How Green Are Bamboo Clothes?

By Mary Logan Barmeyer
The Green Guide

A reader writes the Green Guide:
I heard on NPR a report on bamboo fabrics and other products, and in a very brief comment the reporter said that bamboo is processed using very harsh chemicals. I have not been able to find out about how bamboo goes from stalk to fiber/fabric. How eco is it? Certainly the growing of it is very sustainable, but is the processing enough to knock it out of the eco/green arena?
Green Guide responds:
That’s a good question. Bamboo has long been unconditionally regarded a priori as an eco-friendly material because of its amazing green attributes: It can grow with few pesticides and little water, is naturally regenerative and can grow up to one foot per day.
Because of the remarkable environmental qualities of bamboo, it has been easy to write off bamboo products as squeaky-clean green, when in fact, there’s a lot more to it. Recently, more and more eco advocates have been examining both the growing of bamboo and the processing of bamboo fiber, and although no one seems to have all the facts, some issues have been raised that encourage pressure to clean up the process.
Bamboo, by nature, is an inherently pest-resistant, wild-growing crop, but to keep up with increasing demand for bamboo products, farmers have started raising it on plantations as a monocrop. Monocrop, or single-crop, plantations reduce biodiversity, leading to increases in pests (and subsequent pesticide use) and plant diseases.
Dovetail Partners Inc., a nonprofit organization that supports forest conservation and environmentally sound rural development, has raised other concerns about bamboo, such as clear-cutting of forests to make room for plantations and increased erosion. Dovetail is one of many nonprofits pushing for a third-party certification of bamboo, similar to the Forest Stewardship Council program for wood, because of its environmental cost.
Not only are bamboo’s growing methods questioned, but so is the process of turning the stalk into fiber for fabrics and clothing. According to Morris Saintsing, sales development and operations partner of bamboo clothing retailer Bamboosa, all bamboo stalk intended for clothing in the United States is converted into raw fiber at one factory in China. "This is a proprietary process and they have a patent on it," says Saintsing. "It’s hard to find out what is going on from an R&D standpoint," he adds. Other sources have compared it to the viscose process used on rayon, which involves sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide, both of which are caustic, and carbon disulfide has been known to cause breathing and sleeping problems among workers. Sodium hydroxide can threaten aquatic wildlife when released into groundwater and streams.
Saintsing said that greener ways of creating bamboo fabrics are being tested, but those generally result in a linen-like product that doesn’t have the silky texture people are looking for in clothing. Few of the alternatives are in use, but "We’re doing what we can to make it a greener process," he says.
The bottom line? Bamboo has the capacity to be one of the greenest materials on earth, but thanks in part to its popularity, bamboo growth has become somewhat exploited. And the lack of transparency in fiber processing makes it hard to declare bamboo fabrics wholly green.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy bamboo clothes: Despite the environmental shortcomings in production, bamboo is still has a much lighter environmental impact than pesticide-laden conventional cotton and petroleum-derived nylon and polyester synthetics. Manufacturing synthetic fibers can release lung-damaging pollutants such as nitrogen and sulfur oxides, particulates, carbon monoxide and heavy metals into the air, as well as climate-warming carbon dioxide. Conventional cotton requires a tremendous amount of water; in fact, according to the World Wildlife Fund, some estimates indicate that it consumes more water than any other agricultural commodity. Furthermore, nitrogen-heavy fertilizer runoff feeds oceanic "dead zones" that deprive water of oxygen and kill fish and other aquatic species; runoff from U.S. cotton farms is currently helping to feed a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey. From a health standpoint, seven of the top 15 pesticides used on U.S. cotton crops are deemed by the EPA to be potential or known human carcinogens.