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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