Friday, January 22, 2010

How Green is Your Bamboo?

We are seeing more and more new products into your shelves. We don't always know from what source. As material and goods are traveling from place to place and retails is giving us very basic information about the product, more research may give us more background on the road of the manufacturing of this product. Bamboo is getting more and more popular and is very trendy in the green movement. Jennifer from Awakened aesthetics says it so well on her blog. This article is written on January 12, by Jennifer Nicole.

Keeping up with the Joneses used to mean buying the newest, most expensive car and parking it next to your immaculately-manicured lawn.  Now it means getting a hybrid and building a compost bin.

But the idea of sustainable living – the basics of it – is not new.  The hippies were doing it in the sixties, the bohemian kids kept it going through the seventies and eighties, and the nineties saw an influx of consciousness that has travelled through the changing of the decade.  Now, earth consciousness is not just a movement for a few choice alternative kids; it's a way of life.

Some of us thought that making sustainability "mainstream" would be a big hurdle, but its popularity grew overnight, featuring yoga and solar power, protests and tofu.  Instead, the struggle has come down to one small part of the way we live: our beauty, and our aesthetics.  The reality is that making enlightened choices has always been possible, but it hasn't always been pretty. As global consciousness grows, however, the community of aesthetics – fashion, design, beauty, perfume – has had to use their creative teams for adapting to the "green trend:" creating beautiful, inventive clothing and textiles out of non-toxic, natural, and earth-friendly materials.

Many companies have turned to organic cotton, but others are using a different plant fiber: bamboo.  It's no surprise, as bamboo is one of the most ecologically useful plants in production: it grows up to four feet per day, takes less time to harvest than cotton, and is quite hardy.  Once processed and weaved into clothing, it's also incredibly soft.  But how does this sturdy grass go from hard wood to soft fabric?

Well, that's where the harmful chemicals come in.

Bamboo: The Good

Bamboo got its eco-friendly reputation because of its naturally human- and earth-friendly properties.  Not only is it hardy and fast-growing, but it also does double duty as a major oxygen producer – way more than a forest of comparable size – and its huge root network prevents erosion, even after the stalks have been harvested.  It doesn't require pesticides or chemicals to grow (organic!), is naturally biodegradable, and its "forests" regenerate on their own, using that same erosion-avoiding network of roots to sprout new stalks whenever and wherever they're removed.  Using the right techniques, it can be used for flooring, furniture, decorative items and, of course, fabric.

When manufactured for clothing, bamboo becomes a powerhouse, boasting ecological, health and beauty benefits.  It's softer than most cottons, yet drapes so smoothly and elegantly that it can be used as a cheap alternative to silk.  Bamboo is also hypoallergenic, and can even be anti-microbial, if it's manufactured mechanically.  It will resist the growth of odor-causing bacteria, making it a great choice for socks, exercise clothing, and anything else you could even think of sweating in (like a dress shirt at your annual performance review).

However, if bamboo isn't mechanically produced, it can lose its hypoallergenic, bacteria-killing properties, as well as all of its claims of "eco-friendliness" and, in some cases, the right to even be called bamboo.

Bamboo: The Bad

That's right: some companies use the "bamboo" label much like others use the "organic" label: to make money.  It's all part of a marketing ploy called greenwashing, and in this case, it can mean the difference between your skivvies being eco-friendly and eco-harmful.

There are two ways to process bamboo into fabric: mechanically and chemically. The mechanical process is pretty straightforward: the plant is crushed, and natural enzymes are added to break down the woody parts into a mushy compound.  A machine "combs out" this compound so it can be spun into yarn.  It's a truly eco-friendly process, but it's also labor-intensive and costs more than chemical processing does.

In chemical processing, the same bamboo is "cooked" in acid (among other things).  The result isn't an organic bamboo yarn, or even a remotely eco-friendly fabric.  Instead, it's called "regenerated cellulose fiber" or, more commonly, bamboo rayon.

Unlike its mechanically manufactured counterpart, this chemical bamboo fabric is soaked toxic chemicals, including lye, bleach, carbon disulfide and sulfuric acid, and "regenerated" into a fiber that can be woven into fabric.  It's a long, arduous process that not only harms the environment, but can cause serious health effects for the people that work to create the fabric:

Keep in mind that this process – all of these chemicals, all of these health risks – goes for cotton-based rayon, too.  The difference is that, as of now, companies are required to list chemically-manufactured cotton as "rayon" or "cotton rayon," so you can easily avoid them by looking at the label.  However, there are still no laws that force companies to make the same kind of distinction for bamboo.  Every time you buy bamboo fabric, you run the risk of getting a rayon blend instead – one that may be tainted by the chemicals that pollute our air and destroy health of the workers that created it.

What You Can Do

Until there are more stringent laws requiring companies to list the kind of bamboo their clothing is made of, it's up to consumers to buy responsibly.  It may seem like a daunting task – how do you know whether a company uses natural enzymes or harmful chemicals? – but there are a few ways to ensure that the bamboo you're wearing has been produced ethically:

We've been battling uphill for sustainable living for decades.  From our hybrid cars to our farmers markets, we've certainly come a long way.  Without "the beautiful people" behind the movement, though, we'll never be able to create a higher standard of ethical consumerism.  We need to begin holding the fashion community accountable for what it creates, from source to production to delivery, to send the message that it's not just about keeping up with the Joneses.  It's about a better way of life.

The following sources offer more information:
*Center for Disease Control – ToxFAQs: Carbon Disulfide and Sodium Hydroxide
*General information on bamboo processing:
*In-depth information on bamboo manufacturing, including step-by-step processes and links to certification websites:

Images via and (2).

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