What is Bamboo Fabric and is It Sustainable?
Bamboo fabric: a panda-feeding, Earth-friendly material OR a trending fabric dangerously prone to abuse and greenwashing?
Bamboo fabric clothing has taken the sustainable fashion world by storm—its increased use in clothing and homewares is almost as prolific as the growth of the plant itself. As with all things that gain proclaim so quickly, we need to ask ourselves: Is its popularity warranted?
You see, we’re all about sustainable and ethical fashion—which requires us to know exactly what materials are best for our eco-friendly wardrobes. Best meaning good (or at least not harmful) for the planet and the workers that make it, not just best for creating those #FeelingMyself vibes.
Bamboo clothing is complicated, but it CAN be sustainable. So, if that bamboo sports bra is calling your name, we’ll help you decide if it’s a good purchase—or something that will make our planet go bust. Continue reading to see what bamboo fabric actually is, how it stacks up sustainability speaking, and how you can get your hands on some.
WHAT IS BAMBOO FABRIC MADE OF?
It probably (hopefully) won’t come as a shock to anyone that bamboo fabric is made from…bamboo.
Humans have been using bamboo for millennia, mostly for things like housing, furniture, and paper. However, it was not until the early 2000s that we started turning this miracle crop into clothing, an innovative idea credited (in some circles) to Beijing University.
In the twenty years since (particularly the last decade), we’re seen a veritable bamboo boom in the fashion industry. So why all the hype?
Bamboo Fabric Properties
Bamboo is now so popular with clothing brands because of its stellar fabric properties.
Bamboo fabric is also stretchy, so it’s become a common fabric for activewear and underwear (plus it’s a natural deodorizer, too!).
What Does Bamboo Fabric Feel Like?
Thanks to micro-gaps in the fabric, products made with bamboo are softer than those made with cotton and able to absorb moisture well. If you were to throw on a bamboo dress, you would probably notice how smooth it feels (downright silky, even), and that there aren’t any rough bits that feel sharp and irritate the skin.
HOW TO MAKE BAMBOO FABRIC?
When we think of bamboo, we conjure the image of a woody, leafy stock. So how in the heck does a piece of wood become something so soft and stretchy? In other words, how is bamboo fabric made? There are a few methods.
Most of the bamboo fabric we find in clothes is bamboo viscose (A.K.A. bamboo rayon). Bamboo viscose is the cheapest to produce—but as with most cheap things, there’s a hidden cost to the planet and the people that produce it.
Here’s what the production of bamboo rayon fabric looks like:
- Cellulose is extracted from the bamboo wood pulp after it’s been broken down into tiny chunks. This requires chemical solvents, most of which are harmful (like caustic soda).
- This cellulose is then formed into sheets, processed with carbon disulfide (also a toxic chemical), and then pushed through a spinneret to create strands.
- The strands are finally submerged in yet another toxic chemical (sulfuric acid) so that the strands can be softened and spun into yarn.
- In the end, about 50% of these hazardous waste solvents are released into the environment.
If that makes you want to scratch bamboo off your list of sustainable fabrics, hang tight for just a minute because there’s another way to make bamboo fabric that’s better for the planet.
While following the basic steps as bamboo viscose products, bamboo fabric that’s made in a closed-loop production process is a little different:
- To start with, the cellulose’s structure isn’t chemically altered (meaning no nasty chemicals are used) and the end product is natural and compostable.
- Where the solvents used in the production of bamboo rayon have to be disposed of, in this closed-loop process, they can be used again and again (along with all the water in the system).
Oh, what’s that, an even better process for bamboo fabric? That’s right! There is also a mechanical bamboo production process that involves mechanically crushing the plant before adding natural enzymes to continue breaking it down. Given the initial crushing, fewer enzymes are needed in this process. In the end, this leaves a mushy mass which can be mechanically spun into natural and sustainable bamboo yarn.
Unfortunately, this is a time and cost-intensive process and isn’t common. You may only see this process with some types of high-end or luxury bamboo linens.
IS BAMBOO FABRIC SUSTAINABLE?
If you’re one of the many to have seen the material printed on the tag of your favorite clothes or heard a number of brands boast about using it, you might have found yourself wondering, “Is bamboo fabric environmentally friendly?”
The bamboo plant itself is probably one of the most environmentally-friendly materials we’ve got. However, as can be seen with how bamboo fabric is made, it can be (and often is) processed in a way that’s extremely harmful.
Let’s start with all of the ways bamboo is great:
- It grows about 12 inches every day, making it one of the fastest growing plants on Earth.
- It doesn’t require pesticides, fertilizers, or irrigation. Just rainwater.
- It replants itself! New plants naturally grow from the shoots of the old plants.
- Harvesting it doesn’t actually kill the plant. One can simply saw off the stalls while leaving the roots to resprout.
- Bamboo grows easily in areas of the world where other crops can’t grow.
- Bamboo produces 35% more oxygen and absorbs five times more carbon than other types of trees.
- It biodegrades better than other types of semi-synthetics, particularly those that are oil-based.
So then, how can bamboo fabric be unsustainable? There are some major distinctions to lookout for.
Organic Bamboo vs Non-Organic Bamboo
Organic bamboo fabric is obviously superior in many ways. Especially since amboo doesn’t require pesticides and fertilizers to grow well, farming it organically just makes sense.
However, much of the world’s bamboo comes from China, where regulations are lax and inputs like these may be used to maximize outputs. Not only that, but in some cases land is cleared to grow bamboo, which threatens ecosystems (including those of our favorite bamboo-lovers, the Giant Panda).
When you get certified-organic bamboo (like with USDA) or FSC-certified bamboo, you can be sure that the bamboo is at least grown in an environmentally-responsible way, one that controls both chemical use and land abuse.
Be aware though that bamboo fabric can only be certified organic if it has been made with mechanically-produced bamboo fibers. If you see any organic claims with bamboo rayon, sound the greenwashing alarm and spend your money elsewhere.
Closed Loop and Rayon Bamboo
Then there’s the manufacturing process. As mentioned, most of the world’s bamboo fabric is produced in a way that will make anyone want to run for the hills.
Bamboo rayon is not friendly to our planet in several ways. In fact, it’s similar to other types of cellulosic rayon in terms of its intensive energy and chemical usage. It ultimately ends up as a semi-synthetic fabric, which, according to the Federal Trade Commission means there’s no actual bamboo in the final product.
The required chemicals also pollute waterways and our air. Which is also toxic to the people who work with the material, leading to problems like chemical burns, nerve damage, and increased risk of other health complications.
In the end, it’s no longer real bamboo thanks to all those chemicals, it’s not biodegradable either, utterly removing one of the biggest advantages to a plant-based fabric.
Our default is to discount bamboo rayon in our all sustainable fashion guides, unless a brand convinces us they’re in the minority group that are going bamboo better, namely via closed-loop processes.
Closed loop rayon is better from a sustainability standpoint. It uses the same closed-loop process used to make Lyocell, which means that any toxic chemicals are reused and don’t end up polluting the environment.
Many companies using these more sustainable production methods are also swapping out the toxic chemicals for natural enzymes (or at the very least non-toxic ones) to help break down the bamboo. It’s not totally perfect, but we’re slowly starting to unravel unsustainable bamboo.
Unless you can find true pure bamboo fabric, or that which is mechanically-produced (i.e. bamboo linen like Monocel®), here are a few ways you can ensure that you’re buying sustainably:
- Avoid bamboo rayon (aka bamboo viscose).
- Look for lyocell-type bamboo fabric, or that which is made in a closed-loop production method.
- Ensure that workers have been treated fairly (check for Fair Trade certifications).
- Ensure the bamboo was grown organically (even if they’re not officially certified) and grown in responsibly managed forests (check for the FSC certification)
Ensure that the chemicals used in production are recycled, even better that they’re certified non-toxic (check for Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certification).
ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF BAMBOO FABRIC
Bamboo Fabric Benefits
Bamboo fabric is breathable, has excellent moisture-wicking properties, decent heat retention, and high stretchability. It also has a nice drape and a silky texture. Sounds pretty great, right?
Well, it’s important to note that most of the other benefits of bamboo fabric (antibacterial properties, extreme durability, optimal softness) are only found in bamboo that has been mechanically processed (or processed using natural enzymes) and are not generally found with bamboo rayon.
Bamboo Fabric Drawbacks
Bamboo fabric is prone to pilling and bubbling (which might not be so great for those yoga pants you wear all the time).
Also, bamboo is not waterproof in any way (rather, it’s the opposite), which makes it bad for outdoor wear.
While waterproof bamboo fabric does exist, it’s created by laminating PUL onto bamboo fabric. For those of us who aren’t familiar with the countless fabric acronyms out there, polyurethane laminate, or a combination of polyester and polyurethane (plastic) is pretty disastrous for the planet and negates any benefit of a bamboo base.
HOW TO CARE FOR BAMBOO FABRIC?
Bamboo fabric is relatively easy to care for. It can be either machine washed or dry cleaned. It does better when washed in cold to warm water (which also happens to be better for the planet as it uses less energy).
Avoid using bleach, fabric softener, and choose a gentle detergent. Line drying in the sun is better, but if you decide to use a clothes dryer, choose the cool setting (again, better for the planet anyway).
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BAMBOO FABRIC AND OTHER FABRIC?
Bamboo Fabric vs Cotton
When it comes to the growth of the raw material, bamboo is superior. Bamboo is naturally pest resistant and does not require fertilizers (conventional cotton, on the other hand uses a significant amount). Additionally, bamboo requires just a third of the water necessary for cotton. It’s even less water consumptive than organic cotton.
When it comes to the final product, however, the majority of bamboo fabric isn’t much better than cotton. In fact, the European NGO Made-By rated conventional cotton and bamboo viscose the same—and in their lowest rated category.
Bamboo Fabric vs Rayon
Spoiler alert: the majority of bamboo fabric is the same as rayon! In fact, you could consider that bamboo viscose, generic viscose, and rayon are all the same material. Rayon is just an older, more generalized term for fabric made from wood or plant cellulose.
General viscose can also be made from lots of different plants other than bamboo, though the basic process is the same as that of bamboo rayon.
The only differences would be mechanically-processed bamboo linen like Monocel® and any other type of bamboo viscose that has been manufactured using a closed-loop system.
Bamboo Fabric vs Hemp
Hemp fabric, particularly organic hemp fabric, is far more sustainable than bamboo fabric. Hemp requires even less inputs than bamboo and its production is much kinder to the planet and the people who process it.
At the end of the day, hemp fabric is also better than bamboo fabric at retaining some of the beneficial properties of the plant (i.e. durability, antibacterial properties) in the final garment.
BAMBOO CLOTHING BRANDS
When it comes to clothing made from bamboo fabric, we have a lot of options to choose from.
We’ve already looked at Boody for their eco-friendly socks, activewear, pajamas, and undies. They use organically-grown and FSC-certified bamboo and a process that’s certified by the Oeko-Tex Standard 100, EcoCert, ISO 14001, and ISO 9001—which means that their sourcing and manufacturing process is far better than other bamboo brands.
They also use a closed-loop process, so no harmful materials are released into the environment, though they take it further by using only non-toxic solvents.
Like Boody, Ettitude is another sleepwear and bedding brand from Australia that makes 100% organic bamboo products. With the belief that “not all bamboo sheets are created equal”, they’ve patented their own Oeko-Tex 100 bamboo lyocell called CleanBamboo™. It’s non-toxic and made in a closed-loop system that recycles 98% of the water.
They even have temperature regulating and antibacterial versions infused with bamboo charcoal.
Movesgood is another brand who uses lyocell-processed bamboo. In manufacturing the bamboo, they only use one chemical, which is recycled.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON BAMBOO FABRIC
You can go bananas trying to figure out if bamboo fabric is sustainable. It may be comfy and durable, but it’s often not as eco-friendly as it’s touted to be.
Does this mean environmentally friendly bamboo fabric is a pie in the sky?
Definitely not, truly eco friendly bamboo exists…. you just have to do a little extra research so that you don’t fall victim to greenwashing.
While there are brands making bogus bamboo claims, there are others, like the ones we mentioned above, who are using a waste-free process.
Just remember, the most sustainable fabric is in your cupboard. No need to replace a perfectly good top just because a bamboo blouse is in. But if you are in need of something new and ready to jump on the bamboo bandwagon, hop aboard and use this guide to help you choose the most sustainable options.