Bamboo as Eco-clothing

two men hugging in bamboo forest - bamboo as eco-clothing

What images come to mind when you read the word “bamboo”? Images of Tiki cocktail glasses and contentedly grazing pandas? Or perhaps rickety garden trellises and Aunt Bernice’s Florida room furniture? There is much to be learned about this remarkably versatile plant, whose every part can be put to purpose by humankind. But let’s concern ourselves with the bamboo clothing industry for this read.

Fun Facts

Bamboo Botanicals shares this list of fast fun facts about this promising plant: 

  1. Some species of bamboo can grow over 3' in height in just 24 hours, an unmatched growth rate in the plant world. Full maturity is reached at between 1-5 years depending again on the species, making it “the only woody plant that can keep up with the rate of human consumption and deforestation.”

  2. Its versatility is rather astounding: its textile can be made into shoe insoles, bed sheets, linens, socks, T-shirts, underwear, etc. Its woody fibres are used to fashion everything from hardwood flooring to bike frames. 

  3. Even deodorant can be made from its charcoal form. Porous bamboo charcoal “can absorb large quantities of odor causing bacteria,” making it a natural deodorant and eco-friendly filter for removing chemicals from water. 

  4. With a tensile strength of 28,000 PSI (compared to steel’s mere 24,000 PSI), bamboo has been a global go-to building material for millennia. 

  5. You can even eat the stuff. Bamboo shoots offer much to the diner: they are low in calories and fat, high in fibre and potassium, and can be added to many dishes, especially Asian cuisine where they “have been a staple food source for thousands of years.” (Okay, but why are pandas so portly then?) 

Beneficial Crop 

Bamboo is a self-renewing plant that grows in a wide range of climate zones and types of soil. This means harvesting bamboo does not necessitate replanting for the next season. Thanks to bamboo’s rhizome root system, it retains its growing structure year after year, harvest after harvest, as new shoots sprout up, taking over from the old stalks. The leaves dropped by the plant feed the soil, so bamboo can be grown without artificial fertilizers.  

Bamboo Kun is a natural anti-bacterial bio-agent which eliminates and prevents over 70% of bacteria that attempt to grow on the plant. This makes bamboo pest resistant, so it can also be grown without pesticides.

This insidious root system also traps the soil, preventing erosion that would otherwise clog water arteries and choke out marine life.  

Fibre Features

woman sketching at sewing machine - bamboo as eco-clothing

Dr. Subrata Das of Fibre2Fashion extolls the virtues of bamboo fibre. He praises the fibre for its ability to “absorb and evaporate human sweat.” Active people value these qualities because it means the fabric does not stick to the body when wet, allowing greater ventilation during exercise. 

Bamboo is also known for the thermoregulation properties afforded by the fibre’s insulating characteristic: higher body temperatures can cool down when in hot environments; body heat is retained when it's cold outside. 

More good news: entomologist Michael F. Potter of the University of Kentucky reports that clothing moths do not like bamboo fabric. It really doesn’t have anything to do with bamboo kun, but rather the moths’ preference for animal fibres. This puts bamboo on equal footing with hemp and cotton in terms of wardrobe pest control. (Sorry reclaimed wool.) Just don’t put away clothing that is heavily soiled with fauna matter. (Eeeeewwww – like you would.) 

Drawbacks of Processing

Bamboo fibres are popularly turned into the semi-synthetic fabrics rayon or viscose. Rayon was first commercially produced in 1891, with “artificial silk,” or viscose, following closely on its heels just three years later. While the terms rayon and viscose are used interchangeably, they refer to differences in the processing methods used in each fabric’s production.  

Researchers Afrin, Tsuzuki and Wang report that to render bamboo fibres into a useable state for fabric manufacturing takes processing, and it is this treatment that begins to strip away bamboo’s natural and green virtues. Much of bamboo fibre’s natural characteristics, such as UV absorption and anti-bacterial properties, are removed by its processing. 

This can belie claims of eco-friendliness made by clothing manufacturers. Lopamudra Nayak explains:

“Products made from bamboo are often labeled as ‘eco-friendly’, ‘bio-degradable’ and ‘anti-microbial’ irrespective of their method of manufacturing. The claims may not always portray the products authenticity and true environmental impact. By far, viscose process is predominantly used to create fibers from bamboo but the properties of natural bamboo fibers in such bamboo viscose products have been lost.” 

Both rayon and viscose require a lot of energy and a number of chemical solvents to produce. Lyocell, a kind of rayon developed in the 1970s, requires less in the way of chemical processes, in addition to using less water in its manufacture.

From Underwear Out, It's Time to Shop

The growing sustainable movement in the bamboo-derived fabrics industry is undoubtedly driven by a growing consumer understanding of the negative environmental impact incurred with rayon/ viscose production. Now we see a marked uptick in the manufacture of more eco-friendly Lyocell fabrics and products. 

Bamboo is far more eco-friendly than cotton, even the organic variety, so do choose it every time and look for Lyocell in the fabric contents label to avoid undoing the positive environmental impact of your choice.

From bottom to top, from underwear out, you can swath your frame in a vast array of bamboo textiles: lingerie and intimate apparel, athletic wear, hosiery, casual jersey outfits, silky formal pieces, and even durable footwear. 

Check out this list from Ecotero to ensure you are buying from ethical, sustainable, and green producers. Household Wonders also offers these 25 bamboo clothing and product companies

To recap briefly, bamboo clothing does have a lot going for it. It is a planet-friendly choice. It is supremely pleasing to the touch and comfortable to wear. Its superior breathability will serve you well on the tennis court or at a cocktail party. 

Happy green shopping, Fashionistas, and don’t forget to read and interpret those labels. Hint: Lyocell is the way to go.

By Jane Thornton

Feature image: Marcelo Chagas; Image 1: Michael Burrows