Is Bamboo Clothing Really Eco-Friendly?

Hokokuji_Bamboo_Forest_KamakuraBamboo has many benefits over other raw materials for fabric production. It grows naturally in the wild without needing any chemical herbicides, pesticides, or chemical fertilizers. Bamboo does not use up any water resources, since it grows well from natural rainfall. It is also sustainably harvested on naturally growing stands. Because bamboo is actually a grass with an interconnected root system, when it is harvested in one spot, new shoots will emerge again in the same location without replanting. All of this seems to indicate that bamboo is an ideal organic raw material for clothing. So why are some people questioning the green merits of bamboo clothing? It is because they have concerns with the manufacturing process. So naturally, the next question you ask should be…

How is Bamboo Fabric Made?

When you look at a bamboo plant, it might be hard to imagine how it could be turned into such a soft clothing material. So how is it done? There are actually two methods for producing bamboo fiber. In the “mechanical method” woody parts of bamboo plants are broken down with enzymes to create a mash of fibers that can be spun out into yarn. The drawbacks of this method are that it is expensive and the resulting material is rather scratchy.

The other method is the one that produces bamboo viscose. Material from the bamboo plants are crushed and then treated with a solution of sodium hydroxide to break down the cellulose. After this, the cellulose that results is forced through a spinneret, which produces thin viscose fiber threads that can be woven into fabric. The bamboo viscose that is produced from this method is very soft and makes excellent clothing. The vast majority of bamboo clothing on the market is produced with this method.

Does Bamboo Clothing Production Release Harmful Chemicals into the Environment?

Modern production methods for creating useable bamboo viscose from raw bamboo plants do not result in any harmful chemicals getting out into the environment. In responsible production facilities, the process is done as a closed loop in a hermetic container, and all the chemicals used are recycled. Sodium hydroxide easily washes off the bamboo fiber, so it doesn’t remain as a residue on clothing made from bamboo. Critics of bamboo clothing will argue that bamboo production uses “harsh chemicals”, implying that the production of other fabrics is somehow entirely chemical-free. However, sodium hydroxide is routinely used in the production of other fabrics such as hemp and cotton, including organic cotton. In fact, the use of sodium hydroxide is approved by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and the Soil Association.

What else is sodium hydroxide used for? Well, you may be surprised to find out that sodium hydroxide, also known as caustic soda or lye, is used extensively in food production. It’s used to thicken ice cream, soften olives, and glaze pretzels before baking. It has many other food uses as well, including processing of chocolate and cocoa. It’s also used extensively in paper production, and as mentioned before, sodium hydroxide is also commonly used in processing cotton. The cotton that results is called Mercerized cotton, which is stronger, shinier, and can be dyed more colorfully than untreated cotton.

How Does the Eco-Friendliness of Bamboo Fabric Compare with Other Clothing Materials?

We need to look from every angle to consider the overall pros and cons of bamboo fabric vs. other materials in regards to their impact on the environment. First of all, bamboo easily grows well in nature without any need for chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides. The plant is a wonder of nature that already has its own resistance to pests. The bamboo used for clothing production is a variety known as moso, which is harvested in a sustainable manner from large naturally-growing stands in China. The mature bamboo stalks are cut down by hand when they are three or four years old, while the younger ones are left to grow, and new shoots soon emerge to replace those that were harvested. Natural rainfall is adequate for bamboo’s growth, so it does not put a strain on water resources. It uses less water and produces more useable raw material per acre than cotton, including organic cotton. Bamboo forests also help to prevent erosion, while returning nutrients to the soil. Other textile crops, including organic cotton, strip the soil of nutrients and put a strain on local watersheds. And for additional comparison, non-organic cotton is responsible for more insecticide use worldwide than any other crop.

Bamboo viscose is classified as a rayon by the FTC. However, it is easy to see some big advantages of bamboo viscose over conventional rayon, which is manufactured from wood pulp. Bamboo can be harvested from the same location year after year, by leaving intact the extensive root system which produces new shoots to replace the mature stalks that have been harvested. Whereas rayon from wood pulp requires cutting down trees that took many years to grow. A bamboo forest also converts more carbon dioxide to oxygen per acre than a regular hardwood forest.

So while it is true that some chemicals are used in the process of manufacturing bamboo fabric, we still believe that bamboo presents one of the best overall green solutions as a resource for clothing material.

What are the Advantages of Bamboo Clothing?

If bamboo fabric was not such a great clothing material, then nobody would bother debating how eco-friendly it is. But luckily for us, bamboo clothing is superior to other clothing in many ways. First of all, bamboo fabric is very comfortable to wear. It is very soft and breathes well. Furthermore, bamboo fabric absorbs moisture and will wick sweat away from your skin. Bamboo fabric maintains some of the anti-bacterial properties of the bamboo plant. This means that bamboo clothing smells fresher for longer. The anti-bacterial and moisture absorbing properties of bamboo make it especially well suited for yoga clothing and exercise gear that is intended to be worn during a sweaty activity. It also makes bamboo a good clothing material for socks and undergarments.

How Safe is the Clothing Being Sold?

All of the clothing from responsible companies such as Jonano and Green Apple Active use bamboo fiber that has passed the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 and have been awarded the “Confidence in Textiles” label. Oeko-Tex is an independent testing and certification organization for all stages of textile production. It assures that textiles are free from any harmful substances.