Bamboo fabrics have been gaining attention over the last few years and many people have become enthused about them as “eco-friendly” fabrics. Despite what your tree-hugging acquaintances might be saying, bamboo fabrics aren’t as environmentally friendly as they’ve been made out to be.
In fact, to produce the fibres that make up bamboo fabric, a chemical process similar to that used to produce rayon, a synthetic fibre, is used. The bamboo is harvested, the husk is removed and the leaves and grass fibres are crushed in a compactor. The result is a paste which is then cleaned in water and soaked in sodium hydroxide (also known as lye) to help produce cellulose. The lye is removed and the cellulose is crushed and dried, washed, and mixed with more chemicals. These chemicals evaporate and leave the cellulose with a gel-like texture, and then sodium hydroxide is added again. The substance is heated and sent through a spinnerette, producing long strands, before landing in sulphuric acid to harden into threads that will be washed and sent off to become yarns and fabrics.
The whole process requires a few different chemicals, with lye taking centre stage. Lye is used in many products, including some you may have in your home, like soap, household cleaners, and drain cleaners; however, the fact remains that sodium hydroxide is a harsh chemical and can be hazardous to the environment if not used responsibly.
Chemicals are not the only concern here, though; bamboo has endless uses, from food and décor to flooring and furniture, and the demand is endangering many species of the plant. United Nations has reported that of the 1200 bamboo species, half are in danger of becoming extinct due to overharvesting.
And what about shipping? The majority of bamboo fabrics are produced in China, so shipping overseas is necessary. This obviously requires transport by ship or plane, both of which require resources to run and produce pollution of their own; and locally produced bamboo fabric is hard to come by.
Though not as environmentally friendly as it is sometimes made to seem, fabrics made from bamboo are fantastic textiles. They drape like silk but are more affordable and can be cleaned in a washer and dryer; they’re also wrinkle resistant, breathable, and biodegradable.
Don’t be discouraged from buying products made from bamboo fabrics; the process used to produce the textile fibres is not much different from those used to produce cotton, rayon, or other fibres. The problem here is the misconception that bamboo is an especially eco-friendly product when it’s really not much different from other fabrics as far as environmental impact. Between the chemical process, the long-distance transport, and the endangerment of species, it would seem that bamboo fabric isn’t as exceptionally green as it’s been made out to be—but it’s still a fantastic textile that is affordable, strong, and easy to care for.