In theory, bamboo textiles should be one of the most sustainable options for an eco-friendly closet. Bamboo grows rapidly, needs very little water, fertilizer, or pesticides, and sequesters a large amount of carbon dioxide, absorbing five times more carbon dioxide and 35% more oxygen than similar plants. It’s also naturally regenerating, so harvesting bamboo still allows the plant to survive. However, the truth is that the process of taking this fast-growing panda food from a stalk to a shirt is a chemical-laden process that can sometimes mislead customers into believing they’re supporting sustainable practices.
While not always boldfaced lies, many companies overstate the sustainability of their pieces to attract conscientious customers. Is it greenwashing? You be the judge.
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According to Clean by Design a subset of the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC, some bamboo is greener than others. Currently, there are three types of bamboo fabric:
- natural bamboo or bamboo linen,
- conventional rayon made from bamboo, and
- lyocell process rayon made from bamboo.
Both bamboo rayons are processed by a chemical means, while bamboo linen is turned into a fiber by mechanical means.
The Dirtiest = Conventional Viscose Bamboo Rayon
It is plausible to assume that all bamboo rayon is processed like conventional rayon unless otherwise stated. Rayon is made from the cellulose pulp of trees, which are a renewable resource, but it requires a chemical-heavy process in the fiber-spinning phase. The most common practice melts cellulose into xanthate, then dissolves that in a caustic soda, then regenerates the cellulous from the soup using a spinneret. It’s also harsher on the environment during the dyeing phase than even polyester and other synthetic fibers. Then, because this is not a closed loop cycle, the water used in these processes can’t be recycled so is dumped, contaminants included, back into the ground water.
Bamboo viscose is better to the environment than traditional rayon which might use wood from old growth or clear-cut forests, but it’s still not the best choice. Unfortunately, this is the most common form of bamboo fabric on the market.
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The Compromise = Lyocell Process Bamboo Rayon
Lyocell, aka Tencel, is the new darling of the sustainable fashion industry. It’s made in a closed-loop cycle, so its chemicals and water are recycled and never released into the environment. Some byproducts are sold, while others continue in the production process.
Tencel is the brand name given to the fabric produced by Lenzing industries, who founded the lyocell production cycle. Like Kleenex is the brand name for facial tissues, it’s become almost interchangeable with the generic fabric. This is slightly harsher on the environment than natural bamboo, but it’s cheaper to produce and more common.
Typical Tencel is made from eucalyptus trees which are similar in impact to bamboo, so there isn’t that much difference between Tencel and lyocell bamboo.
The Greenest = Bamboo Linen
Because it’s processed mechanically, natural bamboo requires significantly fewer resources than bamboo rayon. In this cycle, bamboo is shredded and then turned into a mash by using natural enzymes, from which its natural fibers can be combed out and spun into yarn. This is a similar process to making hemp or linen textiles. It absorbs dye more easily than other types of fabric, lowering the impact of that step in the supply chain as well.
Sadly, this is a very expensive process that can’t be done on quite the same industrial scales as other textile manufacturing, so it’s harder to come by.
Bamboo itself is a wonderful crop that is a more sustainable option than other sources of plant-based textiles, but the most popular means of producing bamboo fiber is harmful to both workers and the environment. Tencel, silk (or vegan silk), and recycled fiber are all easier on the environment and are good alternatives to viscose bamboo. Check your tags and don’t take the claims of a company at face value when trying to find sustainable fabrics. When in doubt, do research, look for alternatives, and remember to only buy things that you truly love.
What’s your favorite sustainable fabric? Do you wish alternatives were easier to come by? Let me know in the comments!