Is Bamboo Fabric an Sustainable Textile Fraud? The Textile Test Series Investigates

Bamboo is an extremely fast growing grass (yes, its technically a grass, though we use it as wood), taking only 4-5 years to fully mature and harvest (compare that with 20 years or more for other woods). It can grow up to a meter a day, and re-sprouts through its roots, so there’s no need for replanting (this very feature is how it can become an invasive plant in some places). The plant’s growth puts little strain on the environment because it requires no pesticides or irrigation for growth, and can be harvested sustainably (Note: There have been some reports of rainforest and other land being cleared to plant bamboo farms, which is, obviously, not sustainable).

Bamboo’s advantages, which may (or may not, depending on its origin plantation) apply to floors and building materials, however, don’t apply to fabric made from the wood.

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Photo Credit Bamboo Textiles Australia

Turning bamboo into a silky fabric isn’t possible without highly intensive chemical processes, where approximately 13 different toxic solvents are used. The undertaking is a viscose rayon process, turning a cellulose fiber (plant material) into fabric. Any plant or tree—in this case bamboo—can be used as a cellulose source, but the fabrication transforms bamboo into rayon, and must be labeled as so. Not all ‘regenerating cellulose fibers’ are chemical intensive. For example, producing lyocell captures and reuses 99% of the waste.

Rayon made from bamboo is the most common type of bamboo fabric, resembling silk, in that it’s extremely comfortable and dyes easily. It’s the fabric you’ve most often associated with your bamboo sheets or t-shirt. But why have we seen a disappearance of ‘Made with Bamboo’ over the years?

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Photo Credit Handan Baopeng Trading Co.

The confusion of labeling rayon made from bamboo, as simply bamboo, has been a complicated journey, with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at the front lines.

It all came to head in 2010 when the FTC sent warning letters to over 78 mega retailers including, Amazon, Barney’s New York, Bed Bath & Beyond, Bloomingdale’s, Costco, Hanes, JC Penney, Jockey, Kmart, Kohl’s, Land’s End, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Overstock.com, QVC, REI, Saks Fifth Avenue, Sears, Sports Authority, Target, The Gap, Toys R’ Us, Wal-Mart, and Zappos, who were mislabeling Viscose Rayon made from bamboo as Bamboo fabric.

Four national retailers—Amazon, Macy’s, Sears and Leon Max—ignored the warnings, and had to pay up to $1.26 million for violation (Sears, $475,000; Amazon, $455,000; Macy’s, $250,000; and Leon Max $80,000) against the Textile Products Identification Act (Textile Act).

“When attempting to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers, companies need to ensure they don’t cross the line into misleading labeling and advertising,” said Charles Harwood, Acting Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “If a textile is made of rayon, sellers need to say that, even if bamboo was used somewhere along the line in the production process.”

Bamboo

There is another type of bamboo fabric, lesser used, called natural Bamboo or Bamboo linen, derived from bamboo culms. The fabric holds the same characteristics of linen in that it wrinkles easily and can be laundered. Production of bamboo linen is confined to just one company in China, so little is known about the manufacturing of natural bamboo. They claim not to use any chemical additives in the production process—but information is limited and these claims can’t be supported.

Bamboo, although grown sustainably, is not an eco-textile. Keep the bamboo for your flooring and dish racks, but ‘Made with Bamboo’ fabric as we know it has seen its last labels as a soft, silky fabric.

About Juliette Donatelli
Growing up between New York and Paris, Juliette Donatelli developed a deep love for culture, style and the beat of the city. She's the founder of spades+siLK, where she writes about the exciting new trends fusing sustainability and fashion. She has lived in Los Angeles and San Francisco, but recently moved back to NYC to be part of all that is happening around local manufacturing and design. Juliette holds a MS in Ecology, and a BA in Globalization and Environmental Science. She is currently writing a book on sustainability in a material world.

9 Comments

  1. Thanks, Juliette. I will avoid the textile, and ensure that my bamboo plantation in Nicaragua is not used for textile.

  2. this is such an interesting article since I see many retail stores promoting clothing made from bamboo. I sell products made of bamboo in the form of home decor accessories and I like to promote them a lot because is a fast growing grass. I guess I won’t be doing the same for the clothing line.

  3. Thanks for the article. Would you say though that Bamboo is a more sustainable fabric choice than many other common fabrics such as regular cotton or polyesters?

    • @Liz, That’s a great question. I think, as with all choices in sustainability, there is not one right answer. The purchasing choices we make must reflect a personal decision based on our own ethics + values. As mentioned in the article, Bamboo is extremely fast growing and doesn’t need to be replanted, yet, the transformation into a textile uses a ton of toxic chemicals that cannot be recaptured and reused. Conventional cotton requires a large amount of water + pesticides to grow, plus over 80% of cotton grown in the US is GMO cotton. But it does not require as much energy to transform into a textile. With polyester, a synthetic fiber, it requires the extraction of fossil fuels but polyester garments can be reclaimed and fabrics respun, then reused.
      So for these three textile comparisons, each step in the manufacturing process is different, all taking a heavier or lighter toll at different points in the life cycle– no one choice is necessarily a more sustainable choice, but I encourage you to make your own decision based on where your values are.

  4. Juliette, I’m really impressed with your knowledge and research about this subject. It can be hard to be an eco-friendly consumer when you really don’t know what you’re getting at the end of the manufacturing process. Thanks for enlightening me on this topic! No more bamboo clothing for me, that’s for sure.

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