Is Bamboo Fabric Sustainable?
I remember my first bamboo piece of clothing. I was a teenager in the 90’s and I had a brown button down slip dress that I would wear over a white stretch T. I also remember where I purchased it from with my Mum, it was Miss Shop in Myer, the teenage section of the iconic Melbourne department store. I wore that dress to church with my brown leather sandals with a cork sole, just the right amount of heel to make me feel mature but still low enough to make it appropriate for church atire. I felt like the bomb in that outfit. And I loved the feel of that dress. It had an interesting texture, different shades in different lights. Like silk, but without the price tag.
What is bamboo fabric?
Bamboo fabric falls under the semi-synthetic textile family. Among bamboo fabric's relatives are rayon, viscose, modal, cupro and acetate. Would you believe the first semi-synthetic fibre, rayon, was created before the 20th century but it became popular in the 20’s and 30’s as an inferior option to silk. Just imagine flappers in the dance halls with their bobbed hair shimmying their rayon dresses all night! Wish I was there!
The reason why this fabric falls between synthetic and natural is because it is derived from natural materials but it uses a chemical process to create the end product. How else are we to wear a flowing dress made of wood without adding some pretty extreme chemicals into the mix.
Enivornmental and health concerns
This is where the term greenwashing needs to be highlighted. Turning the bamboo pulp into bamboo fabric is chemically intensive. It takes a lot of acid and toxic chemicals that are reliant on fossil fuels to achieve the end result of a soft fabric. Many brands promote their use of bamboo fabric as a sustainable, healthier alternative which just isn’t the case. Not one bit.
The environmental impacts of these chemicals are intense. This highly polluting process releases many toxic chemicals into the air and waterways surrounding production plants. To dissolve the wood to make the pulpy mash, about 70% of the tree is wasted in the process. It is estimated that about 30% of the production for viscose alone uses wood sourced from endangered forrests.
The impact on the factory workers are also allarming. Although by the time we wear the clothing the chemicals are not present, the chemical process is incredibly toxic to workers if safety precautions are not engineered with care. The majority of semi-synthetic fabric is made in countries such as India, China, Indonesia and Bangladesh, where ethics for factory workers are already in question. The chemical, carbon disulfide, has the ability to engage cellulor fibres and line them up in guidance into a new form. Then at just the right moment, the carbon disulfide lets go of the cellulois fibres and it’s at this time that toxic gases are released into the air. This toxic gas has been linked to widespread and severe illnesses for those who come near it. It affects the nervous system and can cause insanity, personality changes, blindness, heart disease, fertility issues, strokes and a myriad of other diseases and illnesses.
Back to the subject of bamboo fabric, I can reel off a list of brands that claim they are selling you a sustainable product when they are simply selling your bamboo fabric that is not sustainable. I have gone into a popular clothing companie's website that stocks a lot of health food shops with their products. Here are their health claims about bamboo fabric, along with my response:
- Bamboo fabric is hypoallergenic, suitable for eczema sufferers and those with extra sensitive skin. What about the worker's skin in the factory who are making this fabric?
- Bamboo fabric is sourced from a sustainable crop. I completely agree when it grown without pesticides and fertilisers, which is common because it doesn’t need them. Bamboo is a fast growing grass that can be cut down and continues to grow which is a lot more sustainable than harvesting trees. But that is where the sustainability ends. The process of making bamboo fabric is not sustainable.
- Bamboo fabric is antibacterial, anti-fungal and UV resistant. The actual bamboo plant has these qualities but it is debated that the chemical process the bamboo fabric goes through means that these properties are lost.
- Bamboo fabric is breathable and moisture-wicking. Yes but there are other fabric options that also have these properties that are more sustainable than bamboo fabric.
A healthier alternative
A much better option are semi-synthetic fabrics that are produced in factories that use a closed loop system and responsibly source their wood. Factories such as Lenzing who produce, Tencel Lyocell, Tencel Modal and Eco Vera (viscose). A closed loop system means the chemicals are not released into the environment, with 99% being reused again and again. So yes, chemicals are still used, but these chemicals are not discarded into nature. Along with the strict safety practices in their Austrian factories, Lenzing have reduced the water needed which means they are a much more sustainable option.
The cost of Lenzing fabrics can be more expensive than their conventional counterparts but it continues to be a lot cheaper than silk which means it can still be used as silk's cheaper cousin. To know if a brand is using Lenzing fabric look into their website or delve a little deeper into the product information of the brand. As a designer myself, I advertise what my sustainability practices are, including the fabric and it would be unusual for a brand to keep that hidden. If it’s not advertised as a Lenzing product assume that it is not, or if in doubt contact the brand.