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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.

Written by Delia Montgomery

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.

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