Bamboo Becomes Taboo

Bamboo Becomes Taboo

In the past decade we’ve seen the rise of textiles made from bamboo. A few slinky and ultra soft ‘bamboo’ shirts and dresses have made their way into my wardrobe. However, those buttery smooth pieces are now coming under scrutiny and the green image that was synonymous with so-called bamboo fabrics has been all but shattered.

At first, the story behind bamboo in textiles sounds quite compelling. The plant grows quickly (a yard or more a day) without the irrigation, pesticides or fertilizers so often used to grow cotton. Grown right, bamboo prevents soil erosion, sequesters 12 tonnes of CO2 per hectare (30 percent more than trees), is self seeding, and is better able to survive drought and flooding than cotton. Because it reseeds and doesn’t require expensive inputs, growing bamboo is accessible to anyone with land in areas of economic hardship (climate willing, of course). In its natural form, bamboo is biodegradable and has naturally occurring antimicrobial properties.

Sounds great, right?

Though the growing of bamboo is good for the environment, as it turns out, the process used to turn the grass into a fabric poses serious environmental and health concerns due to the chemical solvents used.

That’s because to convert the strong and solid grass into a soft and flowing fabric unsurprisingly requires heavy manipulation. Bamboo is chopped and dissolved in toxic solvents—the same process used to convert wood scraps into viscose or rayon. As a consequence, the processing poses both health risks to workers and environmental damage to surrounding areas, highly variable factory-to-factory, depending on how chemicals are managed and recycled. These risks are obviously heightened when pollution control systems are inadequate, and where regulations and enforcement are lax.

According to The Federal Trade Commission in its consumer alert titled Have You Been Bamboozled by Bamboo Fabrics?, bamboo fabric isn’t natural. Rather, it's a textile developed by chemists. During that chemical process pollutants are released into the air and waterways. Additionally, the commission states that the biodegradable and antimicrobial qualities of the plant don’t survive the manufacturing process.

In fact, the commission is so firm in its stance that these bamboo textiles are not only bad for the environment, but also that they cannot be considered bamboo at all, that it has charged companies that continue to label these rayon textiles as eco-friendly ‘bamboo.’ Last January, Sears, Amazon, Macy’s and Max Studio (Leon Max) agreed to pay a total of $1.26 million in fines for continued mislabeling.

Ah, how quickly that green luster has faded.

On Ethical Ocean, we’ve made some changes to ensure that as a customer you know what you’re buying and can make an informed choice.

  • First, we have removed many of these rayon items where those products failed to meet any other of our ethical criteria.
  • We have continued to work with a handful of brands that make items from rayon or viscose from bamboo based on their other corporate practices; however these items are not to be labeled as being made from bamboo and will always state that they are ‘viscose’ or ‘rayon from bamboo.’
  • In addition, where applicable we have listed the Oeko-Tex certification, the most comprehensive certification that certifies that garments don’t pose health risks. Note that Oeko-Tex does not certify the manufacturing process as eco-friendly.

Have you bought clothing or linens made from rayon or viscose from bamboo? Will you continue to buy it?

March 4, 2013