Bamboo: Not Quite The Environmental Turn-On We Were Expecting

Woman modelling amongst bamboo trees Credit: Unknown.

The Coronavirus pandemic has reshaped the holiday shopping season with fewer people hitting stores on Black Friday, electing instead to bag a bargain on the digital high-street. This morning, I treated myself to a new pair of trainers. After I had paid, an ad caught my eye for a ‘sustainable bamboo jersey t-shirt’. Now bamboo screams sustainable, right? And we all know, there is no word sexier than sustainable. 

Bamboo is known to be a very sustainable crop. It is the fastest-growing plant in the world – requiring no fertiliser or pesticides to thrive. The crop self-regenerates from its roots, meaning it does not need to be replanted and is a crucial player in balancing the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. When compared to cotton cultivation, which requires large amounts of water, pesticides and labour, the advantages are undeniable. 

However, there is one peachy BUT to this truth.

Although bamboo is naturally organic, it does not mean it is being grown and treated sustainably. 

The majority of bamboo is grown in China, meaning there is little public information available regarding how intensively the bamboo is grown. Without knowing this information, we do not know the extent of any deforestation and consequent habitat loss. In its cultivation phase, bamboo does not need pesticides to grow. However, there is no guarantee that they are not used to maximise outputs. 

Once the bamboo has been harvested, there are several ways to turn it into textiles. The first process involves combing out the bamboo fibres and spinning them into a thread. This results in a coarse textile more commonly known as bamboo linen. Creating this linen is an expensive and labour-intensive process. The end product is a hard-wearing fabric that is used most commonly in bedding and towels. 

The second and much more popular method is used to make the soft bamboo fabric you find in clothing. This textile is called bamboo rayon and is produced by conducting a highly intensive and toxic chemical process, using chemicals like sulphuric acid, risking human life. Rayon is essentially cellulose pulp, a raw material converted through a chemical process. The result is a fibre that falls somewhere between natural and synthetic. The source of cellulose can be cotton, wood or bamboo. Bamboo rayon is made through what is known as the viscose process, which involves dissolving the cellulose in a chemical solution to produce a pulpy viscous substance. The pulp is then pushed through a spinneret and spun into fibres that can be made into threads and fabrics. Sadly, about 50% of chemical waste from rayon production cannot be recycled, reused or biodegraded, therefore poisoning the environment. 

I hate to be the one to say it but, the majority of products labelled as bamboo or bamboo jersey are in fact rayon. Textiles that derive from bamboo are indeed far less costly to produce than cotton and the production is not as intensive as polyester manufacturing. However, after breaking down the processes involved, I fear that bamboo may not be the environmental turn on that we were expecting. 

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