainablelifemedia.com/content/column/strategy/ftc_mulches_false_bamboo_textile_claims
    ——————————–
    Sustainable Action Leadership September 2009
    You Can Have Your Bamboo and Eat it Too–“Rayon Made From Organic Bamboo”
    By Coral Rose
    http://coralrose.typepad.com/my_weblog/2009/09/you-can-have-your-bamboo-and-eat-it-toorayon-made-from-organic-bamboo.html

  10. Riviet November 3, 2010 at 12:31 pm #

    We have bamboo and hemp textiles at http://www.riviet.com Our shirts are mixed with Organic cotton to give them a softer feel. I encourage everyone to check them out.

  11. Bamboozled April 17, 2011 at 7:25 pm #

    I think it’s useful to look at the potential downsides of promising new technologies, but I’m not sure this article properly contextualizes or quantifies the problems in the bamboo vs cotton debate. The major concern listed is the use of sodium hydroxide in the pulping stages of bamboo processing, but it’s not clear to me how this is different from the use of sodium hydroxide in cotton refinement (which uses it for the same purposes and is commonly used in organic-labeled cotton refinement). I also think it might be good to discuss the chemical itself in more detail. Whenever you list something as a harmful chemical it’s important to distinguish how harmful it is (dihydrogen monoxide – water – is fatal in large doses)… in this case we’re talking about lye (that’s the common parlance for sodium hydroxide) and it’s used in almost every industry requiring a base, in common household goods (it’s the base for many bar soaps and restaurant detergents) and even in many foods (olives, baked goods, etc).
    Also, given that organic cotton is also using this chemical, I think it would be good to quantify: 1. How much lye is being used (is it more than in cotton-softening?); 2. how “harmful” is harmful? (we’ve been using lye for literally thousands of years now, and while it can be dangerous as a high-PH base in a concentrated form, it’s pretty low on the list of environmental toxins and is considered less environmentally harmful than many of the common household cleaners we use); 3. Use the numbers from these first two points (amount x damage) to contextualize the harm done with respect to cotton processing/growing. You’ve done a nice job quantifying the other points like water, carbon, etc (which all seem to point to bamboo being better than cotton) but on this core critique you’ve only provided the name of a scary-sounding chemical without any real numbers that would help us make a rational decision in this debate.
    It may be that bamboo doesn’t beat out cotton, but this post (and a few similar ones on other green blogs) seem to take this critique at face value without really diving into the details.
    That said, the information about labeling (i.e. that products with only trace amounts of bamboo can be labeled as being “bamboo” is very interesting and the other numbers are quite useful… thanks for the post!

  12. Diane MacEachern April 19, 2011 at 8:54 am #

    Thanks for your comments. I come down on the side of bamboo over conventional cotton. I also believe we need independent verification of product life cycles so we can have a much clearer picture of the pros and cons of anything we buy.

  13. synthetic grass January 9, 2012 at 6:23 pm #

    If that would save mother nature, then I’d go with it. It is economical and environmental friendly as well.

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