We get asked quite often why we don't sell bamboo fabric.
The truth is, we wanted to before we started this business. But as we dug a bit deeper, we realised that the claims, weren't really as they were made out to be.
In fact, most companies when we asked had no idea what was going on behind the scenes, what chemicals were being used, or that bamboo demand had grown so much that arable land or even pesticides could be being used.
We found that GOTS organic flax and GOTS organic hemp were the two most sustainable fabrics around. GOTS organic cotton came in next. On the other hand, we started to realise that the 'organic bamboo' claims were... well, a little misleading to say the least. This little summary explains it all:
Most of all, organic linen and hemp scored higher on sustainability, assessed across land use, energy use, water use, toxicity to humans, animals and ecosystems and emissions. So we decided to do that instead! Organic cotton also came in equal with bamboo lyocell (not conventional bamboo viscose or rayon, that really is toxic and not sustainable!), shown to use about the same amount of irrigated water, which studies show is about 90% less than conventional cotton.
However, GOTS nor any other organic or ethical certifier will certify bamboo throughout production. Which is where the alarm bells started to ring. Compare this to cotton, which is fully GOTS certified right from the farm to finish and we could get fully transparent, traceable supply chain that when visiting the workers, seeing the case studies and speaking to the University of New South Wales Centre for Social Impact, we found it was quite simply, changing lives, teaching sustainable farming, literacy, providing school scholarships and so much more. Plus, the look, feel, quality and durability (and that our customers go a little crazy for it!) meant we didn't need to consider anything that didn't meet our strict standards.
We also quickly realised that there was no transparency being provided, as all fabric is made by one company in China, without third-party ethical certification that we could find.
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 lots of other things going on.
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 whole planet. We don't want toxic chemicals getting into waterways, harming animals and whole communities. We just don't want the rivers running red or blue or the colours of this years' fashion.
Is bamboo fabric (rayon, viscose or lyocell) organic?
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 needed to turn had pulp into soft bamboo fabric.
Oeko-Tex 100 certifies lyocell 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, USDA/NOP certification, but please note that this relates only to crops, not the rest of the process from there.
The leading standard, the GOTS organic certification does not certify chemically produced fabrics made from bamboo due to the chemical processing.
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.
In fact they have even gone on apparently to sue a few businesses over claims.
So 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 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, 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 very rough hemp. I have never seen it in any end product. We are on the look out!
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 can't be certain 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 simply a '100% organic bamboo', 'bamboo linen', 'organic satin' or 'twill woven bamboo fabric'. Traditionally, lyocell used wood stock (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 are 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.
Many dyes might be labelled 'vegetable based' but in practice, true vegetable dyes will wash out quickly, so the reality is as it isn't certified organic, you have no certainty that the dye base isn't toxic too.
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)
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.
Now, another piece of wording you might 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 definitely want to avoid. This as a very separate definition to what you may normally expect organic to mean, it is based on the chemical definition.
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 like diversity and we don't mind bamboo crops, but for now, we are keeping it for use in hard goods, not sheets.
We much prefer organic linen for its sustainability and organic cotton that matches bamboo terms of sustainability and water use but doesn't have the chemical processing and lack of transparency or ethical issues that bamboo does.
Bamboo can be a sustainable crop. It may not 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.
Unfortunately, as the popularity of bamboo grows, even the credentials of its sustainability in farming are growing weak.
Fabrics like organic hemp and organic linen similarly have no need for toxic pesticides and are assessed to be more sustainable, across land use, water use, emissions and toxicity to animals, ecosystems and people. Fairtrade organic cotton doesn't use pesticides, has a similar level of use of irrigated water (up to 90% less than conventional cotton, studies have shown) but also teaches literacy, sustainable farming, helps stop food security issues and has full transparency to show just how much the farmers earn.
There definitely are benefits to bamboo: it diversifies crops across regions, is inherently a sustainable crop, grows quickly, has little emissions, can be FSC certified (do look for this!) 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. Organic doesn't mean the processing or dyes, finishing chemicals or any other stage of production was organic. It just means it was, at the farm. These misleading claims also aren't fair on the bamboo clothing and bedding companies who truly are being honest and transparent on the pros and cons of bamboo.
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.
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: https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2009/08/19/348/