Bamboo – Eco-friendly or Green Disaster?

Posted on August 31st, by Birdie in Fashion and Style. 18 comments May 17, 2011

There are so many companies out there marketing “green” products made from bamboo – a soft, Tencel-like fabric.  The FTC, though, is concerned with “greenwashing” – saying this soft bamboo fabric isn’t green, or eco-friendly or even organic.  This form of bamboo is actually a rayon, and is not considered organic, or eco-friendly.  Rayon is a very soft, natural-cellulose-based fabric, which is completely man-made from bamboo, wood, or cotton lintner – using heavy chemicals to turn the woody fibers into a soft pulp.

The process happens like this:

[Rayon is] a textile made from cellulose. There are two types, both made from wood pulp. In the viscose process, the pulp is dissolved in carbon disulphide and sodium hydroxide to give a thick brown liquid containing cellulose xanthate. The liquid is then forced through fine nozzles into acid, where the xanthate is decomposed and a cellulose filament is produced. The product is viscose rayon. In the acetate process cellulose acetate is made and dissolved in a solvent. The solution is forced through nozzles into air, where the solvent quickly evaporates leaving a filament of acetate rayon.

As one of the industry’s major problems, the chemical by-products of rayon have received much attention in these environmentally conscious times. The most popular method of production, the viscose method, generates undesirable water and air emissions. Of particular concern is the emission of zinc and hydrogen sulfide.

At present, producers are trying a number of techniques to reduce pollution. Some of the techniques being used are the recovery of zinc by ion-exchange, crystallization, and the use of a more purified cellulose. Also, the use of absorption and chemical scrubbing is proving to be helpful in reducing undesirable emissions of gas.

The FTC has made it clear that most bamboo products are not “eco-friendly” and should be properly marketed -  in what they call a case of “greenwashing”:

The Federal Trade Commission has charged four sellers of clothing and other textile products with deceptively labeling and advertising these items as made of bamboo fiber, when they are made of rayon. The complaints also charge the companies with making false and unsubstantiated “green” claims that their clothing and textile products are manufactured using an environmentally friendly process, that they retain the natural antimicrobial properties of the bamboo plant, and that they are biodegradable… The FTC also charges three of the companies [...] with violating the Textile Act and Rules by advertising or labeling their products without disclosing where the products were manufactured… The proposed orders do allow the companies to describe their products as “rayon made from bamboo,” as long as this is true and can be substantiated.

From Fashion Incubator

Bamboo is GENERALLY not a green product because the process that goes into making most bamboo products (that soft, silky-feeling material) involves highly toxic chemicals to make the woody fibers – like a linen.  The FTC regulations say bamboo products must still be labeled as a rayon (including “rayon from bamboo”), based on the way they’re made.  (For more information on toxicity and cleanup of rayon-production sites, read about Avtex)

Bamboo CAN be environmentally friendly, of course, if the fabric you’re buying is bamboo linen (much like flax linen) or if the companies are using a closed-loop supply chain.   As the Fashion Incubator article notes, though:

Of all the fabrics in the rayon family, lyocell is considered to be the most eco-friendly because Lenzing, the firm that manufacturers lyocell, has a certified closed loop system. While many bamboo producers claim they use a closed loop system, the claims are dubious for two reasons. The first is that lyocell is a proprietary process patented by Lenzig which has not licensed the process to any bamboo producers. Secondly, while it’s possible bamboo producers have developed their own proprietary closed loop processes, no firms to date have permitted inspectors on site to verify these claims.

Another problem with bamboo is it’s propensity to become invasive; there are 2 types of bamboo – clumping and running.  While bamboo is an amazing crop that grows well with little water or care, many running strains of the species are invasive, and considered a weed.  It seems like the perfect sustainable solution, until bamboo suppliers realize they’ve planted the wrong strain, and it’s overtaken the area’s native plants.

For now, it seems the safest bet for our eco-concerned shoppers is to continue to buy organic cotton products, organic linens, and hemp-linen products.  The bamboo linen fabrics are worth looking into, but remember, if it’s that silky, stretchy fabric, it is quite possibly a rayon.

How do you feel about the FTC’s move to accurately label bamboo fabrics?   Will you continue to buy bamboo rayons?

For more info, read these links:

Link 1, Link 2, Link 3, Link 4, Info on Tencel


18 Responses to “Bamboo – Eco-friendly or Green Disaster?”

  1. bamboo says:

    i am exactly from the bamboo home decor , i would say that it’s eco. since it plays as wood alternative, from china’s experience, it helps to minimize the consumption of wood. and bamboo get much simple and easy to feed where would not not so much fertilizer and water.

  2. Birdie says:

    And that’s great – it’s fantastic that it’s being used as a wood substitute, but the problem is in manufacturing apparel (and maybe I should specify that) – when it’s made into bamboo rayon or viscose from bamboo, the process leeches toxins into the air and water because the process uses such harsh chemicals.

    Thanks for your input on using bamboo otherwise!

  3. [...] Bonne Vie – – Bamboo: Eco-friendly, or Green Disaster? [...]

  4. Links says:

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  5. Links a la Mode says:

    [...] Bonne Vie – – Bamboo: Eco-friendly, or Green Disaster? [...]

  6. Facinating article. I have to say, I wasn’t aware in the first place that rayon was made from wood fibers anyway. I can see that if you used fast grown bamboo in the process of making rayon rather than slow growing trees it is a step in the right direction, but I agree that this can hardly be described as “eco-friendly”. Perhaps a better description would be “not quite as eco-unfriendly as normal rayon”.
    .-= Icy @ Individual Chic´s last blog ..I’m still on the hunt for summer shoes =-.

  7. Links says:

    [...] Bonne Vie – – Bamboo: Eco-friendly, or Green Disaster? [...]

  8. [...] Bonne Vie – – Bamboo: Eco-friendly, or Green Disaster? [...]

  9. Birdie says:

    Well, Icy, wood pulp or lintner pulp rayon STILL uses chemicals.

    I guess the uproar is that rayon itself is not eco-friendly, unless they go through certain air/water/pollutant cleaning processes.

  10. [...] Bonne Vie – – Bamboo: Eco-friendly, or Green Disaster? [...]

  11. Idiosyncratic Style» Blog Archive » Links A La Mode: Style Within Means says:

    [...] Bonne Vie – – Bamboo: Eco-friendly, or Green Disaster? [...]

  12. Jen O says:

    Well, good to see the truth come out about this fiber.
    I was in a top notch grad school textiles class when this fiber ‘hit the scene’. Our own research revealed a technical process no more green than the rest. Clearly, it’s no angel!
    .-= Jen O´s last blog ..What Nature can Look Like =-.

  13. Birdie says:

    Not many people know what goes into making fabrics… and I feel like a LOT of people were surprised to know what rayon really is.

  14. Wow, thanks for delving deeper into the “greeness” of bamboo. It is a shame that a plant that has so much potential to be a sustainable resource is being mislabeled and falsely advertised. It is also a shame since bamboo linens are so delightfully soft. I will definitely keep a look out for rayon labels on any bamboo products I consider buying (or promoting for that matter).
    .-= Earth Friendly Goodies´s last blog ..Simply Sexy Terra Verde Bamboo Cutting Board =-.

  15. Birdie says:

    Earth Friendly – The soft tencel-like fabrics are generally bamboo rayons. I worry about the sustainability as well, since bamboo (certain types) are known to be invasive. If you don’t know what you’re getting, you could be in trouble when your bamboo takes over your other crops. =/

  16. [...] – An aside, the same is made for being “eco-conscious”. A little research will go a long way!! [...]

  17. The Sustainability of Bamboo Plywood says:

    [...] This post talks further about the bamboo based fabric which is not very natural. The other good paint they raise is that bamboo can be invasive, so great care needs to taken to ensure we don’t end up introducing plants in areas where they will invade native plants such as we know very well with Japanese Knot weed, rhododendron etc: [...]

  18. Just stumbled across your blog, really good, i’ve saved it for future reference….

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