While researching sustainable textiles, you may have come across phrases like “organic bamboo,” “rayon made from bamboo,” or “viscose made from bamboo.” Popular sustainable companies such as Boody, Encircled, and Thought all use bamboo in their clothing. So what exactly are bamboo fabrics? And can they actually be considered sustainable, or is that greenwashing? As with many aspects of the textile industry, the answer is complicated.
How Is Bamboo Turned Into Fiber?
Let’s start off with the positive aspects of bamboo. As a plant, bamboo grows incredibly quickly and does not require the use of fertilizers or pesticides. When compared to conventional cotton, bamboo requires less land and chemicals to be grown. Bamboo, as with many other cellulosic (plant-derived) fibers, has a silky hand feel, is breathable, and is easy to wash and care for. Unfortunately, despite its clean beginnings, bamboo’s journey from plant to fiber is a long one that involves some not-so-positive aspects.
In the textile world, bamboo is considered a “manufactured cellulosic fiber.” Manufactured fibers require a chemical-laden process in order to be spun into fiber, unlike natural cellulosic fibers like cotton and linen. Bamboo, in fact, undergoes the same exact process to become a fiber as viscose and rayon (viscose and rayon are synonyms for the same fiber), only they are made with wood pulp rather than bamboo.
The process to turn bamboo or wood pulp into fiber sounds like a complicated chemistry experiment. According to Paul D. Blanc in his book “Fake Silk: The Lethal History of Viscose Rayon,” the pulp is treated with caustic soda and carbon disulfide, allowed to “ripen,” and then treated with more caustics to turn it into a syrupy substance. The liquid is then forced through spinnerets in a bath of sulfuric acid to produce fiber.
Those chemicals are the main problem with manufactured fibers like bamboo. They pollute the air and the water — carbon disulfide in particular is a nasty, toxic chemical that the EPA has identified as a hazardous workplace risk. Patagonia refuses to use bamboo in its product line, citing that factories that use carbon disulfide typically only recover around 50% of the chemical in their processing.
Are Companies That Use Bamboo Fabrics Greenwashing?
Some companies have taken advantage of the eco-friendly connotations of the word bamboo in order to greenwash. In 2015, the Federal Trade Commission fined several companies for misrepresenting or mislabelling rayon as bamboo. The FTC even created a guide entitled “How to Avoid Bamboozling Your Customers,” on how to correctly label fabric that is made from bamboo. In the United States and Canada, all bamboo-derived garments must be properly labeled as “rayon made from bamboo” or “viscose made from bamboo.” Take a look at the two labels below, both from my closet: one label is from a pair of Boody leggings and is properly labeled per FTC guidelines, while the other, a shirt I bought at a local yoga studio, has a label with the words “organic bamboo” — a misleading statement considering what we now know about carbon disulfide.
Of course, there is more to sustainability than just fiber. A garment that is made from bamboo might still be considered sustainable — Encircled, for example, sells bamboo clothing, but sews all of its clothes in Canada using fair wages, is a certified B-corporation, and prioritizes classic over trendy designs. The fact that a garment is made from bamboo certainly does not alone make it sustainable, but it is possible for a sustainable garment to be made from bamboo. There isn’t a “one size fits all” answer when it comes to sustainability, and fabric alone cannot tell you the entire story of where your clothes came from.
Greenwashing Tip: Pay attention to how a brand talks about their use of bamboo. If they have many different sustainability initiatives that’s a good sign, however if they are using bamboo fabric as a primary reason for calling themselves “sustainable” that’s a red flag!
Also look for brands who use a “closed loop” manufacturing process for their bamboo fabric – this means the water and chemicals are recovered and re-used.