Sunday, September 6, 2009

Bamboo and Cellulose Fabrics- Not an Eco Option

The students have moved back into the city, causing increased traffic, my fists to shake angrily on more occasions (I really need to work on that) and an influx of back to school shopping. For many of us, September signals another shopping spree to buy new clothing, new shoes, new school supplies... long after school has been completed. Just yesterday, during another awesome Guerrilla yoga in the park (a Harvest Moon Celebration!), discussion began around the wonderful new Fall yoga gear at Bhavana Yoga Boutique (an independent local yoga boutique in Halifax).(my in the mist yoga practice at my parent's cottage in Quinan, NS)

Now, there may be legitimate moments where shopping for clothing must occur (depending on your paycheck, job and state of current clothing) and the 'eco' choices are increasingly diverse at all levels and stores. Bamboo and other cellulose-based rayon fabrics continue to rule the eco options available and finding organic cotton seems to be increasingly difficult. Why would I prefer organic cotton? Because the more I read about bamboo, the less "eco" and the more greenwashing it becomes.

Of course, the best option would be to not buy any new clothing at all, but for those of you (us) who have saved a bit of pennies and would like to spend our money where it can help the planet, being informed is key. Just as the term "natural" can be meaningless, "bamboo" also does not automatically equate "good for the environment".

Essentials to remember about Bamboo Fibre:
1. Bamboo fabric is essentially rayon created from cellulose. The process is extremely intensive and involves huge amounts of chemicals to change the bamboo grass fibres into fabric. These chemicals can include sodium hydroxide (caustic soda), chlorine, carbon disulfide and sulfuric acid which is often dumped into neighbouring water systems and forests. It also can involve large amounts of water, energy and heat. Although companies claim that "caustic soda" has been used to create harmless materials such as soap, large amounts under intense heat and pressure can be extremely toxic. It's all in the wording and what is left conveniently unsaid that is problematic for consumers.

Of course, there are ways to create bamboo fabric in a closed-loop system, reusing and recycling up to 70% of chemicals, water and energy used in the process. Also, certain types of bamboo processes such as what is used to create lyocell, are less energy and chemical intensive. The annoying part- it's extremely difficult (for the regular consumer) to ascertain what processing system the company is using. It's not like the tag will say "closed-loop bamboo fabric".

2. Yes, bamboo is a fast growing, potentially sustainable grass. It is also mainly grown in China and has fast become one of China's leading cash crops. According to Organic Clothing, over the past twenty years China has transferred many forests to private citizen ownership, with poor regulations and disastrous environmental results. How is the consumer to know that the bamboo used to make your comfy lulu shirt caused the destruction of ancient, biodiversified forests? This is especially difficult as bamboo fabric manufacturers buy their bamboo pulp from suppliers... Supposedly only ONE company owns legal patents on bamboo pulp, The Jigao Chemical Fiber Company, which it buys from thousands of different plantations across China. How can one manufacturing company claim to know that THEIR bamboo pulp was grown sustainably? I asked a store clerk once whether she knew if the bamboo in my shirt was from monocultures planted en lieu of ancient forests. She looked at me like I had ten heads.

3. Although Bamboo does not necessarily need pesticides or fertilizers to grow well, they can and will help bamboo to grow faster. You can be assured that there are bamboo plantations that use them to increase yield and profit. How do you tell the difference? There have been rumours of certified organic bamboo plantations gaining popularity in China, but I have yet to see a certified organic bamboo product on the shelves here in Canada. Again, trust in the company is a biggie here...

4. Like all products made in China, labour practices and the affects of the chemically intensive process used to create bamboo fabric on the workers is an issue. Having third party certification helps, but there are issues surrounding certifying bodies such as ISO 14000, which is simply a tool to help businesses, not a regulatory system with strict guidelines. Consumers can be mislead by using generic "third party certifying body" type lingo.

Patagonia, a sporting/equipment company, has excellent and honest articles on their attempts to keep the company as environmentally and ethically responsible as possible. They have a PDF article briefly explaining why they do not use bamboo in their product line and why their alternatives such as hemp, are more socially and environmentally responsible. I especially like their honest article on why they don't use bioplastics made from corn (as most commodity corn is genetically modified).

Karma Athletics yoga wear makes their clothing in Canada, which is a bonus. The only "eco" fabric they offer is bamboo... with no information regarding how it was harvested, processed or the labour conditions.

Skyler Clothing is made in Canada and hires mothers, allowing them to work from home while acknowledging the importance of motherhood. Very cool. Their clothing however, includes modal, basically another version of rayon made from beechwood. Minimal information is given on the website regarding sustainability practices of processing and harvesting as well. According to Organic Clothing, wood is harvested, de-barked and chopped into small chips... then "cooked" into pliable mush to be ready for chemical processing similar to bamboo in order to create a usable textile. Further, as the processing requires large amounts of water, the plants are usually located near lakes and rivers... with run-off a definitely possibility.

Like the recent scandal with SIGG, the FTC consumer board has recently released a consumer alert to consumers about the actual truth behind environmental claims with bamboo fibres. Instead of dumping my money into a product that has potential to be extremely toxic to the environment, I'll stick with fabrics that are much more transparent. Look for TENCEL or Lyocel labeling, as they are fabrics made using a closed loop system and seem to be more environmentally sustainable.

If you'd like to read more about bamboo fibres and how they are processed check out these two (Bamboo: Facts behind the Fiber, Bamboo Sprouting Green Myths) Organic Clothing articles. :)


article authored by EcoYogini at


  1. Wow, thanks for doing all the research on this and spelling it out so clearly! There sure are a lot of 'bamboo' products out there, and it's easy to sucked in, as I have myself been on occasion! This article has made me better informed, definitely.

  2. I've visited and bought clothes from Bhavana before. I was sad to hear that Cura had gone out of business because I had bought an amazing yoga tank from there.

    This is the first time I have ever learned about bamboo! I had no idea! Thanks for sharing!

  3. I am constantly amazed at how much effort you put in on your blog posts. You always do so much research. Thank you so much.

    I hadn't heard about Bamboo not being eco-friendly. But everything you said makes sense. Mono-culture plantation style seems to be a problem everywhere (think corn, soy, tree farms, fish farms, etc).

    Anyway, I'll advocate for second hand clothing shops and clothing exchanges between friends. Both reduce new manufacturing and don't add to the waste stream.

    Thanks for your good work. Namaste. Sara

  4. My back-to-school shopping started at the consignment store then moved to the thirft store before we moved to a regular store. This year we only purchased 1 new pair of pants and 1 new pair of shoes. I was pretty happy with that although the purchases were not organic. Baby steps....


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