Contributor: Gus Bartholomew, Supplycompass
The uniquely fast growth, moisture wicking fibres, and ease of cultivation have made bamboo a popular cellulose source for fabric manufacturers. But is it really as eco-friendly as many claim?
China and India are the world’s largest producers of bamboo, followed by Myanmar and Thailand. Bamboo is often generically “greenwashed” as a sustainable crop due to its:
- Dense growth patterns (efficient use of space)
- Complex root structure (prevents erosion and maintains soil health)
- Very high respiration rates (significant carbon dioxide absorption and oxygen production)
- Water efficiency (doesn’t require irrigation)
- Hardiness (doesn’t require pesticides or insecticides)
Although these features lend themselves to environmental causes, case-specific factors such as land clearing, harvesting practices, labour conditions, and supplementary irrigation or use of pesticides (which are not necessary for bamboo growth, but are performance enhancing) must be factored in when determining sustainability.
Mechanical processing yields the most environmentally friendly bamboo fabric. The woody grass shoots and leaves are pulverised and then retted (soaked in water) to soften. Next, the fibrous pulp is combed, refined, and spun into yarn. The result is a bamboo ‘linen’, or ‘natural’ bamboo fabric which is suitable for dyeing and does not require intensive pre-treatment. However, due to the time and labour intensity of the mechanical processing, natural bamboo fabric is relatively expensive and difficult to source.
Chemical processing is used to produce the vast majority of bamboo fabrics. Conventional viscose processing is the most common method found within this category, and is also the most detrimental to both human health and the environment. While chemical processing is the cheaper method of processing bamboo fibres, it is far less sustainable. The chemicals used to process the fibres include sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide, which are potentially harmful to the people working with them and the area’s local wildlife, especially if the chemicals enter any nearby water sources.
- Fibre Mixtures
Viscose Bamboo Rayon
This process requires considerable energy and chemical input. Bamboo is first crushed, then soaked in a sodium hydroxide solution, pressed, dried, and then crushed again. Carbon disulfide is then added to create a gel, which is again treated with sodium hydroxide before being pressed through narrow nozzles into sulfuric acid to create threads. Once these threads harden, they’re finally spun and woven. The resulting fabric is soft, drapes similarly to silk, and is well suited for the manufacture of garments. However, the material’s functionality often comes with hidden costs such as worker illness from chemical exposure, and damage to the environment. One of the most significant environmental effects is wastewater laden with numerous harmful chemicals being freely discharged during the manufacturing process.
Lyocell Bamboo Rayon
An alternative rayon fabric with limited environmental impacts, lyocell bamboo rayon is produced using a closed-loop viscose process that utilizes a non-toxic solution (amine oxide) and minimizes water and energy consumption. The processing steps are similar to conventional viscose rayon: bamboo is pulped, softened, thickened, and formed into weavable fibre. The end product, however, is notably free of chemical residues, and has not been associated with worker illnesses or environmental damage. Additionally, virtually all of the amine oxide solution can be, and is often recovered and reused. The quality of lyocell bamboo rayon is at least on par with conventional rayon fabric and is not significantly more expensive to produce.
5 reasons to consider using bamboo:
If using sustainable materials is of interest to you, bamboo fibre should definitely be a material to consider. Bamboo can be grown sustainably without the use of pesticides and fertilizers due its fast growth rate and protective coating, and can be processed sustainably if the mechanical, rather than chemical, processes are chosen.
- Strength and Flexibility
Bamboo fibres are naturally strong yet very flexible. This is a rare combination to have in clothing or furniture materials and it opens many doors for product designs and uses. When used in furniture, bamboo fabrics are comfortable to sit on and have the flexibility to accommodate for a person’s weight.
Bamboo is very light and easy to move, which makes it a practical material to use for larger furniture pieces such as tables and benches, enabling people to lift and move such larger pieces as they please.
- Practicality & Comfort
Aside from being arguably more comfortable than cotton and polyester fabrics, bamboo fabric has the ability to absorb (repel?) water and keep the wearer extremely dry. It’s also highly breathable, odour resistant, and thermally regulating. To the touch, bamboo fabric feels silky and luxurious, providing excellent comfort. Due to its flexibility, furniture made of bamboo can be very comfortable and less rigid than those made of different woods and other materials.
- Easy Maintenance
Bamboo fibre is very strong and tends to resist ware over time, regardless of how many times it is washed or dried. Its sturdiness also prevents pilling from occurring after washing and drying. Furniture made from bamboo is very smooth due to a natural coating of oil found in its bamboo fibres. This oil also makes bamboo items easy to clean.
Natural bamboo fabric is one of the ‘greenest’ fabrics available – as long as it’s produced using the right fibres and processing methods; mechanically produced bamboo fibres are far more sustainable than those that are chemically produced. Lyocell bamboo rayon, for example, is far more sustainable than viscose bamboo rayon.
Overall, it’s important to maintain an awareness of “greenwashing” when choosing between bamboo fabrics, as are socio-ecological differences between the various production processes. Not all bamboo fabrics are made in the same way or have the same sustainability benefits.
Bio: Gus Bartholomew is co-founder of Supplycompass, a tech enabled end-to-end production management platform for responsible brands that want to find and work with the best international manufacturers. It enables brands to find their perfect manufacturing partner at home or overseas. Brands can create tech packs, get matched with a manufacturer and use the platform to manage production from design to delivery. Supplycompass works with brands and manufacturers to embed responsible and sustainable practises in their businesses and deliver value and create opportunities for growth. Twitter: @Supplycompass Instagram: @Supplycompass