How sustainable is bamboo and is it really the eco-friendly option?

Kate Hall

A few months ago, I shared my guide to eco fabrics. My list included cotton, lyocell, hemp, linen, silk, wool… and bamboo.

To create this list, I did my research, I hunted about, I looked at examples, and I drew on ethical fashion companies and the fabrics they use. The controversy around bamboo stayed hidden to me. Perhaps selective hearing or a reflection of the lack of education around this popular ‘green’ fabric, I thought bamboo was one of the eco-friendliest fabrics of them all.

Bamboo seemed like the answer to eco fashion, but I was naively mistaken. I’m not about to burst onto the scene and ban bamboo altogether, but this fabric has a lot of explaining to do.

bamboo sustainable

"Bamboo seemed like the answer to eco fashion, but I was naively mistaken. "

Let’s start with what we know about Bamboo.

Bamboo is a super plant! If the next Avengers movie reveals ‘Bamboo Man’, I wouldn’t be surprised. Bamboo is often labelled ‘the world’s most renewable material’ and is the fastest growing woody plant in the world. It can grow up to four feet in one day, no joke. The panda’s kryptonite absorbs five times more carbon dioxide and produces 35% more oxygen than a similar group of trees.

To thrive like this, bamboo requires no pesticides, and little water- especially compared to cotton crops. When bamboo is harvested, the plant regenerates itself in a flash (see, a super hero in the making!). A panda would also tell you it’s delicious, and I could go on to talk about its erosion reducing and soil nourishing qualities, but that’s not what we are here for. I’m about to bust some myths.

After reading all the lush qualities above, you can understand how bamboo could so easily fall into the ethical fabric category without a blink of an eye. But don’t let that fool you. Bamboo is turned into a fabric in two different ways: mechanically and chemically. The most common being: chemically.

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Have you seen or felt a bamboo plant?

That stuff is super strong and used to make structures like bridges, roads, houses, scaffolding, and furniture. No wonder it takes so many chemicals to turn it into a soft and wearable fabric. Chemically produced bamboo fabric commonly comes in the form of viscose rayon.

For bamboo to be turned into rayon, it is dissolved in harsh chemicals and fed through a spinneret so the strands can solidify to make a fibre. Among these chemicals are sodium hydroxide and sulfuric acid. These are incredibly harmful for humans and the environment. Because of the growing demand for bamboo fabric to be soft and wearable, these chemicals continue to endanger factory workers, pollute the air, and infect water systems. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t warrant this just so I could have plush bamboo underwear!

Bamboo Lyocell

To step it up a notch in terms of sustainability, the slightly more ‘ok’ version of bamboo fabric is bamboo lyocell (TENCEL). Lyocell is usually made from eucalyptus trees, but bamboo is so similar that it can be made into lyocell too.

Lyocell involves a closed loop cycle, meaning the water and chemicals involved in making the fabric are recycled. They never get the chance to escape into the environment. Lyocell is being worshipped as the new best thing in eco fabrics, but what about mechanically produced bamboo?

To reiterate; bamboo is tough

It seems strange that we can wear a resource that is also used to build bridges which withhold vehicles of up to 14515kgs, but it’s totally possible. When bamboo is mechanically turned into a fabric, it ends up as a bamboo linen. The result is beautiful to wear and takes well to dyes, but so labour intensive and expensive, that you can rarely find it in the market.

The process involves a few different steps: first crushing the wooden bamboo stalks, using natural enzymes to turn it into a mush, and finally combing it out using machinery which then allows it to be spun into yarn. A very similar process to hemp or flax linen, but far more difficult to produce.

Even when bamboo is produced mechanically, the greenest type of bamboo fabric, we still need to be cautious. We know bamboo is an overachiever when it comes to growth, but we don’t know when pesticides are used to intensify growth further. Then comes the questions around what ecosystems are being destroyed to make way for bamboo fields, and how much the people are paid for their labour-intensive efforts in harvesting it.

There are countless layers to everything, and it’s hard to keep up. But it’s so important to understand our clothes from seed to garment- staying ignorant isn’t an option anymore.

Final Thoughts

So, now we know bamboo’s secrets, there’s no hiding any longer. It’s not all bad, but to be honest, it’s worse than I thought. Like everything in life, we shouldn’t automatically rule it out.

Humans are clever, and we are always coming up with new technology and ways of utilising our resources. Who knows how we will be wearing bamboo in the future!

For now, we can choose bamboo linen when possible, inquire about the cycle of bamboo lyocell, and avoid companies who use bamboo rayon.

Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash

Kate Hall

Ethical living/fashion advocate, eco wedding planner, and brand rep. Kate strives to promote ethical living in every way under the sun, and won’t stop at anything to make sure the planet and it’s people are being looked after the way that they should be.