As the clothing and textile industry continues to find innovative ways to be sustainable, it explores various types of fabrics. Bamboo fabric is one type of material that people often praise for being sustainable. However, the term ‘bamboo fabric’ houses different types of textiles.
While some fabrics are environmentally friendly, others prove less so. The manufacturing process used to make each fabric also gives us an insight into which bamboo fiber is most sustainable. Below is a complete guide to understanding bamboo textiles, how they are made, and their various uses, and answering the question, "Is bamboo fabric sustainable?"
What is Bamboo Fabric?
Bamboo fabric is a general name for a variety of textiles we acquire from bamboo grass. These mainly differ based on how producers acquire them. The three main types are bamboo viscose, lyocell-type bamboo fabric, and natural bamboo (also called bamboo linen)2.
The sustainability of bamboo fabric can seem a little complicated at first glance. However, once you understand the properties and processes of each type, it’ll be easy to spot the eco-friendly types. Although this plant has many advantages as a raw material for fabric and bamboo clothing, the type of fabric manufacturers extract from it makes all the difference to the planet.
Due to its durable and soft nature, we find bamboo fabrics used to make products such as towels, underwear, shirts, bed sheets, and even mattresses. This breathable, soft, high absorbency and smooth fabric sometimes serves as an alternative to conventional cotton fabrics.
Also, it is often a go-to fabric for people looking for a cruelty-free alternative to silk. While bamboo is natural, the fabrics we get from it are semi-synthetic due to the processing methods. This is especially true for viscose rayon and lyocell-type fabric. To get an understanding of how these types differ, let’s examine the different manufacturing processes.
How is Bamboo Fabric Made?
As mentioned earlier, the different types of bamboo fabric go through various processes before becoming a textile for clothing. It is important to note that the most common bamboo fabric is bamboo viscose.
This textile is significantly cheaper to manufacture and uses the rayon production method. The viscose rayon fiber requires significant chemicals in its manufacturing process. The lyocell fabric, on the other hand, uses less toxic chemicals. Mechanically produced bamboo fabric, the natural type, is the best and most sustainable material.
Types of Bamboo Fabric and Their Processing
Viscose Rayon Production
Even though bamboo plants are used to make this fabric, the process can be toxic to the planet. Some of these chemicals are also harmful to workers. Manufacturers use conventional and lengthy viscose rayon production to acquire this fabric.
After planting and harvesting the bamboo plant, the workers extract bamboo cellulose from the bamboo pulp. The viscose process involves breaking down wood into small chunks and exposing it to a chemical solvent (often caustic soda). Through this, the bamboo cellulose is acquired. The process then goes as follows:
- Compressed cellulose from bamboo fibers is processed using carbon disulfide (known as a harmful chemical) into sheets and filtered.
- The cellulose is pushed through a spinneret. This process transforms the cellulose into strands.
- They immerse the strands in another chemical called sulfuric acid to soften them. This produces filaments then spun into yarn. Finally, machines can weave this into useful fabric for clothes and garments.
This process involves the heavy usage of harmful chemicals such as carbon disulfide and sulfuric acid.
Lyocell or Closed-Loop Production
Another manufacturing process to acquire bamboo fabric and fibers is using a closed-loop method. Instead of using harmful chemicals like carbon disulfide, the lyocell process doesn’t chemically change the cellulose structure.
Therefore, The closed-loop process creates a natural and organic fabric. Also, factories dispose of the solvents used to make bamboo rayon in the viscose rayon process. It is classified as waste. On the other hand, they can use solvents in this closed-loop process over again. This leads to an improvement in its environmental impact.
The third method is the most friendly to the environment. Bamboo fabric produced mechanically doesn’t involve chemicals. To acquire these bamboo fibers, producers mechanically crush the plants.
Afterward, they add natural enzymes to the crushed wood fibers. Then, they wash these fibers and spin them into bamboo yarn.
The resulting mechanically processed bamboo fabrics are quite costly, and the process is labor-intensive. Furthermore, without the chemical treatment, the result of the mechanical process is a slightly coarse fabric often marketed as bamboo linen. As a result, it is limited in the market.
History of Bamboo Textiles
Producers utilize bamboo to make a variety of products. For instance, the paper industry uses it in paper production. However, bamboo fiber used in clothing and textiles came about in the 20th century.
We can trace the origins of bamboo fabric to Asia and the development of the first modern process of attaining bamboo textiles at Beijing University. They released the results of usable bamboo apparel in the early 2000s. Around this time, some other manufacturers and organizations were working to create bamboo apparel by using similar natural materials.
This successful extraction was developed, and modern bleaching methods were used to turn the fabric white. It then became commercially available and successful in the American market. Over the years, experts have developed methods of generating the fabric. As a result, we’ve noticed innovations in mixing and blending fabrics.
How Sustainable is Bamboo Fabric?
As a raw material, bamboo is a natural and highly sustainable plant. It has a minimal environmental impact compared with many crops. The crop has many sustainable benefits. These include:
- Growing quickly with an easy-to-grow nature
- Maturing quickly
- Being able to grow on land that may not be suitable for other crops
- Requiring minimal pesticides
- Absorbing a large amount of carbon dioxide
Read more here: All About Bamboo and Sustainability
So, if farmers grow it under favorable conditions and practices, bamboo is quite sustainable. The issue mainly arises for the textile form as a result of the chemically intensive production process. For instance, the rayon type goes through a chemical process using carbon disulfide to extract fibers from the wood pulp, which is toxic. This leads to air pollution with hazardous effects.
Aside from posing harm to the environment, it also affects the health of the workers. It can cause ailments such as liver damage, blindness, and psychosis. The rayon type is also the most common bamboo fabric. As a result, many brands in the fashion industry tend to simply state the material as ‘bamboo.’
Additionally, bamboo rayon is, in fact, semi-synthetic, and, as such, brands that offer "organic bamboo rayon." use incorrect terminology. This can be misleading as it lacks transparency in mentioning the exact type.
You'll also often find bamboo blended with other sustainable fabrics, including with modal to produce bamboo modal. These blends can increase the applications available to producers. At the same time, bamboo can also be blended with synthetics, which, in turn, reduces its sustainability.
Choosing a Fabric
When choosing bamboo fabric, it is best to look out for the natural one or lyocell-like fabric. However, these fabrics can be harder to find compared with bamboo rayon. The fabrics that go through the intensive chemical process often lose the benefits originally provided by the plant. The chemical processes manufacturers employ to produce the material greatly affect the beneficial natural qualities of bamboo.
Due to false and misleading claims from brands, The Federal Trade Commission has compelled brands and companies to label ‘rayon made from bamboo’ when the material is not the natural type. The body created this regulation to protect consumers from false claims within the industry.
The best and most sustainable type of bamboo is natural bamboo, sometimes called bamboo linen. This one is processed mechanically, thereby avoiding the release of toxic chemicals.
Bamboo Textile Pros and Cons
Sustainable fashion brands recognize the usefulness of bamboo, leading to wider usage of the fabric. Apparel made from this include socks, underwear, and t-shirts.
Brands also use bamboo fabrics to make household products like bedding, blankets, and towels. In this section, we’ll examine the benefits as well as the cons of this fabric.
Pros of Bamboo Fabric
- Does not Require Pesticides: One of the significant benefits of using bamboo for fabrics is that growing it doesn’t require pesticides. The plant contains a natural antimicrobial bio-agent called bamboo-kun1. The presence of this substance means there is no need for pesticides when growing the crop.
- Easily Organically Grown: Bamboo is the quickest-growing woody plant in the world. It is easy to grow, making it a go-to crop for making bamboo fabric.
- Soft with Moisture-Wicking Properties: Bamboo fabric is soft and friendly to the skin. The fabric also keeps you dry by drawing moisture or sweat from your skin while possessing natural antibacterial properties.
It is important to note that most of the beneficial properties of this plant are found in the type of fabric that is mechanically processed. The rayon type often lacks many of these qualities.
Cons of Bamboo Fabric
Any bamboo fabric that undergoes chemical processing involving carbon disulfide poses a danger to the environment. The chemicals used to process the fabric are harmful to human health and the environment.
- Hazardous Emissions: Any bamboo fabric that undergoes chemical processing involving carbon disulfide creates potential water pollution and poses a danger to the environment. The chemicals used to process the fabric are harmful to human health and the environment.
- Shrinkage of the Fabric: Bamboo fabric tends to shrink at a faster rate compared to cotton.
- Expensive: Natural bamboo fabric tends to be more expensive than rayon or cotton. It is not as common as the bamboo rayon fabric and would cost more.
- Prone to Wrinkles and Pilling: The bamboo fabric easily wrinkles compared to other materials. It is also prone to pilling. Pilling refers to those small fiber balls that form on clothes.
Brands that Use Bamboo
Here, we’ve given a spotlight to some brands that utilize this fabric. Their processes also show their commitment to sustainability and the use of bamboo as an eco-friendly option.
Boody is a brand that makes minimalist and basic pieces that are kind to the skin and highly breathable. The brand focuses on quality pieces by using bamboo as its main material. Boody grows its crops in China in partnership with a fiber company. The brand’s yarn is certified organic by The Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA). The bamboo stalk does not contain chemical pesticides and is of 100% natural growth.
Movesgood is a slow fashion company that makes its products with bamboo lyocell. From sustainable sweaters and tops to trousers, dresses, and accessories, Movesgood is committed to being sustainable.
Ettitude creates organic bamboo bedding, bath, and sleep essentials. The company has an exclusive line called CleanBamboo. It creates this fiber using a non-toxic and closed-loop system. The result is a super soft weave that’s delicate on the skin and friendly to the planet. According to a statement on the website, the brand has said: “Goodbye to cotton and synthetic fibers.”
Shift to Nature
This company sources and curates sustainable and ethical brands. The company promotes quality living through ethical and sustainable practices. It carries apparel made from organic materials such as organic cotton, bamboo, and hemp, amongst others.
Bamboo Fiber vs. Others
Organic cotton and hemp are two materials that brands use as substitutes for bamboo. Below, we’ve highlighted some differences between bamboo and these other fabrics:
Bamboo vs. Hemp
Hemp fabric is a more sustainable choice compared to bamboo. Its manufacturing and production methods are more eco-friendly. Also, the hemp fabric can retain a higher amount of beneficial properties in the final fabric or material. Although bamboo is softer on the skin, hemp is more durable.
Bamboo vs. Cotton
The bamboo plant is more sustainable than cotton. However, the processing of bamboo rayon sometimes makes cotton production seem like a better choice. Bamboo crops require less water compared to the amount required for growing cotton. It is also pest-resistant and doesn’t require fertilizers, unlike cotton. Also, bamboo consumes less water - even less than that needed for organic cotton.
Bamboo is a highly sustainable crop. However, paying attention to the type of bamboo fabric used in the clothes you purchase is important. The most sustainable type is bamboo linen. To avoid falling victim to greenwashing, always confirm a company’s transparency concerning the type of fabric used. This also includes processing techniques.
Generally, the industry has come a long way in identifying innovative techniques to uphold sustainability.
Gericke, A., & Van der Pol, J. (2011). A comparative study of regenerated bamboo, cotton and viscose rayon fabrics. Part 2: antimicrobial properties. Journal of Consumer Sciences, 39.
Natural Resources Defense Council. (2011, August). Not All Bamboo is Created Equal.