Organic bamboo! The truth behind the scenes

October 02, 2016

Organic bamboo! The truth behind the scenes

We get asked quite often what the story is with bamboo fabric. Is it organic? Sustainable? Will we sell it?

In short, no certifying organic body certifies bamboo fabric throughout the process. We require organic, non-toxic processes from farm to finish for our bedding and this isn't possible with bamboo due to processes including nanoparticle technology, chemical processing, dyeing, toxic outputs, anti-pilling treatments and other.

Getting rid of toxic chemicals and being certified at every step is important to us for your health, the health of our workers and for the health of the ecosystem. Chemicals in one part of the world too quickly end up making impacts far away from where they started. And we don't want crap going into our waterways and foodchains or impacting generations after us.

So while we wanted to use bamboo crops for sustainability reasons - we decided not to when we found out what was going on behind the scenes and that organic cotton was assessed to be one of the most sustainable fabrics - second only second to organic hemp and organic linen. 

Bamboo is a wonderfully sustainable crop. It generally doesn't take up arable land, doesn't need many if any pesticides and it grows incredibly quickly. It also doesn't use much water and the research states that it is as similarly thirsty as organic cotton. And no. You certainly are not stealing a panda's food. 

However, when we started look a little deeper, issues and misleading claims started to emerge.

Here we've set out for you some of the pros and cons of bamboo. We looked into it in depth when we launched because we loved it for the sound of its eco credentials. However, we decided that despite its great benefits as a crop, it just didn't have the right for the level of transparency, sustainability and ethics we needed. It also wasn't the organic fabric that we wanted in our homes and for our children.

That doesn't mean that we don't support brands using bamboo for its sustainability, but we were a bit confused when we saw misleading claims around it being 'organic'.  I love the potential of more sustainable, eco developments in bamboo like Monocel (soon to be more widely on the market).

But please, do choose your bamboo carefully and look beyond the marketing words to ensure you aren't buying into a lot of chemicals unwittingly. In particular, that you aren't buying into claims that aren't backed up right from the farm. This also isn't fair on the bamboo companies who truly are being honest and transparent on the pros and cons - like so many fabrics - of bamboo.

The end product - our initial retail research into bamboo

The more we looked, the more we found other major sustainable brands, like Patagonia, or sustainable and ethical groups, weren't using bamboo fabric or classing as sustainable. Why not? Further, we couldn't find any organic certifying bodies that would certify fabrics made from bamboo across the entire process. Some would certify the bamboo crop only, but the big groups like Australian Certified Organic, the Soil Association or the Global Organic Textile Standard wouldn't touch it. (Unless it was the much more hemp-like mechanically processed bamboo. This is not what bed sheets are made from).

We also found that some of the countries we export to, like the US and EU, were cracking down extensively on claims of some bamboo fabric providers.

The US Federal Trade Commission writes "Bamboo-based Textiles, Actually Made of Rayon, Are Not Antimicrobial, Made in an Environmentally Friendly Manner, or Biodegradable" in their press release FTC Charges Companies with 'Bamboo-zling' Consumers with False Product Claims. Rayon encompasses lyocell and other viscose or rayon practices do date. In fact they have even gone on apparently to sue a few businesses over claims.

Which for us, meant that we wanted to find other fabrics. Particularly once we started to learn, that assessed across water use, land use, emissions and toxicity to humans, organic cotton was assessed as more sustainable than bamboo rayons or viscose and even non-organic hemp and linen. (No, organic cotton is not more sustainable than organic hemp or organic linen. Which, as an aside, is something we are working on behind the scenes...) 

How is bamboo fabric processed?

Bamboo is turned into a fabric through a viscose, rayon or the more sustainable lyocell method. This means that through a mixture of chemicals and water, the hard fibre of the bamboo plant is extensively broken down and then through a spaghetti-like machine (!) converted into a fabric. 

There is one group in China, Shanghai Tenbro, who hold the patents globally to bamboo fabric chemical production, so this will (as far as all my research indicates) be the source of your bamboo fabric, regardless of where the final garment is made. This also means that any information on the processing of the fabric, antimicrobial or other assessments, currently stems from here. In pulling this research together, I have relied on what third party scientific research I can also find, in particular in relation to Lyocell production.

Next, the rayon or viscose process turns hard bamboo fibre into a soft pulp that can then be dissolved into a polymer solution, extracted and finally 'spun' into threads. This process uses more than 10 toxic chemicals, vast amounts of energy and water. The waste from this process, and the chemicals along with it, can too often be released into waterways without treatment. 

This is further compounded by the use of toxic dyes, anti-pilling and finishing chemicals that are often used to give it a soft silky feel.

In fact, finishing treatments have been found to be one of the most polluting parts of the textiles production process. 

Are there better bamboo alternatives? 

However, there are two significantly better alternatives.

The first is a mechanically (not chemically) produced true bamboo linen. This is a natural fibre, much like hemp or flax linen. Unfortunately at this point most no-one has commercially been able to produce this true fabric to the softness required for bedding or most clothing. The resulting fabric is much like a rough hemp.

But we are very actively investigating this space. We do know that currently hemp linen performs similarly and is easier to produce. 

The second alternative, is rayon/viscose produced through lyocell methods made from bamboo. It isn't organic, but it is much less toxic than traditional methods. Do be careful however, as while the process to is less toxic - there are numerous other chemicals and dyes that often aren't mentioned and if you are looking for a low-tox fabric, then you need certainty that all dyes, finishing agents, anti-pilling and softening treatments are low-tox too.

This is often branded as Tencel or even can at times be misleadingly described as simple a '100% organic bamboo', 'bamboo linen', 'organic satin' or 'twill woven bamboo fabric'. Traditionally, lyocell used woodstock (including sustainably sourced Eucalyptus) as its source material, but has since moved on to also use bamboo. Unfortunately, past the way the crop is grown - it isn't organic by any certification standards. 

The major benefits of the lyocell method is that it claims to be stronger, uses less water, less energy and a less toxic solvent (N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide) of which the majority is held in a closed loop system, being repeatedly used. When it is disposed of, waste is required to be treated before being released.

So the lyocell process is a great one to sustainably extract pulp that can be made into woven sheets from hard bamboo.

The lyocell process however is just one part of the full process and it is important to ensure that dyes, anti-pilling and finishing chemicals, as well as by-products from the lyocell production are also non-toxic. Lyocell has been shown to have benefits (such as high tenacity or strength when wet) but also drawbacks, like a tendency toward pilling.

Formaldehyde is one chemical that has been used to address the pilling issue. Research shows that in practice, formaldehyde can be found in NMMO and cellulose solutions. (1)

Lyocell also starts to have transparency issues when you look a little deeper, primarily because one company still produces almost all lyocell made from bamboo fibre production. So transparency is limited to what this company allows. 

Monocel is very new to the market, so I am yet to see anyone using it, but I am excited to learn a bit more about as it seeks to go further, using more naturally sourced dyes and keeping track of the sustainable farming of bamboo crops. I am yet to see the full break down of all processes and chemicals used. But this would definitely be my preferred choice of the bamboo options or a sustainably sourced woodstock version of lyocell which may create less waste than that produced from bamboo.  

Is bamboo fabric (rayon, viscose or lyocell) organic?

We get asked by lots of you why we don't do '100% organic' bamboo. We have looked into it and continue to explore the fabric, but as it currently stands, despite some claims, the 'organic' component relates only to the way the crop is grown. No organic certifying body has certified the full production of any rayon, viscose or even lyocell fabrics. This relates to use of nanoparticles, dyes, anti-pilling or anti-crease treatments and the overall chemical process. 

Oeko-Tex 100 certifies Monocel fabrics, but this relates only to the residue left on the fabric for the end consumer and does not look at any chemicals used in growing, processing, dyeing or finishing. Some fabrics use the OICA certification, but please note that this relates only to crops. 

The GOTS organic certification does not currently certify chemically produced fabrics made from bamboo due to this and in all instances we have found where bamboo fabrics are labelled organic (in many countries this is not allowed), the term 'organic' refers to the growing of the initial crop, not the rest of the processing.

Now, another piece of wording I often see, is the use of the term "organic solvent" in the description of the bamboo lyocell process. Yes, NMMO is classified as an organic chemical or organic compound. As are petrochemicals or volatile organic compounds, which we so often seek to avoid. Please understand this as a very separate definition to what you may normally expect organic to mean, it is based on the chemical definition. 

Again, like any textile, we also need to consider the dyes used and other chemicals, not just the ones used in creating the actual fabric. 

What about charcoal bamboo?

I know. How good does it look! I love the look of this stuff and it is certainly fantastic that it does not use dyes to get such a stunning colour! Charcoal bamboo fabric is produced by a lyocell process but also includes nanotechnology and the insertion of charcoal nanoparticles into the pulp prior to spinning. Quoting here from Choice magazine in relation to skincare products using nanotechnology

"There are various health and environmental concerns around nanoparticles because they're able to penetrate cells in organisms, and there's still more to learn about their interactions with biological systems."

So for me, particularly when we produce products for babies, and let's be honest - for adults too! - that's not what I want right next to my skin every night!

What's the end verdict? How does it stack up?

We love bamboo crops, but for now, we are keeping it for use in hard goods, not sheets. 

If you are a supporter of bamboo or sustainably sourced wood, under lyocell processing (Tencel or Monocel) can be a more sustainable option than non-organic cotton. Diversity is also important when we assess sustainability so bamboo uses land that may not compete for other crops and provides a livelihood to a broader group of people. Which is a good thing!

My main concerns are over the lack of any certifying organic bodies being willing to back bamboo based fabrics and over the lack of transparency through to the farm level. We have asked suppliers if we can have transparency to the farm and in the factories creating the material while we look into bamboo fabrics, but have not been given that level of transparency yet, which is key to what we do.

If you want to buy bamboo products, we would suggest buying Monocel produced bamboo fabrics and ensure that all dyes and other chemicals used are as natural as possible. All waste is properly taken care of, particularly considering the research indicating presence of formaldehyde. Also ensure the ethics throughout the whole supply chain (bamboo to finished product) are transparent and ethical and that brands aren't making claims in terms of the fabric performance or organic qualities that aren't backed up and be aware of potential pilling issues. 

For us, until we find a mechanically, truly organic or organic chemically processed organic bamboo fabric that also passes the softness and durability test and allows us full transparency into the full production chain, at this stage, it just isn't quite for us. We'd love it to be too so we are carefully watching this space and we are definitely supporters of brands using bamboo in honest, sustainable, transparent ways.

(1) A. Potthast et al, "Confirmation of the Presence of Formaldehyde and N-(Methylene)morpholinium Cations as Reactive Species in the Cellulose/NMMO/Water System by Trapping Reactions", Department of Wood and Paper Science, North Carolina State University. 

(2) The site doesn't look flash, but these ladies know their stuff: