April 05, 2021

Are bamboo clothes eco friendly? Complete guide: Advantages and disadvantages

Bamboo clothes can be eco friendly and sustainable, but as with all things it’s not as straightforward as you might think. 

There are a number of advantages and disadvantages of bamboo fabric which can often be overlooked. Here we will explore the truth and ask, are bamboo clothes really eco friendly? 

bamboo sustainable ecofriendly advantages

14 ways bamboo clothes are eco friendly:

  1. Fast growth crop: bamboo is one of the fastest growing woody plants in the world, producing high crop yields in a relatively short space of time. Bamboo can grow to full height in three to four months and then be ready to harvest in three to four years. This compares to other hardwoods, which can take around 40 years to mature.
  2. Reduced space: As well as growing fast, bamboo forests are very dense, meaning they require less space. Compared to cotton, the same volume of material can be produced from under 10% of the land.
  3. Removes CO2 from the air: As bamboo grows, it removes large volumes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In fact, bamboo forests are so dense that they produce up to 35% more oxygen per hectare than hardwood trees. 
  4. Bamboo stores CO2 in the ground: Two thirds of carbon removed from the air is stored in the soil and roots of bamboo plants - this is unlike cotton, which is dug up after the cotton is harvested.
  5. No need for pesticides or fertilizers: Organic bamboo can grow without any chemical fertilizers or pesticides, helping preserve the local ecology and prevent fresh water contamination.
  6. Bamboo requires less machinery to grow: compared to cotton or other fabrics, bamboo requires almost no petroleum powered machinery to grow and maintain. 
  7. Decreased water consumption: bamboo requires much less water than cotton, placing less risk on local populations which grow the crop.
  8. Bamboo is a grass: Bamboo can be cut back when harvested rather than uprooting and killing the plant. This prevents soil erosion associated with cotton harvesting.
  9. Reclaimed land: Unlike cotton, which often causes soil degradation, bamboo can grow on poor soil quality and actually help recover land that has been overgrazed. It can also help to remove toxins from the soil and improve soil fertility.
  10. Bamboo is biodegradable: Organic bamboo that hasn’t been chemically treated or dyed is 100% biodegradable. Pure bamboo can take around a year to biodegrade.
  11. Fresh for longer: Bamboo clothing is supposedly anti-bacterial, meaning it stays fresh for longer. Washing your clothesaccounts for 60-80% of a garment's total environmental impact.
  12. Bamboo prevents soil erosion: As bamboo is a grass that grows in dense forests, it holds the soil tight and helps prevent soil erosion, which is especially important in areas likely to flood.
  13. Lifting thousands out of poverty: Bamboo is also an ethical crop to produce, having been linked with bringing thousands out of poverty in rural areas of China, providing stable employment and helping local economies.
  14. Bamboo minimizes demand on timber: As the most important non wood alternative to timber, bamboo plays a role in helping to reduce timber demand pressure.

This all sounds well and good, but before you rush out and buy bamboo clothing, there are a few things you need to know about bamboo fabric. 

bamboo sustainability

Why bamboo is not sustainable?

So after all the advantages of bamboo, what are the disadvantages? Why is bamboo not sustainable and how can it be bad for the environment? 

Although bamboo is fast growing and requires no pesticides, it doesn’t mean that it is being sustainably grown. The majority of bamboo is grown in China, which is a country not recognised for its high levels of transparency. 

There is limited information regarding the intensity of bamboo being grown and harvested in China, or what sort of land clearing might be underway to make space for mono-crop farming. There's also no guarantee that pesticides aren't being used to maximise bamboo output. This being said, over the past few years the Chinese government has implemented stricter control measures on intensive bamboo processing, which is progress we like to see. 

What is bad about bamboo Fibre?

So far, you may be thinking what is bad about bamboo fibre? While it is certainly more sustainable than cotton and synthetic fabrics in the cultivation phase, this sadly isn’t the case across the manufacturing process. 

There are several ways to turn bamboo into bamboo fabric, and the sustainability of these processes can vary significantly.

The first is a mechanical method, which crushes the woody parts of the bamboo plant into a pulp. This is then combed and spun into a yarn, producing a relatively coarse fabric called “bamboo linen”. This process is similar to that used to make linen from flax or hemp, and creates an equally sustainable fabric. Although sustainable, it is labour intensive and expensive to produce, and lacks the super soft feel that bamboo has come to be known for. As a result, it is much less common to find bamboo fabric made through the mechanical process.

The second method used to make bamboo fabric is much cheaper and less labour intensive than the mechanical process, and it creates a silky soft “bamboo rayon” that most shoppers view as superior. It is likely how the bamboo clothes you find in the shops have been created. Sadly, bamboo rayon is produced through a highly intensive chemical process that is incredibly bad for the environment.

This chemical process used to make bamboo rayon is called viscose processing, which means instead of breaking down the bamboo wood mechanically, it is dissolved in a chemical solution to produce a pulpy viscous substance. This pulp is then pushed through a spinneret, ‘spinning’ it into a thread that can be woven into the soft fabrics that shoppers expect. 

The chemicals required to dissolve the bamboo in the viscose process include caustic soda and carbon disulphide, which are highly toxic and harmful to human health. It’s estimated that around 50% of the chemicals used in the viscose process cannot be recycled and likely end up evaporating into the air or running off into local waterways. 

Can bamboo clothes be sustainable? 

Before you start to panic and swear to never buy bamboo again, it’s important to note that most solid unmanipulated bamboo products are awesome for the environment and very eco friendly, as they are more sustainably grown than their hardwood alternatives and often require less maintenance. 

Bamboo clothes can also be made sustainably, with innovation over recent years holding a lot of promise for the future. 

One environmentally friendly way to make fabrics using chemicals is through a process called lyocell, which is how TENCEL® is made. Instead of using intensive chemicals, lyocell uses a non toxic amine solution that is recaptured and reused in a closed loop system. It requires lower energy and water input, and recycles 99% of the solution needed to help dissolve the wood into a pulp. It has such a high sustainability rating that it has been awarded by the European Union with the “European Award for the Environment”.

There is no reason why this process couldn’t similarly be used to create bamboo fabric, the only inhibitor being that it requires more investment to create the factories. As demand for sustainable clothing increases, lyocell manufacturing will hopefully become increasingly common.

So, is bamboo a sustainable fabric? 

Are you still left wondering, is bamboo really a sustainable fabric? Bamboo is usually a very sustainably grown crop, however you need to make sure you are not buying bamboo rayon, the most common type of bamboo fabric on the market. Bamboo rayon requires intensive chemicals during the manufacturing of the fibres, 50% of which may well end up being released into the local environments.

The Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres provides us with a classification for the most sustainable clothing fabrics, with Class A having the least impact on the environment, and Class E the most negative environmental impact. Bamboo viscose and rayon are classified as Class E, meaning that research suggests that bamboo is not an eco friendly fabric. 

Environmental benchmark for fibres sustainability cariki madeby

https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Made-By-Environmental-Benchmark-for-fibres_fig1_320307130 

For us, bamboo is still preferred to regular cotton, largely due to the destructive agricultural processes required to make the cotton clothing we see on the high street. However it must be remembered that bamboo viscose still falls within the same rating as cotton and therefore can’t truly be called a sustainable fabric.

Find out more about our use of bamboo here: https://cariki.co.uk/pages/bamboo-fabric-properties 


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