Ah, bamboo – the new darling of athleisure brands and possibly also fabric shops. As you can guess from the title, the claims about the wondrous properties of bamboo can be a little misleading and today I’d like to take a closer look at them.
Why the fuss about bamboo?
From a fabric property perspective, it can be pretty nice. It has a smooth texture compared to say cotton jersey and it feels nice on the skin. But goodness me does it take forever to dry! And given the lovely smooth handle and drape it can be a pretty slippery creature sewing-wise.
There are a lot of eco claims about bamboo. Lets look at the advertising from one of my former favourite sustainable athleisure brands:
“…affordable luxury … everyday essentials and underwear from viscose derived from bamboo…. Bamboo fibres are not chemically treated. These fibres are naturally smooth and round with no sharp spurs to irritate skin.
The marketing talk gets even better.
- Chemical free – grown with no nasty pesticides or fertilisers
- Responsibly made – manufactured from regenerated wood pulp
- Sustainable – uniquely fast growing and environmentally low impact.
Did you spot the magic word? Yep, viscose – and there’s the problem.
(As an aside, I should also tell you now that claims about natural antibacterial properties are false. UK sustainable fashion academic Kate Fletcher wrote in one of her recent books that the research doesn’t support these claims and I believe her!)
There is more to bamboo than just the way it grows
After I published my post on viscose production (rayon if you are in the USA) I had a few comments that bamboo is just viscose and therefore bad for the environment.
At a pure terminology level, to say that bamboo and viscose are the same thing is not correct. Bamboo is a grass. Viscose is a fabric. Bamboo can be a feedstock, or the input, used to make viscose. The bamboo is shredded, cooked to become a pulp, and goes through various other steps to come out the other end as viscose fibre. This is then spun to make viscose fabric. (don’t ask me why we use the term cotton for both the plant and a fabric. Or why flax is a plant and linen is a fabric. English – and probably every language to be honest – is weird and full of idiosyncrasies!).
So where does this belief come from that bamboo = viscose? I suspect the widespread assertion may have been popularised from the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issuing a number of fines in the last 10 years to manufacturers who misleadingly labeled their textiles as bamboo. The FTC rule is that a bamboo can only be labeled as such if it is made /directly/ from bamboo fibre… not from the viscose process. What the manufacturers had labelled as bamboo was actually viscose, which had used bamboo as a feedstock.
Is all viscose made out of bamboo?
No. According to Water Footprint Network, an industry network concerned with water sustainability, the primary raw material for viscose production is hardwood forests. Whilst I wasn’t able to find precise figures on bamboo usage, the websites of the viscose producers (there are only a handful in the world) have tended to name trees as their feedstock.
Is all bamboo turned into viscose?
As recently as 2012, Patagonia, probably one of the best known outwear companies best known for sustainability, made a statement that they didn’t use bamboo because the majority of it was turned into viscose. Instead, they prefer lyocell (trade name Tencel™) – another regenerated cellulose fibre. (You can read my post about the sustainability of lyocell here).
I think that there is such a thing as bamboo lyocell. As you would expect has similar sustainability credentials as Tencel (feedstock is beech trees). The consultancy Made-by has published their version of a fibre sustainability rating scale and in 2013 they rated Monocel® (trade name of bamboo lyocell) and Tencel™ as a B on a scale from A to E. I should also say here that their rating for bamboo viscose is an E. Whilst no rating system is perfect, personally I’d rather look at that rating than believe any fabric shop or brand claim. I’ve also seen marketing of bamboo as being more friendly than conventional cotton but I struggle to believe that when conventional cotton is also an E….
But I digress. Bamboo lyocell doesn’t seem to be common at the moment. My internet research indicates that as recently as 2016 Monocel®was still in production, however at this moment the Monocel manufacturer website says it is “not currently available”. A quick google of the generic term shows only one store that sells it within a product (bedsheets). So the picture isn’t really looking positive – or it would be somewhere on the internet right?!
What else is bamboo turned into?
An alternative is bamboo linen. The method to make this is via mechanical means (rather than chemical means which is the viscose way). The Natural Resources Defense Council, a US NGO, describes production as crushing the plant, letting enzymes break it down and then combing out the fibres mechanically. However they also state that it is labour intensive and expensive process. Also, the output does not have the super soft properties that bamboo is known for. Personally I’ve never seen bamboo in a woven that isn’t viscose … all linen I know of is made from flax. If anyone can point me towards it I’d be very interested in checking it out!
Bamboo isn’t as green as you want it to be
So there you have it. In an age where becoming interested in your eco footprint is more mainstream, there are a lot of companies pushing the benefits of bamboo and their marketing can sound great. Particularly when it comes from smaller boutiquey type brands that look like they are trying to do the right thing, and have more of human face than fashion giants. Then the more you hear it, the more mainstream and believable it becomes.
This is such bad news for consumers whose interest lies in things other than questioning the labels on clothes (that would also be me a few years ago). I mean, how many are actually going to look up what “regenerated wood pulp” actually means? Its so much easier just to read the other words that are commonplace and sound nice, like environmentally low impact, pesticide and fertiliser free. The worrying part though is that even some of the eco lifestyle bloggers who I expect have done some research seem to have fallen for the marketing hogwash hook, line and stinker.
4 months ago during Fashion Revolution week, I emailed the athleisure company I quoted above about their advertising. The response I received was “we are currently reviewing our messaging around bamboo and working with the factory on all aspects of production”. Guess what- as of today, their messaging is exactly the same. And unless you have an alternative processing method then in my mind it really doesn’t matter what factory you are working with!
What do you think of bamboo? Love? Hate? Have you read other articles on the sustainability aspect? Or seen a lot of marketing claims around it on websites?
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Very informative, thank you. Seems the more one knows the more questions arise. Will look into this more.
You are very welcome, and yes – this is only one part of a bigger picture which I think is by no means easy to navigate and is not transparent!
Ever since I read (or watched?) the real scoop on bamboo, I stopped buying it. Although I do have some on my cutting table right now from Ray Stitch that is a woven and I must admit divine (bought at least a year ago). The drape and feel of this fabric is as close to 4 ply silk as I’ve ever felt other than the real thing. I agree it’s widely touted as an environmentally friendly fabric which is sadly a lie. Green washing on a gargantuan scale. The other problem with bamboo that I discovered early in my return to sewing a few years ago is that it grows!! I was talking to a woman in our local sewing shop and she told a hilarious story about how she made a tunic for herself in bamboo knit and made the mistake of hanging in the closet and when it came time to wear it, it was a tunic no more but a mid calve dress!!
Hey Kathleen, were you in London last year? Please do look me up next time you are here! And thank you for the story about bamboo growing over time, hilarious indeed! I have a good story for you actually. My friend asked me for a dartless cocoon dress after she saw me with one (the Inari Tee dress). I made the muslin, and she asked me for darts and to give her more room at the thighs, thereby removing the cocoon shape!
Great post Kate, highly informative and thought provoking as usual. I got sucked into using some bamboo fleece for my reusable sanitary pads a few years ago and it was very expensive and I thought I was going down the right path from an eco point of view but who knows what flim flam these fabric shops claim and don’t really know? The next batch of pads I make will be made using stuff already in existence such as old cotton clothes. I have my reusing head on these days.
Hi Josie, bamboo I think is also in reusable nappies for babies (I didn’t make any but I hired some and I did try valiantly for 2 months… I really did but couldn’t keep up with the washing). I’m with you on the reuse. With the minefield that is “sustainable fabric” it really does feel like the preferable option.
Yes! It’s so maddening that it’s become known as a ‘green’ fabric, with even very reputable sustainable clothing companies jumping on the bandwagon. It’s actually become much harder to find organic cotton socks and underwear because many places are now selling ‘bamboo’ instead (and the socks wear out really quickly!).
I understand your point that bamboo isn’t always viscose (and vice versa) – but according to your research and my experience, in practice any time we see a fabric (or garment) labelled ‘bamboo’ it IS viscose, right?
By the way, I *think* it’s Tencel Modal that’s made specifically from beech, and the processing for that is not as eco-friendly as Lyocell. The tencel.com website doesn’t specify what trees are used for Lyocell, although other places say eucalyptus.
Another concern with all viscose/rayon is possible shedding of microfibres into waterways when washed – Lenzing say the research on this is flawed, but they would! Some studies have identified these fibres amongst microfibre pollution in the ocean, and in food chains (whereas the fibres shed by e.g. cotton break down much faster and don’t cause these problems).
Hi Nina, thanks for your comment. Being slightly finicky I think you could say that everytime you see bamboo it has been made using the “viscose process”. You are probably right about the eucalyptus trees for lyocell, the Lenzing website says they use predominantly eucalyptus, but also beech, spruce, birch and pine. I do recall my fashion production tutor saying that modal is beech, this is for the “super soft” effect
The microfibre thing is I think relatively recent when it comes to viscose. Interestingly, I heard recently that the impact of microfibres has not yet been scientifically quantified, i.e. the effect on humans from ingesting them. Think this is because not enough time has elapsed. Hopefully it will become standard soon to have filters on washing machines to help out the average lazy consumer…
A really interesting post Kate. It definitely makes you think about what truth is behind the snazzy eco marketing claims from the more well-known eco-type brands.
Oh it annoys me so much. All the nice words and no substance. Now if only clothing fibre labelling was as stringent as food labelling…
Thank you for your research! Most of it I knew, but it’s good to read it al together and repetion keeps me aware. It’s so tempting to believe commercial companies!
Hi Anneloes, glad it was a good reminder for you. We need to keep talking about these things for sure otherwise we just get sucked in by the companies who want us to believe their untruthful claims!!!
Never liked it. Refused to buy yarn, fabric or RTW anything made with it. It never felt right to me!!
WOW! Thank you for this information. Here in the US we are also fighting imported meat from Australia as being labeled “product of the USA”. WHAT?? Labels are worse than legal-ese!! If you don’t know your source yourself you are way too easily tricked. :o(
Thanks for your article. I was actually trying to verify if bamboo breathed better or not (underwear) and stumbled across your article. WOW! Didn’t know and I fell for the hype. Now, if I can just find a better alternative for men’s briefs….