How green is bamboo fabric?

Photo: Dibblee

Found in your favourite Chinese dishes and on the floors of many modern homes, bamboo has made its way into another key aspect of our lives -- clothing. But just how green is this verstaile new fabric with is variety of benefits?

The beauty and benefits of bamboo fibre go far beyond the surface. More affordable than silk, bamboo has a similar drape (how softly it floats on your body) and is slightly stronger, along with having a natural sheen. Unlike silk, bamboo can easily be tossed into a washer and dryer, making it much simpler to take care of. Also wrinkle-resistant, bamboo can be ironed at a low temperature if ever needed and has very little shrinkage.

Due to the fabric's natural structure, bamboo is very breathable, helping the wearer to stay cool in the summer and warmer in the winter, making it perfect for layers and exercise wear. Thanks to a natural agent in the plant itself, bamboo is also highly anti-bacterial, absorbing three to four times more water than cotton fabric without sticking to your skin.

These are all spectacular benefits and it is hard to believe that there are downsides to this advanced textile … but there is.

While the bamboo plant has many uses and has quickly become a key source of income for many rural citizens of China, the issues behind the production of bamboo fabric have begun to surface. During a recent investigative mission, the Organic Clothing blog from Lotus Organics uncovered detailed information about how dangerous chemicals are used to transform the plant into liquid and then into fibres to be spun into fabric. These chemicals can cause a plethora of health problems and neural disorders for the manufacturing workers. With no Fair Trade certifications or sustainable production credentials, a developing nation like China rarely (if at all) uses systems to help control the production and disposal of those chemicals.

Seeing bamboo as a "greener" substitute for silk, many designers are clamoring to use it in their collection, including couture and everyday brands. This high demand has forced Chinese manufacturers to begin clearing out natural forests in order to plant more fast-growing bamboo. On top of this, many cultivators are starting to use fertilizers that wouldn't meet U.S. organic standards in order to increase the yield of their plantations. Additional weeding and tilling of the land in turn leads to increased soil erosion in these areas.

Last but not least, China is currently the only manufacturer of bamboo fabric, making it impossible to look for an alternative, local source for this textile. While bamboo can be easily grown in many areas, there are no factories in North America that have the machines to chemically manufacture bamboo fibres. The Chinese have hundreds of generations of experience in growing bamboo – so far, a number of Americans have begun to try grow their own in their backyard, quickly finding that this tall grass can easily overtake all of their land.

Final thought
To buy or not to buy – that is the question. If you are planning on purchasing bamboo goods, the key is to look for some kind, ANY kind, of certification (though there is yet to be any kind of international standard for bamboo). The natural benefits available within the bamboo plant are wide, but a more sustainable manufacturing process is still needed to make this fabric truly green; til then, your best (and more eco) alternative is still organic cotton.

Victoria Everman is a freelance writer, model, on-camera personality and founder of the San Francisco Craft Mafia.