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Bamboo fibre is an often-overlooked material in the fashion and furniture industries, and yet potentially it offers a unique and sustainable option – provided it is sourced and processed appropriately. Gus Bartholomew from Supplycompass takes a look at the options and dispels some of the greenwashing myths:

 

Cultivation
China, India, Myanmar and Thailand are the world’s largest producers of bamboo. Bamboo is often generically “greenwashed” as sustainable due to its;

– Dense growth patterns (efficient use of space)
– Complex root structure (prevents erosion and maintains soil health)
– Very high respiration rates (significant carbon dioxide absorption and oxygen production)
– Water efficiency (doesn’t require irrigation)
– Hardiness (doesn’t require pesticides or insecticides)

Although these features lend themselves to environmental causes, case-specific factors such as land clearing, harvesting practices, labour conditions, and supplementary irrigation or pesticides (which are not necessary for bamboo growth, but are performance enhancing) must be factored in when determining sustainability.

Processing

There are two primary methods for processing bamboo fibres; mechanically and chemically.


Mechanical processing
yields the most environmentally friendly bamboo fabric. The woody grass shoots and leaves are pulverised and then retted (soaked in water) to soften. Next, the fibrous pulp is combed, refined, and spun into yarn. The result is a bamboo ‘linen’, or ‘natural’ bamboo fabric which is suitable for dyeing and does not require intensive pre-treatment. Due to the time and labour intensity of the mechanical processing, natural bamboo fabric is relatively expensive and difficult to source.

Chemical processing is used to produce the vast majority of bamboo fabrics. Within this category, conventional viscose processing is the most common method, and is also the most detrimental to human health and the environment. While chemical processing is the cheaper method of processing bamboo fibres, it is far less sustainable. The chemicals used to process the fibres include sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide, which are potentially harmful to the people working with it and the wildlife in the area, especially if the chemicals reach any water sources.

Fibre Mixtures

Viscose Bamboo Rayon

This process requires considerable energy and chemical input. Bamboo is first crushed, then soaked in a sodium hydroxide solution, pressed, dried and crushed again. Carbon disulfide is added to create a gel, which is again treated with sodium hydroxide, before being pressed through narrow nozzles into sulfuric acid to create threads, where it hardens and is finally spun and woven. The end fabric is soft, drapes similarly to silk, and is well suited to garment manufacturing. However, the material’s functionality often comes with hidden costs such as worker illness from chemical exposure, and negative effects on the environment. One of the most significant environmental effects is wastewater laden with a large variety of chemicals being freely discharged during the manufacturing process.

Lyocell Bamboo Rayon

An alternative rayon fabric with limited environmental impacts, lyocell rayon is produced in a closed-loop viscose process which utilizes a non-toxic solution (amine oxide) and minimizes water and energy consumption. The processing steps are similar to conventional viscose rayon: bamboo is pulped, softened, thickened, and formed into weavable fibre. The end product, however, is notably free of chemical residues, and has not been associated with worker illnesses or environmental damage. Additionally, virtually all of the amine oxide solution is recovered and reused. Lyocell rayon performs at least on par with conventional rayon fabric and is not significantly more expensive to produce.

 Summary

Natural bamboo fabric is one of the most ‘green’ fabrics available – if the right fibres and processing are chosen. Mechanically produced bamboo fibres are far more sustainable than those that are chemically produced, and some bamboo mixtures are better for the environment and human health than others. For example, lyocell bamboo rayon is far more sustainable than viscose bamboo rayon.

Being aware of “greenwashing” when choosing between bamboo fabrics, as well as the significant socio-ecological differences between production processes is important. Not all bamboo fabrics are made in the same way or have the same sustainability benefits.

By choosing a genuinely sustainable and eco- and health-friendly source of bamboo you can be sure you have a high quality, compassionate material for your fashion or furniture brand.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gus Bartholomew is co-founder of Supplycompass, a tech enabled end-to-end production management platform for responsible brands that want to find and work with the best international manufacturers. It enables brands to find their perfect manufacturing partner at home or overseas. Brands can create tech packs, get matched with a manufacturer and use the platform to manage production from design to delivery. Supplycompass works with brands and manufacturers to embed responsible and sustainable practises in their businesses and deliver value and create opportunities for growth. See: http://www.supplycompass.com  Twitter: twitter.com/Supplycompass