Bamboo clothing is business, but is it really sustainable?

Bamboo clothing is business, but is it really sustainable?

Bamigo, Bambooo, Nooboo, the number of companies that use bamboo as a raw material for clothing, is growing steadily. Fabric made of bamboo is according to these start-ups more hygienic and cooler than textile made of cotton. That bamboo is also produced in a more sustainable way is, according to them, an extra bonus. But how sustainable is bamboo really?

Bamboo is business. That proves the Eindhoven underwear producer Bamigo. Founder Jeroen Adriaans started four years ago in a back-up warehouse in Lieshout. Meanwhile, in his office along the Eindhoven ring, the logo is printed in large letters on the fa├žade and he has seven employees permanently employed.

Judging by the qualities that are attributed to bamboo clothing, success can be explained. The fabric absorbs up to 70 percent more sweat than other textile forms. Temperature regulating: extra cooling in summer and extra heating in summer. Softer than other fabrics. Finally, sustainability is an important plus that has a prominent place in the marketing of the products.

This claim is entirely justified with regard to the cultivation of the raw material. The bamboo plant grows very quickly, so the yield is much higher than with cotton. Moreover, no pesticides are needed to combat insects, viruses, weeds or fungi. The only thing bamboo plantations need is sunlight and water. After the harvest, the plant remains standing and the growth continues. As a result, forests do not have to be cut down to meet global demand, such as with cotton. The crop absorbs more carbon dioxide, which has a positive effect on the climate. The plants also produce 30 to 35 percent more oxygen than other trees.

It becomes more complicated when you look at the processing of bamboo into textiles. There are two ways for that. The mechanical way of processing is the most sustainable. The mechanical process involves shattering the woody part of the plant and then applying natural enzymes to break the cell walls of the bamboo, creating a mushy mass. The natural fibers can then be combed out mechanically and spun into yarn. The disadvantage is that this process is very labor-intensive, and therefore costly.

Most companies therefore focus on the chemical processing of bamboo into so-called bamboo viscosity. Through this process, the bamboo is cooked in strong chemical solvents such as sodium hydroxide. Once cooked, the resulting liquid is pushed through small holes in a chemical bath with sulfuric acid, where it cures to fine strands. After being washed and bleached, these strands form rayon yarns.

A way of processing that leaves something to be desired in terms of sustainability. Fortunately, important steps are being taken to make chemical processing more sustainable. For example, the process of distilling lyocell from wood fibers with adjustments could also be applied to bamboo. Great advantage: the chemicals for this process are much less toxic. The lyocell process is also used for the manufacture of Tencel, a tissue that is used by Patagonia, among others.

Another way of increasing sustainability is to use a closed loop system, where 99.5 percent of the chemicals are collected and recycled for reuse.

We come back to the initial question: is bamboo as a raw material for textiles sustainable? Compared to other textile sorts like cotton, the answer is full: yes. Especially when you compare the cultivation of the raw materials. In absolute terms, there is still something to be gained for bamboo in the field of sustainability. What is promising is that there are countless opportunities to make the processing of bamboo even more sustainable.

Read the original article (in Dutch)