Bamboo vs Organic Cotton – Which is Better for the Environment?

bamboo_towering_overheadIf you are an environmentally conscious yogi, you may wonder what the best material for eco-friendly yoga clothing is. Does bamboo have any advantages over organic cotton? Is one of them better for the environment than the other?

Equally Pesticide Free

The main benefit that both organically grown bamboo and organic cotton have in common is that no chemical fertilizers or pesticides are used to grow these crops. Non-organically grown cotton accounts for nearly a quarter of total global insecticide use. So organic cotton is certainly much better for the environment than non-organic cotton. Bamboo has natural resistance to pests so it does not need any pesticides in the first place. That makes bamboo one crop where growing it organically is actually more cost effective, as pesticide use would not create a noticeable increase in yield.

The Cotton Industry’s Argument Against Bamboo

The main argument that some people have against bamboo is that the process of turning it into a fabric makes use of harsh chemicals that will harm the environment. This argument is misleading, and one has to wonder if the misinformation is being spread by people who have a direct financial interest in promoting organic cotton. For example, Chairman of the Textiles Standards Committee, William Lana, has spoken out against bamboo, but he is also the director of a company called Greenfibres, which sells organic cotton products. Does he have a financial incentive to demonize bamboo and promote cotton?

In Defense of Bamboo

organic-bamboo-t-shirt

Organic bamboo T-shirt

The truth is that the current process used most to break down the woody material of bamboo so that it can be made into a soft fabric does make use of the chemical sodium hydroxide, which is otherwise known as caustic soda. The opponents of bamboo are misleading people when they state that sodium hydroxide from this process is polluting the environment or when they imply that bamboo is alone in using this chemical. Actually sodium hydroxide is used to treat much of the world’s cotton fabric, including some organic cotton. Cotton produced using sodium hydroxide is called mercerized cotton. It is used to make the resulting cotton threads stronger, hold colors brighter, and reduce shrinkage.

The sodium hydroxide used in the production of bamboo or mercerized cotton does not simply get dumped into the river as the opponents of bamboo might have you believe. On the contrary, a closed-loop system recycles the chemicals without allowing them to get out and pollute the environment. Furthermore, sodium hydroxide easily rinses away from the fabric with water, leaving no residue on the final material. By the way, sodium hydroxide is used in the processing of many types of food that you eat such as pretzels, chocolate, noodles, olives, and ice cream.

Environmental Advantages of Bamboo

The main environmental advantages of bamboo over organic cotton are during the growth phase of the crop. These areas include water management, soil degradation, and effects to the atmosphere.

Bamboo grown in Asia is harvested in climates that have adequate rainfall for the growth of the plant. A bamboo plantation is much closer to a naturally occurring environment than a cotton plantation is. Bamboo is very well adapted to its environment and needs no irrigation. On the other hand, cotton is one of the most thirsty crops in the world. And even growing organic cotton usually requires extensive irrigation. To put this in perspective, over 2,700 liters of water are required just to grow enough cotton to make a single T-shirt. All of this irrigation has a negative impact on the water table in the regions where cotton is grown.

Cotton must be replanted each year. This means vast areas of land must be plowed, exposing the bare earth to the wind and sun. This leads to soil erosion and drying out of the land. Bamboo grows much differently. It is giant grass, so all of the plants visible above ground are connected by a dense root system below. Within a bamboo plantation, there are stalks of various ages growing. The ones that get to be between 3-5 years old will be harvested by hand. And the younger ones are left in place. New shoots soon emerge to replace the stalks that were cut down. During this entire process, the roots are never disturbed, and a canopy always remains in place. This has the effect of preventing soil erosion. It also reduced the surface temperature in the immediate area due to the canopy of bamboo leaves absorbing sunlight and giving constant shade.

All plants take in carbon-dioxide and produce oxygen during the process of photosynthesis. Bamboo contains a much higher amount of biomass per acre than cotton, so it converts a much larger amount of carbon-dioxide to oxygen. In fact, bamboo is one of the most efficient plant types for this process. It even beats out hardwood forests, by converting up to 35% more carbon-dioxide into oxygen per acre.  On top of this, the amount of fabric that can be produced from one acre of bamboo plantation is much more than the amount of cotton fabric that you can get from growing an acre of cotton.

Conclusions

In summary, when looking at all factors, there are a number of reasons to believe that bamboo is better for the environment than organic cotton. As it grows, bamboo produces more useable material from a smaller area of land, while having a positive rather than negative impact on the local water table and soil quality. It also produces vast amounts of oxygen and has a cooling effect on the ground temperature in the location where it grows. The only knock on bamboo is that the process of turning it into a fabric is not completely natural. But many of the organic cotton products being sold today are actually mercerized cotton, which has been treated with the same substance that is used in producing bamboo viscose.

We support organic cotton because it is a much better alternative to conventionally grown cotton. But we think bamboo will be a better long-term solution for the planet.