6 Feb 2010

Is bamboo fabric really sustainable?

I want to investigate the pros and cons of bamboo as a sustainable material, as I keep seeing beautiful sustainable products made from this relatively new cloth.

I understand that there are many benefits, that the end cloth has a unique thermal property and a luxurious finish, especially in jersey verities... but I also understand that it takes more harsh chemicals to turn this fibre into a usable material for clothes, than say cotton or wool. As with many 'sustainable' products there is always a positive and a negative...take the case of wind turbines for example... I feel there needs to be a multi-faceted approach to a sustainable way of living and consuming, where people make the choices and changes that are available and appropriate to them, there is not one 'fix it solution'...a perfect cloth, a great power source, a sustainable economy...it must be an amalgamation of many different innovations and solutions. For that reason, I salute the ingenuity of bamboo cloth, but feel we need to be aware of the processes involved in making it so gorgeous...hopefully in the future these can be eradicated by other clean technologies, such as the lyocell process by the Tencell brand. As always creativity and vision is key!

So here are my pros and cons of bamboo:


  • Bamboo grows very quickly so can produce maximum quantities with minimum effort...reaching crop maturity in about three years. The full plant is never harvested, allowing fast re-growth = sustainability!
  • This crop needs no pesticides, making it organic (in growth and farming NOT production) allowing local communities access to clean and safe water, and no crippling costs of chemicals that other farmers incur.
  • On the subject of water...bamboo crops require much less water than cotton crops, allowing more water locally.
  • Bamboo is naturally hypoallergenic and anti-bacterial, whether these qualities are lost in production I don't know?


  • Nearly all bamboo comes from China, racking up those air miles before it even gets to us. (But providing farming work for local communities.
  • These are questions as to whether forests are being cleared to make room for more bamboo plantations...which would mean the loss of habitat to the natural ecosystems and wildlife.
  • More of the toxic chemical Caustic Soda is used in the production of bamboo than cotton and other popular cloths. This is needed to turn the fibres into something soft enough to spin. How this is treated and disposed of is a huge environmental concern regarding water pollution.
  • Bamboo often ends up as viscose, a material whose process involves sodium hydroxide, carbon disulfide, xanthate and acid.

I hope it's helpful to have shed some light on this material, which is often marketed as 'natural'...which of course it starts of being....as does everything, oil, coal, plastic etc.. Knowledge is power and responsible choices are at our fingertips! I'm in no way against bamboo; I just like to know what I'm buying into. We will continue to develop and improve, in design, process, manufacture...and as human beings on a rock...making things from what we come across! (Less science and more prettiness in next blog posting...promise!)

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