Are Bamboo Viscose Based Fabrics Sustainable?
There is a lot of misinformation circulating about the production of bamboo-based fabrics. All of it surrounds the process of making bamboo viscose.
The principle concern involves the use of chemicals during the process that is required to extract the cellulose from bamboo. Yes, chemicals are used in this process. Nevertheless, the principle chemical used is sodium hydroxide. Sodium hydroxide is one of the most widely used chemicals in the world, and when used in a responsible manner, has no negative effect on the environment or the health of humans. It is important to note that:
- Sodium hydroxide is routinely used in the processing of cotton into fiber, including transitional and organic cottons
- Sodium hydroxide is approved for use on textiles by the Global Organic Textile Standards (www.global-standard.org) and the Soil Association (www.soilassociation.org)
- Sodium hydroxide does not remain as a residue on clothing as it easily washes away. It can also be readily neutralized to harmless and non-toxic sodium sulphate (salt)
- Sodium hydroxide is also used in food production, soap making, and the manufacturing of bio-diesel.
Unfortunately, bamboo viscose based fabrics are often “somewhat misrepresented” as rayon. Rayon or “contemporary viscose” is an older, less ecologically oriented technology that regenerates cellulose derived from slow growing trees, which are less renewable than bamboo and often harvested in an unsustainable manner. The process of extracting cellulose from bamboo is more sustainable as it takes place in a modern “closed loop” production process that does not expose the environment to pollutants. The closed loop bamboo viscose extraction process recovers and recycles all chemical solvents for further use and captures and purifies all water and air used in the process before returning them to the environment.
The process of making bamboo viscose based fabric is similar to the way in which “cottonized hemp” is produced. Cottonized hemp is one of the most widely used hemp fabrics on the market today.
Why Do Some People Consider Bamboo Viscose Controversial?
This is an important question. We find it interesting when critics of bamboo viscose speak with authority on the production process, when very few people have seen the proprietary system used for producing viscose from bamboo. We have to wonder what is their source of information? Will following the money lead to organic cotton suppliers? If so, it represents a sad state of affairs for the environmentally conscious segment of the apparel industry.
Unfortunately, it has been our experience that a few companies supplying or heavily reliant on organic cotton are propagating mis-information about bamboo-based fabrics. Maybe they feel threatened by the compelling combination of benefits provided by bamboo-based fabrics. Who knows? We have found most of their critiques to be unfounded, unsourced, and untrue.
It is our contention that all apparel suppliers trying to do right by the planet should be supporting each other’s efforts, no matter which fabrics we have individually chosen to work with. Those of us looking for environmentally friendly solutions in apparel production are fighting the same fight!
To those ends, it is important to mention that Arbor supports organic cotton and uses it as our price point material and for some of our bamboo blends. We believe it to be another important solution in the fight to introduce more environmentally friendly apparel options. The fact that, like bamboo, organic cotton is grown without harmful chemicals is important. Nevertheless for the bulk of our production, we turn to bamboo because, in our opinion, it is an ecologically superior raw material and provides enhanced performance for all types of apparel products.
To truly understand how “green” something is, we must look at it from “multiple lenses;” its effect on the soil, air, water, plants, animals, humans, etc. When looking through multiple lenses at bamboo viscose based apparel production, we have come to the conclusion that it provides one of the most effective green alternatives available. Its amazing ecological properties at the “crop stage,” the reasonable way in which it’s produced, and the performance benefits that finished bamboo-based fabrics provide make bamboo today’s best choice for creating responsible apparel.
BAMBOO FABRICS Q&A
Arbor utilizes bamboo as the base raw material in the fabrics we make our apparel from because it is the resource that best fits our mission - using environmentally friendly natural materials to improve overall performance and style. Form still follows function and only bamboo allows us to deliver contemporary design attributes while offering ecologically responsible fabrications.
Today, there are no fabrics that are 100% “green;” organic and transitional cottons require large amounts of land and water; recycled P.E.T. (polyethylene terephthalate) is still a chemically driven, petroleum-based material; and many hemp and bamboo fabrics require a pulping process.
So, when looking at the current options for environmentally “friendlier” fabrics, our choice came down to a material that provided the best blend of ecological and performance benefits; that turned out to be bamboo-based fabric, a resource that we’ve come to see as today’s most promising alternative.
Currently, Arbor uses three bamboo-based fabric blends:
Bamboo viscose based fabrics - used to produce our knits and wovens, including t-shirts.
Nano bamboo infused polyester - used to produce our boardshorts.
Mechanically produced bamboo fabrics - used to produce many of our hats.
With this in mind, check out some of the facts on bamboo-based fabrics:
The Ecological Benefits of Using Bamboo as a Raw Material
– The bamboo used for apparel production is the fastest growing plant known to man, growing up to 4 feet (122 cm) per day, and rapidly reaching heights over 40 feet. Because of this rapid growth rate and the amount of vertical biomass created, bamboo is able to deliver far more usable raw material per acre than any other alternative, which makes it today’s most renewable resource. Bamboo is also self-regenerating, so it can be harvested and, in most cases, will simply re-grow without replanting.
– Bamboo cultivation requires zero pesticides or chemical fertilizers to achieve its amazing growth rate and renewability. Hence, it is inherently organic. In contrast, it takes 1/3 of a pound of chemicals to produce enough conventional cotton for one t-shirt. Cotton production is responsible for 16% of the world’s insecticide use, more than any other single crop, while covering only 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land. Many of these chemicals run off into our waterways, harming humans and the natural environment. In addition, bamboo requires much less land and water (as a ratio to usable fiber produced per acre), than cotton, organic cotton, and other alternative fibers. In fact, it takes 15,000 liters of water to grow 1 kg of cotton or organic cotton. Some of this water is piped in from critical watersheds, as cotton is typically grown on arid lands. In contrast, bamboo requires only natural rainfall.
Additional Eco Benefits
- Bamboo propagation prevents erosion and adds nutrients back to the soil, while conventional, transitional, and even organic cotton cultivation strip the land of nutrients. Bamboo is hand picked using traditional methods that have a much lower impact on the environment than modern machine-based harvesting practices. It’s also important to note that bamboo is not planted on cleared forestlands; it is sustainably selected from naturally occurring bamboo stands. In addition, bamboo absorbs more carbon dioxide and emits more oxygen than equivalent stands of trees. Oh - and the “timber” bamboo used for apparel production is not a source of food for pandas, nor is it harvested from panda habitat.
The Performance Benefits of Fabrics Made Using Bamboo
- Bamboo-based fabrics are much softer and more comfortable than cotton, hemp, or other alternatives.
- Bamboo-based fabrics help regulate body temperature. Compared to cotton, they are more breathable, provide improved wicking of moisture, and deliver better UV protection. In addition, mechanically produced and nano bamboo blends dry more quickly than comparable fabrics.
- Mechanically produced bamboo fabrics and nano bamboo infused fabrics retain bamboo’s natural anti-bacterial, anti-fungal properties. This makes them resistant to mildew and odor retention and much less likely to cause skin irritations. Studies by the China Industrial Testing Center (CITC) and the Japan Textile Inspection Association (JTIA) show that bamboo viscose based fabrics also retain these anti-microbial properties. However, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) refuses to acknowledge these studies and currently requires that suppliers of bamboo viscose based apparel refrain from claiming that it is anti-microbial. The FTC has provided no scientific evidence to refute these studies. Nevertheless, we are complying with their ruling.
It is our opinion that the FTC’s ruling is reminiscent of the government’s previous effort to stop hemp fabrics from being imported into the United States. You may remember the concern that “kids were going to smoke their T-shirts.” Many of us saw this as a diversionary tactic designed to protect “Big Cotton.” In the end, we have to wonder how much lobbying is being done by Cotton, Inc. to stop bamboo fabrics from entering the market as they once tried to stop hemp from becoming an alternative to conventional cotton.
How Are Bamboo-Based Fabrics Made?
There are several ways to turn bamboo into fiber that can be used to produce fabric. Arbor currently uses bamboo-based fabrics derived from three separate processes:
Nano Bamboo infused fabrics are produced by embedding powdered bamboo into a variety of materials. The raw powder is created by heating bamboo until it reaches a charcoal consistency. The charcoal is then ground into a nano-particle, which can be embedded into fibers such as cotton or polyester. These embedded fibers are then spun into yarns or filaments. We use Nano Bamboo infused polyester in our boardshorts because of its natural anti-bacterial and quick-dry properties. It is interesting to note that Bamboo Charcoal has been used by the Chinese for millennia to purify water.
Mechanically Produced Bamboo fabrics are made by grinding up bamboo until it can be spun into a yarn. This process is best used to create canvas style fabrics, which we currently use in many of our hats.
Bamboo Viscose fabrics are the most widely available of all bamboo-based fabrics on the market. Bamboo Viscose fabric is made by a process in which cellulose (viscose) is extracted from bamboo and regenerated into a fiber that can be spun into a yarn. The process starts by grinding up the leaves, stems, and soft inner pith of a species of timber bamboo called Moso. The ground up mass is processed using solvents to extract the cellulose. The cellulose is then forced through spinnerets to create the raw bamboo viscose thread, which is extremely soft to the touch. The thread is then spun into yarn, which can be blended with a variety of materials. (Source: www.apparelsearch.com) We use viscose from bamboo to make our knit and woven products such as t-shirts, hoodies, denim, etc.