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 we have a complete guide to understanding bamboo textiles, how its made, and its various uses alongside answering the question "is bamboo fabric sustainable?"
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Bamboo fabric is a general name for a variety of textiles we acquire from bamboo. 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)3.
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 its 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, and smooth fabric sometimes serves as an alternative to 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.
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. This viscose rayon fiber requires a significant amount of chemicals in its manufacturing process. The lyocell fabric, on the other hand, uses less toxic chemicals. The best and most sustainable materials are the natural type, which requires mechanical processing.
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. To acquire this fabric, manufacturers apply the conventional viscose rayon production process. As a result, bamboo viscose requires a lengthy process.
After planting and harvesting the bamboo plant, the workers extract bamboo cellulose from the bamboo pulp. This involves breaking down wood into small chunks and exposing it to a chemical solvent. Through this, the bamboo cellulose is acquired. The process then goes as follows:
This process involves the heavy usage of harmful chemicals such as carbon disulfide and sulfuric acid.
Another manufacturing process to acquire bamboo fabric and fibers is using a closed-loop method. Instead of using harmful chemicals like carbon disulfide, this process doesn’t chemically change the cellulose structure.
The closed-loop process, therefore, creates a fabric that is natural and organic. 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 a better environmentally-friendly impact.
This method is the most friendly to the environment. The processing doesn’t involve chemicals. Rather, it requires mechanical processing. To acquire these bamboo fibers, you mechanically crush the plants.
Afterward, you add natural enzymes to the crushed wood fibers. You then wash these fibers and spin them into bamboo yarn. The resulting bamboo fabrics are quite costly, and the process is labor-intensive. As a result, it is limited in the market.
Producers utilize bamboo to make a variety of products. For instance, the paper industry uses it in paper production. However, bamboo fibers for clothes came about in the 20th century. It is important to note that there had been attempts over the years to generate fiber to be turned into eco-friendly fabric for apparel.
We can trace the origins of bamboo fabric to Asia. We can further trace the development of the first modern process of attaining bamboo textile to Beijing University1. 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.
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:
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.
Asides 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’. 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, reduce its sustainability.
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.
Sustainable fashion brands recognize the usefulness of bamboo, leading to wider usage of the fabric. Apparels 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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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:
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.
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, it is important to pay attention to the type of bamboo fabric used in the clothes you purchase. 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.
Nayak, L., Mishra, S.P. (2016). Prospect of bamboo as a renewable textile fibre, historical overview, labeling, controversies and regulation. Fash Text 3, 2 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40691-015-0054-5
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.
Liese, W., & Kohl, M. (2015). Bamboo. The Plant and its Uses. Springer. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-14133-6
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.