• Bamboozled… Are Bamboo Sheets & Socks Eco Friendly?

    April 4, 2017 • GUIDES, LIFE, STORIES

    Whether bamboo sheets, bamboo socks or any bamboo fabrics are environmentally friendly is a dilemma for those taking a sustainable path through life.  Bamboo is the green-wonder resource that grows rapidly without chemicals, fuelling its huge popularity for all forms of consumer goods.  But, there appears to have been little challenging of these eco credentials.

    Don’t you wonder how a material that on one hand is used for building scaffolding due to a tensile strength greater than steel is also touted as soft, silky fabric for underwear?  And where is all the land coming from that this bamboo is being grown upon?  We will only find the most sustainable solutions for our society with 100% truth and transparency.

    Bamboozled... Are Bamboo Sheets & Socks Eco Friendly? - Biome Eco Stores

    Is Bamboo Fabric Eco Friendly?

    It’s very easy to draw the conclusion when you see “bamboo” on a label that the product is eco-friendly, but, as with as with any fabric, we need to consider all steps in the process chain because the final item is a long way from the plant that was grown in the field.  Fabrics marketed as bamboo, are in fact rayon, a synthetic textile made from regenerated plant cellulose.  This is the process of making the fabric:

    Bamboo plant > Rayon filaments created from bamboo cellulose with a chemical process > Filaments spun into yarn*  > Yarn woven into fabric > Fabric dyed > Fabric coated in wrinkle-free, fire-retardant finishes etc > Fabric sewn into clothing > Clothing shipped to stores

    *With fabrics made from natural fibres such as linen, cotton or wool, the unadulterated fibres are spun into yarn. But, with bamboo there is an extra step at the start because bamboo does not have usable natural fibres.

    To honestly call it “bamboo fabric”, it must be made from bamboo fibre, just as cotton products are made from cotton fibre.  Whereas the fibres that end up as “bamboo sheet fabric” are human-made filaments. The process of turning hard bamboo into a soft fabric generally requires extensive processing with hazardous chemicals, including sulfuric acid, potentially endangering factory workers and polluting the environment.

    It is also important to know that after all the extensive processing with chemicals, there is no scientific evidence that the synthetic rayon retains the claimed natural properties of bamboo, such as antibacterial, antimicrobial, or antifungal.

    For Biome, we have assessed the “bamboo fabric” currently available and we have decided to not stock any fabric ranges marketed as bamboo, because we find it misleading to label these fabrics as bamboo.  In the following article we explain why this is.

    What are the alternatives and what can you do?

    So if “bamboo fabric” is not eco-friendly, what is the solution?

    • Check for the permanent label on the textile item that is required by law to give a ‘trade description’, and here you will find that the textile is in fact a blend with a percentage of rayon, viscose or lyocell, along with nylon, elastane or cotton.
    • We recommend hemp or flax/linen, which are natural fibres also grown without chemicals and minimal water, or Certified Organic Cotton (organic cotton uses less water than conventional cotton, but still can use a lot – ideally it would be cotton grown in monsoonal areas, but this is almost impossible to know).
    • Should you wish to purchase “bamboo”, choose rayon from factories with ‘closed-loop’ processing and independent verification of this.  Regenerated fibres such as rayon do not qualify for organic certification.
    • If OEKO-TEX certification is mentioned, you need to know whether that is of the raw material, the yarn, the fabric, or the final product.  Oeko-Tex 100 is not an organic standard, and does not mean that no chemicals were used in the processing of the fabric.  It primarily covers the dyes and is a test of whether any harmful chemicals were detected in the final product.

    What is “Bamboo Fabric”?

    We believe it is misleading to label these fabrics as “bamboo fabric” and large US companies such as Norstrom and J.C. Penny have paid large fines for doing so.  The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ruled in 2010, it can not be called “bamboo sheets” or “bamboo socks”, because it is actually a synthetic fabric made from rayon fibres that were manufactured using cellulose found in bamboo, just as Tencel and Modal are made using cellulose from wood (lyocell and viscose are types of rayon).  Australia’s Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has not caught up to this issue as yet, so you will find many products being marketed as bamboo sheets, bamboo socks, or underwear.

    To be 100% honest and transparent with consumers these products need to be called “Viscose sheets” or “made from rayon/viscose/lyocell that was created using bamboo cellulose”.

    We don’t see rayons made from other cellulose fibres being marketed in the way that bamboo is sold to us.  For example, would you feel comfortable buying:
    “Organic Eucalyptus Sheet Set” or “Wood Pulp Socks”

    To honestly call it “bamboo fabric”, it must be made from bamboo fibre, just as cotton products are made from cotton fibre.  Whereas the fibres that end up as “bamboo sheet fabric” are human-made filaments. The process of turning hard bamboo into a soft fabric generally requires extensive processing with hazardous chemicals, including sulfuric acid, potentially endangering factory workers and polluting the environment.  The US FTC states “the soft textiles you see labeled ‘bamboo’ don’t contain any part of the bamboo plant. They are made from bamboo that has been processed into rayon using toxic chemicals.  When bamboo is processed into rayon, no trace of the original plant is left.”

    The FTC further stated:

    When companies sell products woven from man-made fibers, such as rayon, it is important that they accurately label and advertise those products – both with respect to the fibers they use and to the qualities those fibers possess. Rayon is a man-made fiber created from the cellulose found in plants and trees and processed with a harsh chemical that releases hazardous air pollutants. Any plant or tree could be used as the cellulose source – including bamboo – but the fiber that is created is rayon.

    What can you do? Check for the permanent label on the textile item that is required by law to give a “trade description”, which is the name of the country where it was made and a true description of what the goods are made from.  Here you will often find that the textile is in fact a blend with a percentage of rayon, viscose or lyocell, along with nylon, elastane or cotton.

    Is Bamboo a Sustainable Crop?

    The growth in popularity of bamboo is placing huge demands on its cultivation.  Growth accelerators are sometimes being used, and vast areas of land in China are being cleared to cultivate bamboo.  As happened with palm oil, without proper regulation the pursuit of profit takes over and sustainable production often goes out the window.

    In this article from TheGuardian.com “Pandering to the Green Consumer” back in 2008 the issues were identified, and yet nine years later there is still very little known about what is going on in China.

    China is still the only country that grows bamboo on a commercial scale, and as it becomes an increasingly lucrative cash crop, farmers are starting to grow it as a mono-crop. That in itself reduces biodiversity and can lead to an increase in pests. This in turn means pesticide use becomes necessary.

    There’s also some evidence that farmers are using chemical fertilisers to increase their yields. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t: there are no set standards or environmental guidelines in China for the growing of bamboo and clearly their concern is to get as large a crop as possible for their money. Unfortunately, though, this has an environmental cost.

    Farmers are also now beginning to clear natural forestland in order to grow more bamboo. It seems rather ironic that much of the blame for endangering the giant pandas of China can be traced to farmers and landowners clearing bamboo forest for farmland – now they’re clearing it to grow back some bamboo. Too late, alas, for many pandas.

    What can you do? Look for FSC-certified bamboo from well-managed forests, or bamboo certified by international Organic Certification bodies.  We recommend hemp and flax/linen, which are natural fibres also grown without chemicals and minimal water, or Certified Organic Cotton (organic cotton uses less water than conventional cotton, but still can use a lot – ideally it would be cotton grown in monsoonal areas, but this is almost impossible to know).

    Is the Process of Manufacturing Rayon from Bamboo Eco Friendly?

    The raw bamboo may have been grown sustainably, but that is a long way from the final product.   It is difficult to know what is going on with the manufacturing as most is done in China and we have personally experienced Chinese companies providing false certificates to any specifications the buyer would like.

    Processing of bamboo pulp into rayon is similar to any rayon/viscose textile. It requires bleaching, soaking in sodium hydroxide, treating with carbon disulfide and spinning in a solution of sulphuric acid, sodium sulphate, and zinc sulphate.  (See more detail on the process at the end of this post).  The Epoch Times reports:

    The most common solvent used in viscose rayon production is carbon disulfide, which is highly toxic [and a reproductive hazard] and a dispersant (50 percent of the substance is released into the air when used in production). A newer form of rayon, Lyocell, dissolves plant fibers with the somewhat less toxic amine oxide. However, Lyocell depends on nanotechnology for fiber shaping, which is a technique not fully understood for its impact on human health, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

    Lyocell is a type of rayon that can be made using a less toxic solvent and less polluting process, often called “closed loop”.  It can however require stronger chemical dyes and finishing treatments, such as nanotechnology, to deal with its propensity to pill.  As with all fabrics, it depends on the integrity of the manufacturing.  Tencel is one brand name for a lyocell fabric made from eucalyptus trees by Austrian textile company Lenzing.

    We believe it is a stretch to state that because the raw bamboo was grown organically, the final fabric retains the benefits of organic cultivation by calling it “Organic Bamboo Clothes”.  I personally interpret this statement to mean that the clothes are made from organic fabric.

    What can you do?  Choose rayon from factories with ‘closed-loop’ processing and independent verification of this.  Regenerated fibres such as rayon do not qualify for organic certification.  Global Organic Textile Standard is the leading international organic certification and the database is available to search.  Currently there are some certified organic fabrics with small amounts of bamboo blended with organic cotton or wool, and none are made in China.  Lenzing’s Tencel lyocell has a European Eco-Label that reviews the entire process chain through growing, harvesting, manufacturing and treatment.

    If OEKO-TEX certification is mentioned, you need to know whether that is of the raw material, the yarn, the fabric, or the final product.  Oeko-Tex 100 is not an organic standard, and does not mean that no chemicals were used in the processing of the fabric.  It primarily covers the dyes and is a test of whether any harmful chemicals were detected in the final product.

    Properties of Bamboo

    After all the extensive processing with chemicals, we have not seen scientific evidence that the synthetic rayon retains the natural properties of bamboo, such as antibacterial, antimicrobial, or antifungal.

    Certainly, the fabric may have those qualities, but we believe it is misleading to infer that the fabric has those qualities simply because they are the qualities found in the original plant in nature.

    If this was a food, a supplement or medicine, or an insect repellent, Australian regulatory bodies would require all such claims to be supported by scientific evidence.

    In 2015, the US Federal Trade Commission announced court orders barring four national retailers from mislabeling and advertising rayon textiles as made of “bamboo,” (which they had continued to do despite receiving warning letters in 2010).  The FTC also ruled J.C. Penney and Backcountry falsely claimed “bamboo” gave the products antimicrobial properties.  You can read the FTC report here >

    By the way, there is some bamboo fibre that comes directly from bamboo stalks, but it is stiff and rough, more like a coarse linen, and would make for very scratchy underwear!

    Is Bamboo More Eco Friendly Than Other Fibres?

    Your decision depends on your values, priorities and the qualities that you desire from the item.

    Be aware that organic does not necessarily mean eco friendly or sustainable, just as eco friendly does not necessarily mean healthy or suitable for people sensitive to chemicals. 

    Sustainability takes into consideration all factors such as water consumption, chemicals used to dye and treat the fabric, and transportation.  So even if a product is marketed as “organic bamboo” or “organic cotton” it may only mean that the original plant was grown without synthetic chemicals.  To make a fully informed decision, we need to know about all the steps in the process chain and look for independent verification of any claims.


    Further Reading

    How is rayon fabric made from bamboo?

    Rayon is a regenerated cellulose fibre that sits somewhere between a natural fibre and a synthetic fibre made from petrochemicals.  Whereas cotton, hemp, and wool fibres are taken directly from nature and spun into yarn, the regenerated cellulose fibres get turned into a synthetic product from which the yarn is made.

    Cellulose is the basic raw material required for making rayon and it can be extracted from wood pulp, cotton linters, or bamboo.  The resulting sheets of white, purified cellulose are treated to form regenerated cellulose filaments. These filaments are spun into yarns and subsequently made into fabric.  This information is taken from http://www.madehow.com/Volume-1/Rayon.html

    Processing purified cellulose: sheets of purified cellulose are steeped in sodium hydroxide (caustic soda), which produces sheets of alkali cellulose. These sheets are dried, shredded into crumbs, and then aged in metal containers for 2 to 3 days.  After ageing, the crumbs are combined and churned with liquid carbon disulfide, which turns the mix into orange-colored crumbs known as sodium cellulose xanthate. The cellulose xanthate is bathed in caustic soda, resulting in a viscose solution that looks and feels much like honey. Any dyes or delusterants in the design are then added. The syrupy solution is filtered for impurities and stored in vats to age, this time between 4 and 5 days.

    Producing filaments:  The viscose solution is turned into strings of fibers. This is done by forcing the liquid through a spinneret, which works like a shower-head, into an acid bath. If staple fiber is to be produced, a large spinneret with large holes is used. If filament fiber is being produced, then a spinneret with smaller holes is used. In the acid bath, the acid coagulates and solidifies the filaments, now known as regenerated cellulose filaments.

    Spinning: After being bathed in acid, the filaments are spun into yarn. Depending on the type of yarn desired, several spinning methods can be used. The yarn is washed, bleached, rinsed, dried, and wound on cones or spools.

    Weaving: Once the fibers are sufficiently cured, they are ready for post-treatment chemicals and the various weaving processes necessary to produce the fabric. The resulting fabric can then be given any of a number of finishing treatment e.g. calendaring, to control smoothness; fire resistance; pre-shrinking; water resistance; and wrinkle resistance.

    Image: Bamboo rafting on the Yulong River, Yangshuo, China

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    13 Responses to Bamboozled… Are Bamboo Sheets & Socks Eco Friendly?
    1. Louise Craig
      April 10, 2017 at 2:39 pm

      Does this also apply to toilet paper made from bamboo/rice pulp?

      • Biome team
        April 11, 2017 at 1:08 pm

        Hi Louise, we’re not certain of the exact process to make toilet paper from bamboo, however the same principles apply in terms of checking all the steps, i.e. whether the bamboo is grown sustainably, what chemicals have been used to turn the pulp into paper, and how the manufacturing waste is dealt with.

    2. R.Barns
      May 9, 2017 at 10:08 am

      So what can we do? I am a textile engineer that specialises in safe non leaching antimicrobial treatments for the health care industry. Our aim is reduction of hospital aquired infections and we constantly battle against the types of false claims made by companies trying to sell these types of nonsense products.
      Even worse are the companies using chemistries that lead to cell mutation (creating super bugs) so that they can sell more anti-odour socks!

    3. Susan Howe
      March 7, 2018 at 2:42 pm

      What about the proliferation of “bamboo” yarn for knitting now on the market – is this also “rayon”?

      • Barbara
        April 4, 2018 at 5:43 pm

        Yes it is Susan. Just rayon with a sexier name. Nothing wrong with rayon, but it is neither organic nor sustainable.

    4. Silasozzie
      April 21, 2018 at 2:43 am

      Yes. Heard that about three years ago. Not as great as we thought

    5. Rhonda
      April 25, 2018 at 12:27 am

      While I agree that much of what is commercially available as “bamboo fabric” is made in this way, not all of it is. I know that in Vietnam locals hand spin fibres ( they strip the long fibres from young thin bamboo stems then twist them together to form long threads) weave these untreated fibres into cloth which they then dye using natural indigo.

      • Biome team
        August 10, 2018 at 5:31 pm

        Hi Rhonda. Yes you are referring to true bamboo fabric, because it is spun from the actual bamboo fibre, not a synthetically made rayon fibre.

    6. Amelia
      June 2, 2018 at 9:10 pm

      I am allergic to all synthetic fabrics and have never been able to tolerate bamboo as it is simply a type of rayon. This is a great article that explains clearly what I have been telling people for the last 10 years. Very alarming to think of baby clothes being promoted as eco friendly, safe and natural

    7. Debbie
      June 18, 2018 at 10:56 am

      What about PureZone bamboo tea towels claims to not use chemicals in production of fibres

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    10. Rasili
      November 18, 2018 at 6:21 pm

      THANK you for this article. Very useful.
      (And lovely to hear, in the comments section, about the way it is done traditionally in Vietnam.)

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