Beware the bamboo greenwash

May 15th, 2008

Google ‘bamboo clothing’ (without the quotes) and you will find a bonanza of shops selling clothing made from bamboo. Reading the descriptions on the sites, you would think that this is humankind’s sustainability dream come true.

The three top sites (by Googling) in the Australian domain state:

“[Our] fabric is made from bamboo plants which are the fastest growing woody plants, and one of the most sustainable and renewable resources in the world. Bamboo requires no pesticides or chemicals to grow, does not use excessive water and can actually help reduce global warming. These qualities are transferred to our fabric making [our] clothing the sustainable and environmentally friendly choice.”

“The bamboo in our fabric is grown in the Yunnan Province in China without the use of any chemicals or pesticides.  The plantation is managed in strict accordance with the international organic OCIA/NOP standard. Bamboo yarn is produced by pulverizing the bamboo stalks and then regenerating the fiber.  This process does not use harmful chemicals.”

“Bamboo fabric is created from bamboo pulp. The fabric is bleached without the use of chlorine. Bamboo fabric is easy to dye and is done so without the use of harsh chemicals and using methods which use less water than conventional dyeing methods.”

Sounds like the messiah of sustainable fabric? In fact, apart from a very small proportion of bamboo fabric, called ‘bamboo linen’, the bulk of bamboo textiles are made from dissolving bamboo pulp in sodium hydroxide and carbon disulphide and passing the resultant goo through tiny nozzles into an acid bath.

Sodium hydroxide is better known as caustic soda or lye, and is and is an extremely reactive and corrosive substance. Carbon disulphide is quite toxic to humans, affecting the nervous system. As by-products of industrial processes, these products can be dangerous to work with, and difficult to dispose of properly. Couple this with the fact that most of the bamboo textiles are coming from China, and the worry is compounded.

Another claim I’ve often seen is that bamboo textiles are naturally UV resistant and anti-fungal. Studies by Colorado State University did not find this to be the case at all. Conversely, unless bamboo textiles are specifically treated with a chemical that endows UV-resistance, they let through dangerous amounts of UV. I seen many websites that tout bamboo clothing as excellent for babies and children. Hmm …

On the upside, it may be that the bamboo textile industry is more environmentally friendly than synthetic textiles industry. I would have to do more research to back that up though. Certainly, it is locking up some CO2 for a while at least. However, whether there is a net reduction in CO2 depends on what energy is lost in the chemical production and processing procedures too.

Looking at the quotes from shops listed above, and many others, you get the impression that the shops are skirting around these issues by using clever language. “Green” shops should come clean about these fact. I’m sure the organics crowd would baulk at buying these clothes if they knew more about them. I doubt whether regenerated bamboo fibre from these processes can even be classified as a natural fibre.

Apparently, the more enviro friendly ‘bamboo linen’ is made by an entriely mechanical proces and is considerably more expensive. If shops were selling this, you would think that they would mention it. I haven’t see any so far.

Posted in Sustainability | 8 Comments »

8 Responses to “Beware the bamboo greenwash”

  1. Jeremy Says:

    Interesting, but I guess it’s relative. Cotton uses huge amounts of pesticides and fertilizers, to the detriment of land and people involved, and it looks like bamboo is at least a little better. But yes, they’re overstating their case a bit.

    What about hemp, by the way, how does that compare?

  2. Sam Stainsby Says:

    Hemp is much better as far as I can see – at least in terms of the chemicals used. I agree cotton is also not so good. Organic cotton is better, although there is still the water use in some areas.

  3. Kelly-Ann Wickham Says:

    Having just opened Brisbane’s first eco-clothing shop front, I’ve done a fair bit of thinking about this and related issues. Jeremy’s got it when he writes “I guess it’s relative”.

    Many within the ‘green fashion’ movement acknowledge the problems with processing bamboo. However, when it’s weighed up, bamboo can be ‘greener’ than other ‘natural’ fibres like cotton – so using it is a step (or, a number of steps) in the right direction.

    Added to that, green clothing is such a new industry that it is not an overstatement to say things are changing on a daily basis. People involved with manufacturing bamboo and end-users such as clothing designers are pushing for more ecologically sound processes; these are coming about rather quickly. So, as a retailer, I’ve made a commitment to support designers using bamboo as it offers so much potential to be greener as a crop and as a fabric.

    Here’s other fabrics seen as green (most of which I stock) but here’s problems to go with them too:

    Hemp – imported from overseas as we don’t have a hemp agricultural industry in Australia;

    Wool- damages fragile Australian environment; sheep produce large numbers of greenhouse gases; can use nasty chemicals in processing too;

    Organic cotton – uses less water and fewer pesticides but some argue Australia is simply too dry to grow cotton; much organic cotton on the market place is coming from overseas;

    Organic linen – very limited access to Oz grown linen – it all goes overseas so most organic linen in Australia is brought in from OS;

    Recycled fabrics & second-hand clothing – lots of green points here but limited when it comes to underwear and socks so we still need some new fabrics to be manufactured.

  4. Sam Stainsby Says:

    Hi Kelly-Ann. I guess I’m happy as long as vendors are up-front about the bamboo process, and more importantly don’t make obscuring or deceiving claims. This way, people can make a more informed choice.

    I didn’t realise we *still* don’t have a local hemp industry. I thought we started trials years ago. Nothing on a big scale yet? Shame.

  5. justine Says:


    I agree with all above. I think the babmoo plant is great, the manufacturing is better than cotton and synthetics but not great but I’m happy to see diversification and not a monopoly of cotton and small steps towards making bamboo processing better.

    There is hemp grownin Australia, in WA and Tasmania, just google. My probably with hemp is the textile isn’t very sophisticated and so is in the realm of the greenies.

    In general natural fabrics look and feel better than synthetics- which just need to tweak the processing and keep diversifying and being creatvie.

  6. janet gamble Says:

    Hi all, Interesting stuff. I am currently looking to outfit my crew with a welfare friendly material uniform (well as much as I can), which can include those using least herb & pesticides. My other concern, in Australia, is to do with “shooting of kangaroos for non-comercial purposes” to grow the crops? I understand the cotton industry does, not sure about bamboo? So is all our bamboo cloth imported? Dwells another issue relating to the wildlife and humane practices in that country doesn’t it? thoughts welcome, Cheers Janet

  7. Hugh MacDougall Says:

    Sam, I think it is wise to be wary of Chinese claims but let us look at what you are doing here. You are basically calling the quotes you cited a pack of lies. What evidence have you got? You have only made statements and have not mentioned that bamboo can be processed with enzymes instead of chemicals, though more expensively. It seems that the second and third quotes speak of using processes free of the chemicals you speak of. Sure, most bamboo clothing producers use the cheaper chemical technologies but not all. You have made me wonder if you have base commercial and competitive motives here. Don’t fight dirty. Use facts and if you find out these products are legitimately free of harmful technologies sell them yourself.

  8. Sam Stainsby Says:

    Hugh wrote: “You have made me wonder if you have base commercial and competitive motives here. Don’t fight dirty. Use facts”

    I spent a fair amount of time tracking down the facts. Generally, I would expect if shops we using the rare and more expensive environmentally friendly tech, then they would be shouting it from the roof tops. As for competitive motives – I’m programmer and run an IT consultancy. My work has nothing to be with textiles of any kind (and nor do any of my clients).

    “basically calling the quotes you cited a pack of lies”

    Not lies but omissions of certain facts through marketing spin and/or ignorance.