Greenwashing is a term that’s been buzzing around the sustainability movement for a while now, but its use in the fashion world is relatively newer. The term refers to marketing around a product or idea that plays up its eco-friendly aspects, making it seem more appealing to an eco-conscious audience.
Bamboo has become a popular “green” material in home goods (flooring, tableware, etc.) because of it’s fast growth, low water needs, and biodegradability. It’s also being used in textiles for similar reasons plus a few others including antimicrobial properties, anti-static nature, and soft feel.
In recent years, the FTC has cracked down on several companies for “bamboozling” customers into believing the products they were buying were made of bamboo fiber, when they were actually made of rayon. Customers accused the companies of making “unsubstantiated ‘green’ claims that their clothing and textile products were manufactured using an environmentally friendly process, that they retained the natural antimicrobial properties of the bamboo plant, and that they were biodegradable.”
This sparked a discussion in the textiles community about the viability of bamboo as a sustainable fiber. Do bamboo’s positive benefits outweigh the negative side effects of processing?
Compared to other widely grown fibers like cotton, bamboo looks like an angel before harvesting. Inorganic cotton, the bulk of what’s grown for textile manufacturers, uses about 25 percent of the world’s insecticides — many of which are highly toxic — and uses loads of fertilizer, about one third of a pound to grow the cotton for a single t-shirt. In contrast, because bamboo is so hardy and plentiful, it does great things for our air quality, converting greenhouse gases into more breathable air. It also requires very little fertilizer or irrigation.
The negatives only appear when bamboo enters the processing plant. Hydrolysis alkalization, a chemical process that “cooks” the bamboo in a solvent of caustic soda or lye, is the most harmful processing method. Caustic soda, which in its crystalline form is a main ingredient in Drano, has been linked with human health problems.
A more expensive, but eco-friendly method, is a mechanical process similar to the one used to extract linen from hemp or flax. This process crushes the bamboo and uses its own natural enzymes to break down the plant’s walls for fiber removal. Another environmentally conscious option uses a “closed loop” system to keep chemicals used during processing from entering the environment, continuously reusing them.
Ultimately, like many other eco-friendly choices, bamboo has its pros and cons to weigh. So far, we know bamboo has many positive aspect when used in home goods like flooring, but may have a ways to go before becoming a mainstream option for textile manufacturers.