Bamboo fiber is a revolutionary fabric that has unparalleled advantages, including strength, versatility, and luxurious softness. But the manufacturing process still requires development to support the 'green' claim of an environmentally-friendly product.
Environmental Benefits of Bamboo
Cleans the Air
Bamboo gives us clean air to breathe, consumes carbon dioxide and, because bamboo forests are so dense, returns 30% more oxygen to the atmosphere than trees. Some bamboo sequester up to 12 tons of carbon dioxide from the air per hectare.
Requires Less Energy and Water
It takes much less energy to grow and sustain bamboo than other similar trees and plants used for fiber production. Bamboo plantations require very little maintenance. Bamboo also requires very little water and can survive drought conditions as well as flooding.
Because of its rapid growth and root structure, bamboo can, in a very short time, reclaim land destroyed by overgrazing and over-building and clean the soil of toxins.
Bamboo fiber is made by pulping the grass until it separates into thin threads of fiber, which can be spun for weaving into cloth. Bamboo fiber resembles cotton in its un-spun form, a puffball of light, airy fibers.
Can Be Grown Without Pesticides
Bamboo can be grown without pesticides or chemicals because of its own antibacterial agent.
Can Be Harvested Sustainably
Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants on the planet, making it a high yield renewable resource. It can be selectively harvested annually and is capable of complete regeneration without need to replant.
Unlike synthetic fibers which incorporate petroleum additives, bamboo clothing is safe for municipal disposal programs, whether by landfill or incineration.
Features of Bamboo Fiber Clothing and Textiles
Bamboo fabric is used for a range of clothing, such as shirts, dresses, socks and slacks, and because of its antimicrobial properties, is ideal for active wear. Bamboo is often blended with 30% cotton to add structure to garments. Bamboo is also used for sheets and pillowcases, because it’s smooth fiber lends a satin feel; bamboo sheets also feel warmer in winter and cooler in summer. Other features and benefits of bamboo fiber:
Bamboo’s organic and naturally smooth fiber properties are non-irritating to the skin, making it ideal for people with skin sensitivities or other allergies and dermatitis. Some people can still experience chemical sensitivities, however, depending on the manufacturing process used to produce the fiber.
The nature of bamboo fiber means that it helps ensure you are warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Bamboo clothing also has excellent wicking properties, making it ideal for warm summer days.
A cross-section of bamboo fiber reveals various micro-holes, allowing bamboo cloth to have superior absorption. This allows bamboo cloth to absorb and evaporate human sweat rapidly. Bamboo fiber is four times more absorbent than cotton.
The porous qualities of bamboo fiber account for it’s breathability; clothing made of bamboo resists clinging during hot weather or exercise.
Bamboo fabric contains a naturally occurring antimicrobial agent, kun, that prevents bacteria from cultivating on it, which means it helps keep you odor free.
Bamboo naturally provides added protection against the sun’s harmful UV rays.
Because of its antibacterial and UV resistant properties, bamboo fiber clothing is particularly well suited for performance and exercise wear.
Several different manufacturing processes can be used to convert bamboo from the plant to the woven fabric, with varying environmental costs. Mechanical methods which crush the bamboo into pulp are the least harmful but the most expensive. More often, chemical processes are used which can pose threats to workers at processing plants and the immediate environment around processing facilities.
The chemical processes which cause environmental concern center around the use of solvents which ‘cook’ the bamboo leaves and stems into a solution from which the fibers are drawn. A common method called ‘hydrolysis alkalization with multi-phase bleaching’ is not considered sustainable or environmentally supportable.
Don't Be 'Bamboozled' By False Claims
According to the US Federal Trade Commission, soft “bamboo” fabrics on the market today made using harsh solvents, are actually rayon. There’s also no evidence that rayon made from bamboo retains the antimicrobial properties of the bamboo plant, as some sellers and manufacturers claim. Even when bamboo is the “plant source” used to create rayon, no traits of the original plant are left in the finished product.
Because the market appeal for bamboo clothing is growing, manufacturers are working to process bamboo fiber using methods that are certifiable and environmentally benign. These newer processes include closed-loop systems such as the Lyocell process used in making Tencel, and processes using safer solvents such as acetic acid.
Because most bamboo fiber production is in China, it is difficult to monitor the manufacturing processes. As consumer interest for bamboo fiber builds, however, it is likely to apply more pressure for transparency among manufacturers. Eco-certification programs can help to insure that the manufacturing and finishing processes are healthy. Look for certification from an independent and reliable certification company such as Oeko-Tex, Soil Association, SKAL, KRAV or similar organic or sustainable certification body.
Caring for Bamboo Clothing and Textiles
In general, bamboo fiber clothing can be machine washed in cool water with mild soap on the gentle cycle. Manufacturers often advise against using fabric softeners or bleach. Although shrinkage is minimal with fabrics made of bamboo, it’s best if garments can hang to dry. (Bamboo clothing dries faster than most other fabrics.) Because bamboo clothing is naturally wrinkle-resistant, ironing is not always required.
Because bamboo fiber is often blended with other fibers (e.g. cotton, lycra, spandex, polyester) for different textiles, be sure to refer to the manufacturer’s guidelines on the garment for recommended cleaning procedures.
Support Sustainable Plantations
Bamboo for textile production is almost exclusively grown in China and Taiwan. The type of bamboo used to produce fabric is Moso bamboo (Phyllostachys pubescens), a type of tropical grass which is not the same kind the pandas eat.
Moso bamboo is grown on family-owned farms that cover over seven million acres in China, so no tropical forests are damaged to produce organic bamboo fabric. However, consumers should read the product literature or ask the supplier about the source of fiber used for their clothing. Consumer awareness is the best method for applying pressure on bamboo fiber manufacturers to ensure environmental costs of bamboo textiles are kept to a minimum.