If you see “bamboo” on a label, it is all too easy to designate it as a greener alternative to cotton or synthetic fabrics. But, there are actually many different ways to make bamboo fabric (some of which are more harmful to the environment and workers than others).
So, what exactly should we know about bamboo fabric? Read this in-depth guide to understand everything about bamboo fabric (including the production, sustainability, pros + cons, and more)
Properties of Bamboo Fabric
Bamboo not only gets hype about being eco-friendly, but for its comfy feel and touch on skin. Because bamboo is a hollow fiber, there are micro gaps in the fiber that allow for breathability and moisture absorption.
Pros of bamboo fabric:
- Ultra softness
- Moisture-wicking and fast drying
- Thermal regulating (cool in the heat and warm in the cold)
- Hypoallergenic (good for sensitive skin)
- Easy care (machine washable in cool water)
However, there is dispute over claims about its UV protection and antibacterial properties. While raw bamboo has these properties, processing the wood into textiles may cause the loss or significant decrease in these benefits, according to research.
More conclusive evidence is needed to confirm statements either way, so be wary of claims about UV protection and antibacterial benefits.
How is Bamboo Fabric Made?
Now, let’s dive into how bamboo fabric is typically made.
Where does the bamboo come from?
There is a long history of planting and using bamboo in East Asia. For example, in China the practice goes back over 5,000 years to make things like garments and paper.
Today, most bamboo is still largely planted and exported from China, among other countries including India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Afghanistan. Since bamboo is a versatile plant, combined with its popularity, Western countries also grow bamboo.
However, there is an economic incentive to buy bamboo from China due to low costs, so China continues to be the dominant producer of bamboo. Unfortunately, low costs are a result of lower environmental and fair labor standards.
Growing the bamboo
A sure positive of bamboo is that it has a low environmental impact in cultivation. It grows quickly and strongly in a variety of climates. No pesticides or fertilizers are required and little water is needed.
Benefits to cultivating bamboo include: protects against erosion, increases soil quality, and absorbs 5 times more carbon and releases 35 percent more oxygen than other trees.
Of course, it is up to the farmer to follow best practices and they may make unsustainable decisions, like deciding to use fertilizer or harvesting bamboo on lands that deplete natural habitats. Therefore, it is still important to look for certified organic or FSC certified bamboo.
Bamboo Fabric Production Process
Production methods primarily dictate how sustainable bamboo fabric is. There are a few different ways to turn raw bamboo into different types of bamboo textiles (including bamboo viscose, bamboo lyocell, and bamboo linen).
The most popular bamboo fabric made in the world today is bamboo viscose, which is actually just as bad as any other viscose/rayon product. This is because the production process is basically the same as other viscose garments – the only difference being that the wood source is bamboo.
Raw bamboo is turned into fabric through a chemical process, using lots of water, chemicals, and releasing harmful byproducts like carbon disulfide. The results are desirable though, being a silky and breathable fabric that is stretchier than cotton.
Bamboo viscose is also cheaper than cotton, but the price paid is in detriment to the environment, so it matters where your values lie.
Bamboo lyocell is a more sustainable option than bamboo viscose/rayon. It is made with a closed loop production process, similar to TENCEL lyocell. In this process, solvents and water are reused, which minimizes wasteful byproducts. Also, chemicals do not alter the structure of bamboo cellulose, so bamboo lyocell is considered pure bamboo.
On a positive note, it is not inherently difficult to make bamboo fabric with the lyocell process. However, production is costly. So bamboo lyocell garments are harder to find than bamboo viscose/rayon, although knowledge and movements for more eco-friendly materials can increase its popularity and demand.
Bamboo linen, also known as pure bamboo, is made from a mechanical process instead of a chemical process, like viscose/rayon. Fibers are mechanically combed and spun into yarn without toxic chemicals. This results in a fabric that is coarser than viscose/rayon or lyocell.
Like bamboo lyocell, bamboo linen is made from a mechanical process that is more expensive than the chemical process.
A major con of bamboo linen is that it’s labor intensive, so there is not as much of it on the market compared to viscose/rayon. While chemicals do not have to be used, the retting process sometimes includes chemicals, and eutrophication (harmful microbial growth) may occur.
To prevent buying bamboo linen with negative impacts, look for labels including certified organic (like GOTS), dew retted, and naturally colored (like OEKO-TEX 100).
Finding Sustainable + Ethical Bamboo Fabric
Basically, you should look for bamboo fabric that is made from a mechanical process over a chemical process, considering the toxicity of chemicals used today. This means buying bamboo lyocell or linen over bamboo viscose/rayon.
This may be easier said than done. Most of the bamboo fabric on the market is actually rayon. Companies have tried to trick the consumer into thinking they are buying eco-friendly just because there is bamboo in the materials. For example, garments can be marketed as being “organic bamboo rayon”; however, rayon is semi-synthetic, so it literally cannot be organic.
On a positive note, improvements are being made to prevent misleading representation. In December 2015, companies (Nordstrom, Bed Bath & Beyond, Backcountry.com, and J.C. Penney) were penalized for falsely advertising rayon textiles as “bamboo” by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). To inform consumers if a bamboo fabric is rayon or pure bamboo, there is a labeling requirement by the FTC quoted below, that requires a label to say “rayon (or viscose) made from bamboo”:
“Textiles made from rayon (or viscose, which is the same thing) that was created using bamboo as a plant source may be labeled and advertised as ‘rayon (or viscose) made from bamboo.’”
That being said. bamboo fabric can be a great eco-friendly option if made under sustainable conditions. Growing bamboo avoids pesticides and fertilizers and uses less water. Manufacture of pure bamboo is not as chemically intensive as fabrics like polyester and conventional cotton.
What identifies a sustainably-made bamboo fabric?
- Be wary of buying bamboo rayon/viscose, as viscose production is still detrimental to the environment, and more beneficial properties of raw bamboo are chemically destroyed.
- The best option in general is lyocell bamboo, since it is made with a closed loop process. To start, you can check out the brand Moves Good.
- A second best option is bamboo linen, but make sure there is transparency about fair labor as the manufacturing is quite labor intensive and hands-on.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of obscurity about bamboo because brands’ labelings focus on the low-impact cultivation of bamboo, rather than the manufacturing process. Hence, it is easy for greenwashing to occur.
Sadly, there are still limited options of truly sustainable bamboo fabrics, especially since the really soft and silky bamboo garments are created because of chemical alterations in viscose production methods.
Bamboo lyocell and bamboo linen (arguably the best available sustainable bamboo fabrics) are more expensive than bamboo rayon/viscose, as well as most cotton, and harder to find.
If you are not particular about buying bamboo, a more productive route to shop consciously includes garments made from TENCEL lyocell, organic cotton, or hemp.