Is Bamboo Sustainable? – A Step by Step Guide
We see it everywhere. In clothes, accessories, packaging, and even our most personal items such as our toothbrush and underwear. The magic grass, which apparently is so sustainable that everyone trying to join the slow fashion movement seems to use it. Of course, we are talking about bamboo here.
But what is all this hype around bamboo really about? And can it actually live up to its great reputation and stand the test when we take a closer look at how the production of your precious bamboo underwear is produced?
In this step by step guide to the maybe not so sustainable material bamboo, we take a closer look at how eco-friendly the grass actually is and explore the downsides about the popular material. So keep reading if you want to find out the truth about bamboo.
Is bamboo good for the environment?
To really understand whether or not bamboo can be seen as good for the environment – we have to look at what this material is actually used and how it is grown.
Bamboo can in many ways be seen as a super-plant. It is a fast-growing crop, which requires close to zero amount of water compared to crops like cotton. It requires no pesticides to grow and it generates itself more quickly than you can say “hang-on, what?” when it is harvested.
All in all, bamboo sounds like the ultimate sustainable material, right? But there is more to it than you think. Because, even though bamboo might seem like the ideal sustainable material, the truth behind the production of bamboo clothes is a different story.
The downside of bamboo production
Before we can decide if a fabric is truly sustainable, there are several things we need to consider. Like the way, it is grown and processed. Unfortunately, this is where bamboo doesn’t stand the test as flawlessly as you might think.
The majority of bamboo is grown in China, and there is not much information regarding the sustainability of this process or lack of the same – or how much land-clearing is taking place in order to make room for the popular bamboo material.
So far it seems like bamboo in itself is quite beneficial for the environment, but what about the final product, the clothes, and accessories we use in our daily life? It doesn’t seem like they are as eco-friendly as we might have thought. Let’s take a look at how sustainable bamboo products actually are.
Is bamboo sustainable?
So is bamboo sustainable? Well bamboo in itself is sustainable. It doesn’t need any pesticides to grow. It absorbs a great amount of carbon dioxide emission and barely needs water to grow compared to cotton.
But the problem arises when the bamboo arrives at the factories and the manufacturing process begins.
There are multiple ways to produce the bamboo fabric but the ultimately most popular method is the one that results in a soft and smooth material often known as ‘bamboo rayon’. The process of making bamboo rayon is highly chemical and this is where the bamboo goes from being a highly sustainable material to somewhere in between.
To make bamboo rayon most manufacturers use the so-called viscose process. Maybe you’ve already heard about this fabric, but if not you should definitely check out our complete guide to viscose right here.
The viscose process contains the use of very harsh chemicals in order to extract the cellulose from the bamboo crops. The chemicals used in this process are extremely harmful to the environment and the living creatures – and the use of these dangerous chemicals in the factories is harmful to the workers as well, which also has an impact on the ethical part of the process.
The ethical perspective of the production
But that is not all. Not only do the harsh chemicals at the factories affect the workers, but they also pollute the air and the nearby water systems.
The bi-products of the manufacturing process are also creating a danger to the water-based organisms – and if the chemicals aren’t handled properly they will be washed away into the water systems.
So if we are to answer the question; is bamboo sustainable? Then I would say that all in all bamboo isn’t a truly sustainable fabric, at least not for know. But hopefully, innovation will soon make it possible to produce bamboo clothes and everyday items in a more sustainable way.
Is bamboo better than cotton?
Whether or not bamboo is more sustainable than cotton depends on a different variety of factors. First of all, if the cotton is organic and harmful chemicals or pesticides have not been used in the manufacturing process it might be better.
At the moment the use of harsh chemicals has to be part of the manufacturing process when producing the bamboo fabric, it can’t be seen as organic as cotton.
On the other hand, bamboo needs a very small amount of water to grow compared to cotton that needs a lot. Bamboo only needs one-third of the amount of water needed to grow cotton, and while bamboo needs around 12 gallons of water to produce 0,5 kilograms of fabric cotton requires 200 times more!
Bamboo also have the ability to grow incredibly fast compared to crops like cotton and it barely needs replanting compared to cotton that needs replanting each year.
Whether bamboo is better than organic cotton depends on what you find important. Does the harmful chemicals used to produce bamboo bother you? Then organic cotton might be your choice. Do you care about how much water is used to grow the crops? Then bamboo is definitely better than cotton.
What kind of bamboo is used for fabric?
Did you know that there exists more than a 1000 species in the bamboo plant group? Not all of them can be used for clothes though. The bamboo species used in clothing is called Moso bamboo and is grown in the regions of Hunan, Zhejiang, and Jiangxi in China.
This bamboo species is giant and can grow as high as 28 meters! The Moso bamboo is one of the most workable fibers found on earth and it is one of the fastest-growing grasses there exists. Moso bamboo is one of the most important bamboos in China and it plays an important ecological role as well as a huge role in the clothing industry.
What makes bamboo eco friendly?
Maybe you are sitting behind your screen scratching your head in confusion – because bamboo isn’t a highly sustainable material, why are most of the sustainable fashion brands praising it like the lord of sustainable materials?
There must be at least one thing about bamboo that is sustainable – right?
Well as mentioned above bamboo has a lot of incredible skills. It barely needs replanting, it doesn’t need pesticides or a lot of water to grow, and the grass grows incredibly fast. So fast that if you stare at it long enough, you might actually see it grow.
These things combined make bamboo an eco-friendly crop, and if we didn’t need to use harsh chemicals in the manufacturing process it would be a highly sustainable fabric- no doubt about that.
So are bamboo clothes eco friendly?
Is bamboo sustainable? Well, it is hard to say whether or not bamboo is eco friendly. The bamboo grass in itself can be highly eco-friendly and sustainable if it is grown under the right circumstances. But unfortunately, the process that makes bamboo into fabric contains harmful chemicals, which are very harmful to the environment and the people at the factories.
The most common bamboo fabric is called rayon, and to create this fabric harsh chemicals have to be a part of the production. Lyocell bamboo products are made in a much more sustainable way, but unfortunately, it is harder to find lyocell products made of bamboo since it’s also more costly than rayon.
The production of bamboo is still not as chemical-intensive as polyester, and the process is less costly compared to the production of cotton fabric (and uses fewer pesticides and chemicals compared to non-organic cotton).
But is bamboo clothe truly eco-friendly and is it perfectly sustainable as many you might think? No, it is not. There is still some way to go before we can label bamboo as a truly sustainable fabric – but let’s hope innovation and technology bring us there fast!
Want to learn more about eco-textiles?
Maybe you clicked in this article needing an answer to the question “is bamboo sustainable?” and now that this guide might have shattered your bamboo illusion, you are sitting there, wondering what else you have been wrong about? If this is the case, then fear not.
We have been in your seat, and therefore we created other textile guides to make sure we are not victims of greenwashing. You can read our eco-textile guides right here!