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Published on June 26th, 2008 | by Delia Montgomery

19

Bamboo Fiber: Greenwash or Treasure?

The bamboo species for textile production is Phyllostachys heterocycla pubescens, commonly known as Moso bamboo. It is primarily grown in China where there are the most textile mills. Moso bamboo is the largest of the temperate zone bamboo species, is grown on family-owned farms, provides edible shoots, but is not what beloved panda bears eat. All sounds good until the manufacturing process is investigated.

Common production from plant to fabric is not as green as eco-minded people would like. Michael Lackman of LotusOrganics.com contributes to an impressive blog his family originated. He shares some interesting facts from extensive research.

Scrutiny is gaining attention because heavy and toxic chemicals are typically utilized to process bamboo into fabric. The alternative to chemical is mechanical processing. The mechanical method means crushing the woody parts of the bamboo plant followed by natural enzymes to break the walls into a mushy mass so that the natural fibers can be combed out and spun into yarn. This is essentially the same eco-friendly manufacturing method used to develop flax or hemp linen.

Chemical processing results are a regenerated cellulose fiber similar to rayon or modal. In fact manufacturing is sometimes referred as “bamboo rayon” because of the equivalent chemical processing to rayons and the similar nice feel to humans.

In reality, bamboo fashions are mostly produced by concocting the bamboo leaves and woody shoots in strong chemical solvents such as sodium hydroxide (NaOH which is also known as caustic soda or lye), and carbon disulfide in a hydrolysis alkalization chemical mechanism combined with multi phase bleaching. Both sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide are linked to serious health problems. Because of the health risks and damage to the environment, the chemical method is not considered sustainable.

Bamboo garments are praised for design characteristics similar to lyocell. The lyocell process is used to manufacture the Tencel® brand which is considered eco-friendly because their formulations used are supposedly nontoxic to humans. Lyocell processes are closed-loop so that 99.5% of the chemicals are captured and recycled to be used again. In comparison to chemical bamboo fiber production, it’s greener.

A new technology worthy of mention is from Greenyarn™ where they make fabric made from nano particles of bamboo charcoal. They deny use of harmful chemicals, but the actual process is vague. Stay tuned.

Conscious fabric retailers need to look for certification from an independent and reliable certification company. Currently, Oeko-Tex is the most comprehensive label for insuring that the garment is healthy for consumers. Other certification bodies are Soil Association, SKAL, or KRAV. Bamboo fabric buyers are wise to ask specific questions about textile development in addition to a label demand.

Conscious fashion retailers should inquire about the bamboo garments or home interior products they purchase for their shops. The investigation trail goes back to the mills and if the fashion production company refuses to share a copy of the label or certification, watch out for that red flag!
Bamboo Fabric RollsConsumers need to ask the retailer for verification if there’s not a label on the item they want to purchase. After all, the more who ask increase the demand and when demand increases, so does supply.

As fashion fads go, green admiration trends shift from one of mother nature’s gift to another. Bamboo is IT these days, but ecology issues will surface, and green consumers will educate themselves, — if the manufacturing process doesn’t prove satisfactory.

Don’t fall for the gold rush when scrutiny is required to honestly connect it to the green market. Whether for adoring or wearing, the bottom line is to investigate and educate before making a bamboo investment.


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About the Author

I am Delia, d/b/a Chic Eco on www.ChicEco.com, and established myself as an eco fashion guru by learning "who makes what in the world of environmental fashion and design." Enjoy reading some of my freelance writing about environmental design, fashion and art -- from both consumer and supplier perspectives. You may notice I focus most on individual eco designers, movers and shakers. From sustainable fashion apparel to paint and flooring, discoveries are a rush. I get my kicks this way. I also offer sales representation of earth-friendly designed products for wholesale buyers. Retailers may take advantage of my services with factory-direct pricing. Spend less time sourcing and prevent green-washed purchases! My other forte is connecting suppliers with business-to-business tools. Aspects of my business vary with consulting services while I'm proud to be the aide that embraces unique and innovative gigs. I'm originally a Kentucky Blue Grass gal who relocated to Maui early 2006 and the tropical Puna District of Big Island, Hawaii late 2007. Walk the talk is my motto here. Early 2009 I constructed a yurt home office in a semi-urban setting on a tiny lot. My water comes from the sky, contained in a catchment that's not likely to dry in this rain forest. The electric is designed for solar conversion. I grow about 30% of my food organically, compost, and recycle to the hilt. Permaculture with a full eco system is my gardening style. In fact, gardening is my ultimate joy. I seek gigs like design, weeding and planting between other jobs. My love is Hawai'i which has more climate zones than any state. There are frequent earthquakes here, typically under a 3.0 magnitude, and I happen to dig the vibrations. It's a wonderful simple life in paradise. As I grow older and wiser, I become more and more grateful.



  • http://nicewhitelady.blogspot.com/ Jo Paoletti

    I recently attended the FTC workshop on green claims for textiles and building materials. The invited experts were unanimous in their opinion that while bamboo (the plant) and natural bamboo fiber is a sustainable material with many of the characteristics you mention, nearly all bamboo textiles and yarns available on the market are nothing more than rayon (viscose, in the UK). For more, see the detailed coverage in my blog:

    http://nicewhitelady.blogspot.com/search/label/bamboo

  • http://nicewhitelady.blogspot.com/ Jo Paoletti

    I recently attended the FTC workshop on green claims for textiles and building materials. The invited experts were unanimous in their opinion that while bamboo (the plant) and natural bamboo fiber is a sustainable material with many of the characteristics you mention, nearly all bamboo textiles and yarns available on the market are nothing more than rayon (viscose, in the UK). For more, see the detailed coverage in my blog:

    http://nicewhitelady.blogspot.com/search/label/bamboo

  • http://www.ChicEco.com Delia Montgomery

    So kind of you to comment on this important subject Jo; thank you!

    More than likely designers will have clear certification options for bamboo in the near future. The fabric mills are getting pressure and true sustainable garment designers are insisting on it.

    My crystal ball says building materials are next up for certifications.

    Stay tuned,
    Delia, FGS Author

  • http://www.ChicEco.com Delia Montgomery

    So kind of you to comment on this important subject Jo; thank you!

    More than likely designers will have clear certification options for bamboo in the near future. The fabric mills are getting pressure and true sustainable garment designers are insisting on it.

    My crystal ball says building materials are next up for certifications.

    Stay tuned,
    Delia, FGS Author

  • http://nicewhitelady.blogspot.com/ Jo Paoletti

    Your crystal ball is working really well! I couldn’t stay for the afternoon session on green building claims, but if it was anything like the morning session on textiles, the “writing on the wall” is in the transcripts (on the FTC website and also on mine, under regulation). I am hoping that the organic and sustainable textiles market doesn’t take as long to mature as the organic food market did. (After, if took the USDA until 2002 to regulate the use of that term!) It’s going to take pressure from informed and concerned consumers to accomplish that, because the FTC was in no great rush even enforce its own regulations.

  • http://nicewhitelady.blogspot.com/ Jo Paoletti

    Your crystal ball is working really well! I couldn’t stay for the afternoon session on green building claims, but if it was anything like the morning session on textiles, the “writing on the wall” is in the transcripts (on the FTC website and also on mine, under regulation). I am hoping that the organic and sustainable textiles market doesn’t take as long to mature as the organic food market did. (After, if took the USDA until 2002 to regulate the use of that term!) It’s going to take pressure from informed and concerned consumers to accomplish that, because the FTC was in no great rush even enforce its own regulations.

  • Pingback: Fab Fabrics: The Pros and Cons of Bamboo : Crafting a Green World

  • http://www.adpaper.ae hamdi ahel

    bamboo fiber is long or short fiber.

  • http://www.adpaper.ae hamdi ahel

    bamboo fiber is long or short fiber.

  • http://ecohomeresource.com Monique MacIntosh

    I spoke to a manufacturer of men’s underwear, he mentioned that he considered using bamboo fiber but decided against it because on its own, it does not have the qualities of strength, durability and softness that he requires for his product. He discovered that bamboo has to be used in a blend.

    Any comment on that?

    Thanks

  • http://ecohomeresource.com Monique MacIntosh

    I spoke to a manufacturer of men’s underwear, he mentioned that he considered using bamboo fiber but decided against it because on its own, it does not have the qualities of strength, durability and softness that he requires for his product. He discovered that bamboo has to be used in a blend.

    Any comment on that?

    Thanks

  • http://www.wholesale-products-china.com/ Zee Liang

    I believe that either using chemical or mechanical to process bamboo is to separated bamboo natural fibers from the rest of stuff. Bamboo fiber is natural fiber and rayon is man-made fiber. That are the fundamental differences between those two fibers.

    NaOH is widely used in industries, like manufacturing pager, leather refining, pharmacy factories etc. why it is so bad when it comes to processing bamboo?

    If chemicals recycle could be applied to the processing of Lyocell, there were nothing to stop chemicals recycle applied to the processing of bamboo.

    If chemically produced Lyocell were healthy for consumers, why natural bamboo fiber were not healthy? Human uses bamboo since day one in his history.

    If bamboo fiber products were not green, it was hard to say anything that were green. Solar power is green, procedures of manufacturing those devices that receive and convert it may not green.

  • http://www.wholesale-products-china.com/ Zee Liang

    I believe that either using chemical or mechanical to process bamboo is to separated bamboo natural fibers from the rest of stuff. Bamboo fiber is natural fiber and rayon is man-made fiber. That are the fundamental differences between those two fibers.

    NaOH is widely used in industries, like manufacturing pager, leather refining, pharmacy factories etc. why it is so bad when it comes to processing bamboo?

    If chemicals recycle could be applied to the processing of Lyocell, there were nothing to stop chemicals recycle applied to the processing of bamboo.

    If chemically produced Lyocell were healthy for consumers, why natural bamboo fiber were not healthy? Human uses bamboo since day one in his history.

    If bamboo fiber products were not green, it was hard to say anything that were green. Solar power is green, procedures of manufacturing those devices that receive and convert it may not green.

  • LadyDreamgirl

    Bamboo rayon is essentially indistinguishable from rayon made from any other source. All rayon production needs is a source of cellulose whether it’s wood or bamboo. Bamboo rayon uses the same chemical process as rayon from other sources. Rayon is not exactly a man made fiber, it’s semi-synthetic.

    The reason that processing bamboo into rayon and calling it bamboo fiber without mentioning that it was processed as rayon is green-washing is that bamboo can provide fiber through mechanical separation. Mechanically separated bamboo fiber is a natural fiber, bamboo rayon is a semi-synthetic. Selling bamboo rayon as bamboo implies that it is the natural fiber, not the semi-synthetic that it is.

    Use of NaOH for processing bamboo is hidden from the consumer. They think they are getting a natural fiber (aka mechanically separated bamboo fiber) when they are getting a semi-synthetic.

    It’s not about the process or the chemical use being more harmful to the environment when it is applied to bamboo. The chemicals and processes are harmful whatever they are being applied to. The real question is if there is a better way. Bamboo fiber can be used without the application of NaOH. Paper manufacture, leather production, and pharmaceutical applications of NaOH may or may not be necessary, I don’t know enough to judge, but there are clearly two different processes that can be used to make usable fiber from bamboo, and customers deserve to know which kind they are buying in order to decide whether they are willing to accept the chemical processing of bamboo rayon.

  • LadyDreamgirl

    Bamboo rayon is essentially indistinguishable from rayon made from any other source. All rayon production needs is a source of cellulose whether it’s wood or bamboo. Bamboo rayon uses the same chemical process as rayon from other sources. Rayon is not exactly a man made fiber, it’s semi-synthetic.

    The reason that processing bamboo into rayon and calling it bamboo fiber without mentioning that it was processed as rayon is green-washing is that bamboo can provide fiber through mechanical separation. Mechanically separated bamboo fiber is a natural fiber, bamboo rayon is a semi-synthetic. Selling bamboo rayon as bamboo implies that it is the natural fiber, not the semi-synthetic that it is.

    Use of NaOH for processing bamboo is hidden from the consumer. They think they are getting a natural fiber (aka mechanically separated bamboo fiber) when they are getting a semi-synthetic.

    It’s not about the process or the chemical use being more harmful to the environment when it is applied to bamboo. The chemicals and processes are harmful whatever they are being applied to. The real question is if there is a better way. Bamboo fiber can be used without the application of NaOH. Paper manufacture, leather production, and pharmaceutical applications of NaOH may or may not be necessary, I don’t know enough to judge, but there are clearly two different processes that can be used to make usable fiber from bamboo, and customers deserve to know which kind they are buying in order to decide whether they are willing to accept the chemical processing of bamboo rayon.

  • Pingback: The Myth of “Eco-friendly” Bamboo « Crunchy & Chic

  • carmen

    Is there a manufacturer that produces Bamboo mechanically? If so, please recommend them to me so I can use this in my company.

    To keep our product 100% green, is there a combining product we can use to get more life and durability out of the garment? We need strenghth, durability, slight stretch to hold shape, and all the properties that bamboo offers. We want to stay green and just about went bamboo/rayon until I began reading more. Thanking you ahead for the input

  • carmen

    Is there a manufacturer that produces Bamboo mechanically? If so, please recommend them to me so I can use this in my company.

    To keep our product 100% green, is there a combining product we can use to get more life and durability out of the garment? We need strenghth, durability, slight stretch to hold shape, and all the properties that bamboo offers. We want to stay green and just about went bamboo/rayon until I began reading more. Thanking you ahead for the input

    • http://Web Matt C

      I’ve worked in the paper industry (researcher) and working within companies with interest into bamboos. I can say that the mechanical methods for processing paper were not used for they consumed excessive amounts of energy to produce the desired end result/product. There is also a difference between the resultant product after processing chemically or mechanically. Chemical is cheaper and it will typically yield a more useful end product (durable, better feel, cleaner look).

      I wouldn’t be too hasty to jump on the ‘mechanical is better and 100% green’ band wagon.It certainly isn’t.

      There is not yet an ‘ideal’ method for processing fibres for the manufacturer or the environment. Care should be taken by the manufacturers to ensure all chemicals/instruments used are stored and processed properly to minimise/eliminate the effect they have on the environment and workers.

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