Bamboo, we hardly know ye

Photo: iStockphoto.com/-axle-
Getting acquainted with bamboo’s true environmental impact

When sustainable fashion first burst onto the scene, we were introduced to a number of “eco-friendly” fabrics, such as organic cotton, tencel, hemp and bamboo. Each carried sustainable properties, whether that meant being free of pesticides or fertilizers, produced in a closed-loop system, or made from durable and renewable materials.

At first, bamboo fabric made a lot of sense. Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants on earth, with one species recorded growing three feet in a single day. Bamboo does not use or rely on chemicals, fertilizers or insecticides to grow. Nor does it require as much water as alternatives such as cotton, where one t-shirt requires 400 gallons of water to produce from start to finish.

In comparison to cotton, bamboo is known to improve watersheds, purify air quality, and remove toxins from contaminated soil, all with less water consumption and no harmful environmental impact. Bamboo is often planted to prevent soil erosion, it can absorb up to 12 tons of carbon dioxide per hectare and it produces 30 percent more oxygen than any hardwood forest of similar size. It can also be selectively harvested annually, and it naturally regenerates without replanting.

Bamboo seemed like a miracle fiber – and in a sense, it is. It’s turning it into fabric that’s the more complicated issue.

Bamboo fabric can be made in one of two ways – chemically or mechanically. The chemical process has been met with much resistance from sustainable fashion experts because this process requires toxic chemicals. These chemicals, sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide, change the genetic structure of natural bamboo, turning it into rayon. But the disposal of these chemicals can lead to soil and water contamination.

The bigger issue is how bamboo is being marketed and sold – both to the fashion industry and the consumer. Both groups are drawn to its (questionable) claims of biodegradability, its softness, and let’s face it, its price point. Yet without knowing the facts about how that fabric was processed, or understanding its real positive attributes, how can one really be sure of the impact? Some marketers will rely on the fact that we immediately think it’s good because it comes from a plant that carries many good properties. They stick a panda bear or bamboo shoots on the label, and that seems to be enough to convince everyone of its sustainability.

You may be familiar with the Lyocell process, more commonly known as Tencel – a process that also requires various chemicals. However, Tencel is made in a closed-loop system that allows for the chemical effluent to be treated and recycled, thus making it a more sustainable option than rayon. Those of us in the sustainable fashion business have been waiting years for the bamboo industry to adopt this style of processing.

A Canadian brand, Miik, is challenging the status quo by using bamboo processed in a closed-loop system. In addition to tracking the bamboo used from the source, Miik has also earned a bevvy of certifications including USDA organic, Oeko-Tex Standard 100, and OCIA (Organic Crops Improvement Association). Even better is their processing method.

According to Bamboo Tex (the company that develops Miik’s bamboo yarn), the bamboo is processed in a hermetic container where 100 percent of the chemicals used are trapped and contained rather than being released into their factory, environment or atmosphere. Miik also claims that each step of the process is supervised for adherence to company policy, brand commitment and China’s environmental ethical standards.

Within one week, I discovered yet another great example in Five Bamboo, which I recommend you check out for a more comprehensive explanation of the process (including diagrams).

Mechanically processed bamboo is also considered sustainable. Rather than extracting fiber, as in the case with regenerated cellulose, mechanical processing involves the separation and extraction of fibers directly from the bamboo shoots. However, it is a multi-step process that is more costly, and therefore is not commonly practiced.

The net situation is that bamboo fabric still poses some difficult issues for both the ethical fashion designer and the consumer. The use of bamboo plants in the textile industry is still relatively new, and too few companies are using the more sustainably processed fibers, although that is changing.

Regardless of how it is processed, some experts believe it is more important to be able to make an informed decision about environmental impact before ruling any fabric out. According to sustainability expert Lorraine Smith, we should all be taking an impact approach, rather than a prescriptive one. She believes it is more important for designers to be measuring, managing and demonstrating impact. Without data, aren’t we all just guessing?

Smith also feels that the real problem lies in making false claims or claims that don't make any sense – whether it is about bamboo, cotton or any other fabric. “If they have certification to demonstrate that they are making a difference along the way,” says Smith, “Then it isn’t greenwash. It's not about the fiber, it's about the whole product life cycle.”

This article first appeared at EcoSalon.

Description: Kelly DrennanKelly Drennan is the Founding Executive Director of Fashion Takes Action, Canada's premier non-profit organization that focuses on sustainability in the fashion industry. They work with designers and retailers to build capacity, identify challenges, and create solutions for a sustainable future. FTA also works hard to raise mainstream awareness through events, public speaking and social media.

As an expert on sustainable fashion, Kelly has been featured in the Globe & Mail, CBC, Fashion Television, Breakfast Television, the Toronto Star, and was named by Flare Magazine as one of Canada's 30 Most Inspiring Women.