Switching to more natural or circular fabrics is continually at the forefront of discussions around how to make the fashion industry more sustainable. Since cotton isn’t as eco-friendly as we might’ve thought and hemp isn’t as widely available, we’re always on a quest to uncover chic fabrics that do less harm to the planet. Lately, bamboo fabric is one such material that’s increasingly in the spotlight. Just like linen, bamboo has been around for thousands of years as cloth, but it’s only fairly recently that it’s been blended in different forms (like bamboo rayon, lyocell and linen) to make our clothes. But given the fact that some green claims associated with bamboo have caused debate, is it really the miracle plant many claim it to be? Just how sustainable is bamboo fabric?
What is bamboo fabric?
Bamboo is part of a group of woody perennial evergreen plants that can grow just about anywhere; from cold mountains to hot tropical regions. Technically, bamboo is a grass but we tend to call it a tree because of how tall and towering it can grow. The fibres in bamboo fabric are made from the pulp of the stem of bamboo grass.
Over the last 20 years, technological advances have helped expand the bamboo textile market by as much as 5000%. Innovations have made it easier and more affordable to produce a soft and pliable feeling bamboo fabric, as well as create blends like bamboo rayon or viscose, bamboo lyocell and bamboo linen.
The most commercially available bamboo fabric is rayon or viscose, which is a specific process that can be made from any cellulose fibres from plants such as eucalyptus, beech, pine as well as bamboo. In 2015, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fined companies claiming to sell “bamboo clothing”, instructing them to accurately label it as “rayon made from bamboo”.
Where does bamboo material come from?
Fabric made from bamboo has existed for thousands of years, predominantly produced in Asian countries like China, India, Pakistan, and Indonesia. Historically, people crafted paper (even paper currency) out of bamboo, as well as houses, weapons, needles and most products we use wood to make today. Certain cultures in India and China have been producing this textile for untold generations. Bamboo fabric festivals are still held in rural India every year! Since it’s relatively easy and environmentally friendly to grow in any climate, the United States and countries in Europe have also started to produce bamboo too.
What are the benefits of bamboo?
As a plant, bamboo crosses many of the right boxes. It’s fast-growing and doesn’t need pesticides or fertilisers to grow. Bamboo even releases 35% more oxygen into the air compared to trees of the same size and is known for its antibacterial and UV protection properties. It even helps to improve soil conditions and prevent soil erosion. However, some of these properties don’t transfer into their fabric form. Nonetheless, we use bamboo in a variety of applications such as clothing, bed linens and other household textiles. Here’s some reasons why:
How is it made?
Is making bamboo fabric just as sustainable as growing the plant? The fabric production can be low impact, but that depends on whether it’s chemically or mechanically processed.
Bamboo rayon or viscose
Bamboo rayon is commonly made using the viscose process, ie. chemical processing. For that reason, we categorise it as half-natural and half-synthetic. It involves dissolving the extracted cellulose from the bamboo plant in a chemical solution to produce a pulpy viscous substance. This is then pushed through a spinneret into fibres, which is then turned into threads and fabrics.
Fabric workers then treat these fibres in a chemical solution with caustic soda and carbon disulphide. These are highly toxic and create hazardous waste that these workers cannot recapture or reuse. Manufacturers will also use other dangerous chemicals, like sodium hydroxide and sulphuric acid, to transform raw bamboo into fabric, too. While there have been improvements in chemical waste management and treatment to deter these chemicals from disrupting nearby ecosystems, it still causes significant harm.
Most commercial factories produce bamboo fabric through chemical processing because it saves money and is, therefore, more consistent and easy to scale. Unfortunately, this compromises environmental sustainability.
Bamboo linen is processed without extracting the cellulose of the plant. Instead, producers add a natural enzyme on crushed bamboo wood fibres, which is then washed and spun into yarn. This mechanical process is environmentally friendly, results in a strong and long-lasting fabric, but is more expensive and labour-intensive. The end product tends to be coarser than bamboo viscose, and not as stretchy.
Unlike cellulose from other trees common in viscose rayon production, bamboo cellulose is suitable for closed-loop production processes. This closed-loop process is similar to viscose, but it recaptures and reuses 99% of the chemical solution used. Lyocell made from bamboo is branded as Monocel®, but it isn’t as commercially available as conventional Tencel or Lyocell. This is why we can use bamboo to make fabrics similar to lyocell. Plus, the lyocell production process doesn’t produce any toxic waste, creates silky smooth fabric, and is technically vegan too!
How to care for bamboo clothing
Bamboo is a fairly low-maintenance fabric but will need specific care based on the different fabric types. In general, bamboo can be machine or hand-washed, or dry cleaned if labelled as so. Since it can wrinkle easily, you’ll need to iron it. Washing less frequently (inside-out), in cold water and then hang drying can minimise shrinkage and pilling. This also reduces the need for excess electrical consumption. For rayon clothing that is stretchy, don’t hang dry as it can cause it to lose shape. Avoid bleach or chlorine as it can cause yellowing.
Bamboo is biodegradable as long as it has no added chemicals during any phase of its production. This way, untreated bamboo linen made from FSC plants without any chemicals used during the retting process can degrade naturally without releasing any toxins to the environment. While this means bamboo linen can be composted, you’ll need to follow a certain (dozen) steps to ensure you’re doing it the right way. It goes without saying, upcycle or recycle what you can’t compost to give your old loved pieces a new life!
So, how sustainable is bamboo fabric?
Bamboo has the potential to be one of the most eco and wardrobe-friendly fabrics out there. It’s fairly low maintenance to care for and less intensive to produce than conventional cotton. Of course, it goes without saying that it definitely wins over fossil-fuel derived, microplastic-shedding fabrics like polyester. But, assessing how sustainable bamboo fabric is really comes down to two things: how manufacturers grow and process the fibres.
As it stands, most bamboo fabrics on the market are a form of rayon, manufactured using harmful chemicals. Thankfully we see improvements on how these chemicals are managed; a step in the right direction. Certifications and regulations exist to ensure the raw material is grown, harvested and processed in a more eco-friendly way, such as not using chemicals or destroying acres of forests for bamboo plantations without replanting. If you’re concerned (or curious!) about how a brand sources its fabric, you can look out for certifications from USDA, Oeko-Tex, FSC, Fair Trade and CFDA. The CFDA even states that ‘unless a product is made directly with bamboo fibre — often called “mechanically processed bamboo” — it can’t be called bamboo’. These require manufacturers, fabric producers and brands to adhere to high safety standards to safeguard people and the planet.
The majority of bamboo production occurs in China. China’s lax environmental and human rights standards are questionable in the consumer goods production sector. So, it’s not often clear whether producers grow it in a green or ethical way. Thankfully, more and more brands are prioritising the use of ethically-produced fabric production in their supply chains, like SANS FAFF and Boody. They ensure their raw materials are certified and partner with audited factories, in China or otherwise.
Our final verdict
While we’ve made a case for which bamboo fabric is more sustainable, the final decision is on you. In terms of the least detrimental environmental and social impact, bamboo linen made from FSC bamboo plants takes the crown. To make sure your bamboo linen is just as eco-friendly as it can be here’s some tips. Choose naturally dyed or raw dew retted fabric; this requires less water and virtually no chemicals or bleaches.
If you prefer a soft, stretchy texture over linen, choose bamboo lyocell over rayon/viscose if you have the option. Due to its closed-loop production, it reduces the amount of waste significantly compared to the viscose process. Either way, a garment is just as sustainable through production as it is with proper aftercare. So make sure you wear it often as well as treat it well because loved clothes last.
This guide is part of our What The Fabric! series, a bunch of useful guides that deep dive into the materials we wear every day. For more from the series, go here.
With a background in fashion and textiles, Durva is an ardent photographer and advocate of social justice. She enjoys writing about fashion, socio-political issues within sustainability and partakes in the occasional 'who wore it better' banter on Diet Prada.