Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Is bamboo really green? What's an earth-loving fashionista to do?

I've been collecting news articles for the last week, mulling over the possibilities for an Earth Day post. There were some great articles about trashion shows and Earth Day promotions by a wide range of companies. Anyone in search of fun and creative DIY projects for kids or adults will have a merry time this week, as well. I'll feature those in Friday's Hits and Misses post. But I was finally convinced that it's time to go back to an old stand-by: greenwashing and bamboo.

"Is bamboo fabric/yarn really green?". I get this question all the time, and my answer hasn't changed: it's as green as viscose rayon made from any other material. Rayon (called viscose outside the U.S.) is a regenerated cellulose fiber, made from unspinnable waste cotton, wood pulp or other plant material -- such as bamboo. It is as "natural" as Spam, because in order to create a usable fiber, the plant material is chemically dissolved using a process so dirty that it is no longer made in the U.S. and the remaining sites where it was made are some of the nastiest "superfund" sites on the EPA's clean-up list. (There is a much cleaner cousin to viscose, called lyocel -- often marketed as tencel -- in which the chemicals are captured and reused. It's a better choice.)

If you read ads and labels for bamboo clothing, you would think otherwise. My daily news alerts bring in dozens of articles and announcements touting bamboo yarn, diapers, skirts and other products as green, environmentally friendly and sustainable. Hardly any use the r_ _ _ _ word, despite the fact that textile labeling regulations in the U.S. require that they use "rayon" if a product is made of regenerated cellulose using the viscose process. The FTC does not recognize "bamboo" as an approved textile label. Period.(By the way, enforcing existing regulations would be a nice change, President Obama!)

I have written about this before.

So please don't buy bamboo rayon in order to be green. Buy it if you like the hand (it's cool, soft and drapey, like all other rayon). Avoid it if you don't like rayon's less-wonderful characteristics (it abrades easily and pills like crazy). I do have some bamboo rayon items in my own wardrobe, just as I have a few rayon pieces of unknown origin. (I am pragmatist, not a purist.) But millions of American consumers flocking to bamboo viscose will not save the planet.

What can you do? The answer is not so much what you buy, but how you launder it, how long you wear it, and where it goes when you're done with it. Buy clothing designed to last years, not a season. (For kids, that means more hand-me-downs and second-hand clothing.) Wash it in cold water and line-dry it, when possible. When it no longer serves your needs, send it on to someone else or make it into something new.

1 comment:

Mo said...


I always appreciate the fact that you take time to write your blog and to try to educate your readers. I only wish that you would actually look at the bigger picture when expressing your opinion on what the consumer should or should not buy. You and I have had this discussion before and I guess I really did not do very well at making my point as demonstrated by your latest post.

If the only criteria when choosing a textile or apparel product is how the fiber became a fiber then bamboo would not be the 'best choice'. But, you and I both know that there is a lot more to making that decision than 'fiber processing'. Things such as what the source material is and how it was grown and harvested are certainly important. Or, where the different manufacturing steps were done and by whom and under what laws, rules, and regulations. Also, what of the company that is the marketeer and distributor of the product and how they conduct their business and what kind of corporate citizens they are? These should all be factors if one is to make a good purchasing decision.

The truth is that some bamboo textile and apparel products are very green and absolutely are good choices if you look at all entire manufacturing chain.

The process that is used in China to produce viscose from bamboo is not nearly as bad as you make it sound. The technology and equipment has improved dramatically since the years when viscose was produced in the US. I think if you went to the plant in China that produces the fiber you would be surprised at the difference between the picture you paint and reality.

Your statement that viscose from bamboo is 'as green as viscose rayon made from any other material' is not accurate. Bamboo is a much greener source material than any other rayon source material. The bamboo that we used is certified organic under the USDA NOP program. Also, the farm where the bamboo is grown is also certified organic by OCIA International. Additionally, bamboo can be harvested in 3-4 years, rarely needs replanting, takes in greenhouse gases, and produces 35% more oxygen that an equivalent stand of trees. All of these facts are from reputable sources and can be documented. I don't know how you can say that viscose from bamboo is not 'greener' than viscose from trees. It is demonstrably so.

We have been making textiles and apparel using bamboo as the source material for over 5 years and we have learned quite a bit about this amazing material. First, I haven't seen any bamboo fabric that actually feels like rayon. The closest thing I have seen is the 100% fine jersey we make and even it is not all that close to rayon. And, by the way, the fabric that we produce doesn't seem to pill any greater than cotton. I have shirts I have been wearing for 5 years and I wash them in cool or warm water and tumble dry them on low or medium heat and they are still holding up fine. I don't know where your shirts were produced or by whom but, like any other fiber, all are not created equal. I would be happy to send you one of our shirts for you to try if you would like.

Jo, as you know, our company brings in viscose fiber made from bamboo into SC. We spin yarn, knit fabric, dye fabric, cut and sew our product, and distribute our goods, all in SC. In 5 years we have created 30 jobs and by the end of this year it will be 45. Our BambooBaby line has been hugely successful and will continue to be so because it is functional and because it is made the way it is made and because of who makes it. Despite the fiber processing, which admittedly could be better, the product that Bamboosa produces is a good choice if you are concerned with the environment, social responsibility, and American manufacturing and American jobs.

Less than 5% of all the clothing sold in America is made here. Anyone who thinks that a shirt made from organic cotton that is grown in Turkey, processed in China, and sewn in Vietnam is a better or more sustainable choice than the product that we produce has simply not considered all the facts.

In the end, everyone has to make their buying decisions based on what matters to them. But, it should be more than what you presented.


Mo Saintsing