Bamboo – Eco-friendly or Green Disaster?

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