Bamboo is known to be the fastest-growing plant in the world and is naturally organic. Majority of the bamboo grown in different locations of the world is eco-friendly as it requires no pesticides or fertilisers and needs little water. Currently, bamboo fabric is considered to be the trendiest sustainable fabric in the fashion world.
Bamboo plants are capable of growing up to four feet a day. Moreover, the bamboo plant releases 35% more oxygen in the air compared to other trees of the same size. With its fast growth, bamboo matures within seven years. It does not need to be replanted as it has a vast root network that continuously sprouts new shoots. It helps to improve soil conditions and prevent soil erosion.
With so much of the fashion industry depending upon cotton and other textiles that are costly to produce and can then be charged even more for, there has been a distinct lack in alternatives to luxurious fabrics for many people. But the bamboo fabric is softer than cotton, on par with cashmere, anti-bacterial, insulating, and stronger than most other textiles. It is economically invaluable in a time when gas prices continually rise, and everything is becoming more expensive.
What is Bamboo Fabric?
The fast-growing grass has made its mark as an eco-crop. From construction to homewares to fabrics, bamboo is having its moment in the limelight. But given that some claims associated with bamboo have been disputed, such as its sustainability, UV protection, and anti-bacterial properties, is it really the miracle crop many are claiming it to be? Just how sustainable is bamboo?
The term “bamboo fabric” widely refers to a number of different textiles that are made from the bamboo plant. Fabrics have been made from bamboo for thousands of years, but it is only in contemporary times that the process of making this hardy and fast-growing wood into fabric has been perfected.
The story of bamboo fabric is a mixed bag. While some types of fabric are environmentally sustainable and produced ethically, other types may be harmful to the environment or the workers who make it. To ensure that you select the right type of bamboo fabric, it’s important to learn more about the textile industry surrounding this plant.
How Is The Bamboo Fabric Made?
Depending on the type of fabric that is being made, bamboo textiles can be produced using a number of different methods. The majority of bamboo fabric produced worldwide is bamboo viscose, which is cheap to produce even though it has environmental downsides and represents workplace hazards.
To understand these labels, we first need to understand more about the process of making these types of rayon textiles.
All soft bamboo fabrics are part of the rayon family. It sounds like plastic but rayon, modal and lyocell are not synthetic fabrics (petroleum-based like polyester or nylon). However, they’re not strictly natural either in that the process used to create the fibres doesn’t come directly from an animal like wool, or plant fibres such as hemp, jute, cotton or flax (linen). They land somewhere in between – they are “regenerated” fibres.
It all starts with cellulose – a natural polymer that makes up the living cells in all plants. Cellulose is what makes rayon, modal, and lyocell fabrics feel silky. The cellulose is extracted from plants (mostly trees and more recently bamboo) by taking the woody part of the plant, crushing it and mixing it with either a natural enzyme or with toxic chemicals to create a slurry.
This slurry is then passed through a spinneret and extruded through a device much like a showerhead to create the soft fibres that are converted (regenerated) into nearly pure cellulose. This is called the “viscose process”. The fibres are then dried, milled, and fluffed. Next, they are dyed and spun into threads that are woven into fabrics.
Producing bamboo fabric is more economical than other textiles. It all begins with the growth process for the bamboo plants. The plants grow much faster than traditional cotton, some growing to full size in less than three months. Bamboo also grows in inhospitable environments for plants. It can grow near water in the soil that has been the victim of soil erosion and in soil that is slowly dwindling into desertification. It can also thrive in areas that have very little rainfall.
It starts out looking good. Bamboo can be a very sustainable crop; a fast-growing grass, it requires no fertiliser and self-regenerates from its own roots, so it doesn’t need to be replanted. When compared to cotton cultivation, which requires large amounts of water, pesticides and labour, the advantages are pretty clear.
But wait! Before you run off to restock your wardrobe, there are a few things to consider. For starters, although bamboo is fast-growing and requires no pesticides, that doesn’t mean that it is being grown sustainably. The majority of bamboo is grown in China, and there is no information regarding how intensively bamboo is being harvested, or what sort of land clearing might be underway in order to make way for the bamboo. Also, although bamboo doesn’t need pesticides, there is no guarantee that they are not being used to maximise outputs.
When growing bamboo, there is substantially less water and pesticides needed to produce the plants than if the farmer were growing cotton. Bamboo, unlike cotton, has a natural bio-agent in it called bamboo Kun. This bamboo Kun is what keeps pests from attacking the bamboo, but also keeps pathogens from making the plants sick. Eventually, this bio-agent will also be what makes the bamboo fabric anti-bacterial.
After the bamboo plant is harvested, it is cut up into the bamboo pulp that is eventually made into the bamboo fabric. This process uses less water than any other textile production process, especially cotton. The soft fabric is then bleached without the use of chlorine or other expensive chemicals, and can then be coloured. The dying process for bamboo is also more economical than other processes. It requires less water and harsh chemicals than the process of dying other textiles.
Okay, you think so that bamboo might have some issues, but it still uses way less chemicals, and is more environmentally friendly than cotton, right? While this is almost certainly true for the cultivation phase, the same can’t be said about the manufacturing process. There are several ways to turn bamboo into a piece of fabric.
The first process involves combing out the bamboo fibres and spinning these into thread. This results in a slightly coarse fabric that is usually called “bamboo linen”. Creating this “linen” is labour intensive and expensive, and the result not suitable for the soft, intimate products for which bamboo is most in demand.
The second and much more popular method is the process used to make the silky soft bamboo fabric you find in sheets, underwear and more. This “bamboo rayon” is produced through a highly intensive chemical process, similar to the process used to turn wood chips into rayon. This is where the sustainability of bamboo gets a little prickly. Rayon is primarily a raw material converted through a chemical process. The end product of this process ultimately falls into a category that is somewhere between naturals and synthetics. The source of the cellulose can be cotton, wood, and yep, bamboo. So essentially soft bamboo fabric is processed in the same fashion as semi-natural rayon.
Bamboo rayon is most commonly made through what is known as the viscose process, which involves dissolving cellulose material such as bamboo in a chemical solution to produce a pulpy viscous substance. This is then pushed through a spinneret, and “spun” into the fibres that can then be made into threads and fabrics. The chemicals used in this process are highly toxic and a risk to human health. About 50% of hazardous waste from rayon production (including the bamboo variety) cannot be recaptured and reused and goes directly into the environment.
The products made from bamboo fabric are as economical as the process to make the fabric. Many products made from bamboo are more economical than their cotton counterparts simply because bamboo fabric offers more in a product than one made of cotton fabric. One of the most expensive cotton items is the high thread count cotton sheets. These are very expensive and very coveted because of the soft feel of the bedding. But bamboo bedding that is much less expensive than the high thread count cotton sheets are even softer than those sheets and have a similar sheen and drape to silk. Bamboo sheets are also anti-bacterial, meaning they are healthier for people who are illness prone and have allergies.
Other bamboo products, like shirts and socks, are excellent for odour control and hot weather. Bamboo fabric is naturally absorbent and dries faster than cotton. That means it not only absorbs the odour causing sweat but dries it very quickly. The bamboo clothing doesn’t stick to skin in hot weather and wicks away moisture to keep people cool. These clothes also last longer than cotton and thus are more affordable than constantly replacing socks and other items.
Bamboo products are certainly finding their places in the world, and it’s easy to see why. More economical from the way it is grown, to the processing, and even the products produced from bamboo fabric are all superior to cotton in terms of cost and renewable resources. In the future, it can be predicted that bamboo will be used much more frequently.
As a side note, there is no conclusive evidence that many of the claimed qualities of bamboo, such as its anti-bacterial properties or UV resistance, are still present in the fibre after it has been put through such an intensive process.
Finally, the good news: a similar fabric called lyocell (also known by the brand name TENCEL) uses a closed-loop process to recapture and reuse 99% of the chemical solution. Tencel is often made from sustainably farmed eucalyptus trees, and the fabric was awarded the “European Award for the Environment” by the European Union. The lyocell process can also be used to create fabric from bamboo, although few brands are doing this.
Where Is Bamboo Fabric Produced?
Bamboo fabric has been produced in East Asia for thousands of years. For instance, cultures in India and China have been producing this textile for untold generations, and bamboo fabric festivals are still held in rural India every year.
The relative environmental sustainability of growing this type of wood has stimulated the production of bamboo across the world. Producing this type of wood is even popular in Western nations such as the United States and Europe since it can be grown in a wide variety of climates. Therefore, almost every semi-developed or the developed country in the world produces or exports at least some amount of bamboo fabric.
However, the single largest producer of this type of crop is China. In some ways, this economic fact is only natural; after all, bamboo has been an integral part of Chinese culture for millennia, and it has long been a favourite substance for making textile products in this area.
There’s also a darker side to why the production of bamboo fabric is so popular in China. Since the late 1970s, China has become more and more popular among international textile corporations due to this communist country’s lax environmental standards and rampant human rights abuses in the consumer goods production sector.
It remains the case that producing textiles and consumer products of all kinds are, in many instances, the cheapest in China, which has caused a variety of bamboo fabric manufacturers to gravitate toward this country for their production needs. Since Chinese companies are not highly incentivised to grow their products ethically or sustainably, the production of this textile crop in China is more environmentally damaging than is reasonable or necessary. Still, it is undeniably inexpensive to produce bamboo fabric in this country.
Other major exporters of this fabric include India, Pakistan, and Indonesia. While a significant amount of this type of fabric is also produced in the United States, most of it is manufactured for domestic consumption, which means that it does not contribute to this country’s exports.
Bamboo itself can be a highly sustainable crop if grown under the right conditions (and it often is). However, most bamboo fabrics on the market are a form of rayon where the manufacturing process is highly intensive and involves many harmful chemicals.
While lyocell is a more sustainable alternative with much less impact, it’s harder to find lyocell products made from bamboo. For some types of clothing look for eco-friendly fabrics like organically grown hemp. In most cases, organic cotton will be a better choice from the environment, all other things being equal (especially the fabric dying process).
We should know that the majority of products labelled as “bamboo” are actually rayon, involve intensive chemical emissions and are likely without the same beneficial properties as the unprocessed bamboo plant. Bamboo fabric is much less costly to produce than cotton (and avoids the extensive use of pesticides in non-organic cotton production), and production is not as chemically intensive as polyester, but the bamboo fabric is sadly not the perfect answer to all our ethical clothing conundrums; in fact, European NGO Made-By rates bamboo viscose on a par with conventional cotton at the bottom of its A to E rating scale. As the LA Times has said, bamboo “has largely been discredited as an [eco friendly] alternative source.”
Bamboo has advantages over cotton when it comes to its sustainable farming potential. But there’s a lot of work done to develop and make widely available cost-effective and environmentally sustainable ways of creating the soft and silky bamboo fabrics that we’re dreaming of.
How does bamboo fabric impact the environment?
Bamboo is often touted as an eco-friendly fabric, and in some ways, this designation may be accurate. For instance, bamboo is incredibly easy to grow; it matures very quickly, and it can grow in areas that are not suitable for other crops. Therefore, the environmental impact of cultivating bamboo is relatively minimal in theory, and it’s up to individual bamboo cultivators to ensure that their crop is obtained in a sustainable manner.
Ironically, the modern demand for bamboo led many Chinese manufacturers to fell forests of other trees to plant bamboo, which practically eliminates the environmental benefits of this crop. In the late 1990s, however, the Chinese Communist Party instated regulations prohibiting this behaviour.
Even if contemporary bamboo cultivation is relatively easy on the environment, the process of producing bamboo viscose is anything but environmentally friendly. While there is generally no risk of consumers encountering toxic chemicals when they wear or use bamboo fabric, a variety of dangerous substances are used to transform raw bamboo into the cellulose that is used to make rayon.
For instance, the lye used to transform bamboo wood into a substance suitable for cellulose extraction isn’t usually reused. In addition, carbon disulphide is an integral aspect of the rayon production process, and it’s impossible to recapture this toxic chemical once it has been used.
Bamboo production in developing nations, such as China, has encountered a great deal of controversy. For instance, many Chinese bamboo fabric factories expose their workers to the gaseous carbon disulphide that is emitted in the bamboo rayon production process.
Carbon disulphide is a neurotoxin, and it also causes organ damage. Workers who are exposed to this chemical can develop psychosis, liver damage, coma, and blindness, and this chemical can also cause heart attacks. While some factories may protect their workers from carbon disulphide, the legal limits of this substance that have been determined by the Chinese government are far above the safety threshold indicated by medical scientists.
However, the vast majority of bamboo fabric is rayon, which means that environmentally degrading processes are used to make this textile. It’s important to point out that genuine bamboo fibre can be produced with methods that are not harmful to the environment. If you want to experience the benefits touted by bamboo fabric manufacturers, it’s necessary to avoid bamboo viscose and choose genuine fibres or lyocell-like bamboo cellulose fabrics instead.
What Are The Advantages And Disadvantages Of Bamboo Fabric?
The material has the following benefits compared to traditional materials used in fabric manufacturing:
- Fabric made from bamboo is softer than cotton with a texture similar to silk.
- It is a naturally anti-bacterial and hypoallergenic product grown without the use of chemicals or pesticides.
- It is also quick to absorb moisture, therefore keeping you dry and odour free. This is great for workout clothes!
- Pure bamboo clothes can dry twice as fast as cotton clothes.
- Bamboo clothes can be worn all year round as they keep you cool in summer and warm in winter.
- Bamboo fabric is created from bamboo pulp. The fabric is bleached without the use of chlorine. Bamboo fabric is easy to dye and is done so without the use of harsh chemicals and using methods which use less water than conventional dyeing methods.
- Bamboo growth is incredibly sustainable. Bamboo grows very quickly and is mature and ready to harvest after about four years of growth. It does not need to be replanted because it sends up new growth from its vast root system. It also converts a high volume of carbon dioxide into oxygen.
- Bamboo is easily organically grown. It usually requires no pesticides and fertilisers. It is also drought-tolerant, so it does not use massive amounts of water for irrigation.
- Bamboo fabric is naturally anti-bacterial. It is also hypoallergenic. Many people who experience sensitivities to other fabrics can use bamboo without a problem.
- Bamboo is also naturally wicking. It helps to regulate your body temperature by pulling moisture away from your skin. When you are sweating bamboo will not cling to you the way other fabrics will. In warmer climates, it helps you to keep cool while sleeping.
- Bamboo is compostable. Bamboo is made from all-natural plant materials so when your product is worn beyond use, you can compost it and grow something new. Bamboo fabrics never have to end up in a landfill.
- The material is soft. Some even equate its luxurious feel to silk.
Of course, for every advantage, there is a disadvantage, right? While there are many advantages of bamboo fabric, you need to give careful consideration to how you are wearing it and how you plan on caring for it.
- Although it is suggested that bamboo has natural antibacterial properties, because it is so absorbent, the fibres absorb a lot of sweat and can actually encourage microbial growth.
- Bamboo fibres can also allow UV light to penetrate the cloth, and it does not offer great protection from the sun.
- Cost is a big concern; bamboo is a hot product now and will carry a higher price tag compared to cotton.
- The plant is invasive. When grown outside of its native habitat, it can easily take over and outcompete native species
- Bamboo tends to shrink more than all cotton fabrics; therefore, special laundering may be required.
- Bamboo fabric also wrinkles more than other fabrics. Depending on what the fabric is being used for, bamboo may not be the ideal choice.