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.