In this short guide, we look at how sustainable and eco friendly Bamboo really is according to different measures.
Summary – How Sustainable & Eco Friendly Is Bamboo For Clothing, Fabric & Textiles?
Overall, bamboo seems to have a very sustainable and eco friendly growing process.
It rates somewhere similar to organic cotton in that regard, but probably better than regular cotton – because bamboo generally needs no pesticides, little irrigated water, and it grows very fast.
It probably has similar carbon sequestration properties to cotton, and some sources indicate bamboo is even better than a stand of trees in terms of carbon sequestration and producing oxygen.
Moso bamboo is a species of bamboo that is identified by some as having good carbon absorption/storage abilities.
Bamboo may also lead to better soil health and less soil degradation than cotton because of bamboo’s root system (the way it creates a watershed and holds soil together), and the fact that bamboo usually doesn’t have to be dug up and replanted like cotton.
Whilst bamboo does have it’s own natural anti bacterial agent, called bamboo kun, that fights pest and fungi infestation, it still does use herbicide and fertilizer applications in some places, and pathogen problems can still exist in some places (fertilizer applications can be organic though).
There’s several different ways to process bamboo – each of which might be more sustainable or eco friendly than the other in different ways
Bamboo fibres used in textiles can be made of bamboo rayon which heavily uses chemicals in the processing stage – this usually isn’t the most eco friendly option
More eco friendly ways to process bamboo fibres might be either mechanical processing, or chemical processing using a closed loop system that captures chemicals and dyes
Using lyocell with bamboo can also be a more eco friendly option
The chemical processing stage is where bamboo (particularly bamboo rayon) might not be as sustainable or eco friendly as it could be.
Heavy chemicals can be used in this process, and can be discharged into the environment via wastewater (these chemicals are required to produce bamboo rayon viscose).
Some companies or manufacturers that use bamboo cellulose do use closed loop processing – where they capture the chemicals used (although, a certain % of chemicals may not be able to be recaptured or re-used).
They may also treat their wastewater, and minimise chemical disposal into the environment – but there is no official certification on organic bamboo yet for example.
You also have to consider that bamboo transported to Western countries from China has a transport footprint to consider.
Elkie Ark has a good article about transparency in what ‘organic bamboo’ might actually involve
Some sources indicate that for overall sustainability, it might be worth looking at GOTS certified cotton, recycled cotton, 100% natural linen, and companies that are very transparent with their supply and production processes, or have a range of recognized sustainability certifications across various stages of their supply/production process (growing, production, dying, bleaching, finishing, weaving, and so on), with TENCEL’s lyocell and modal fibres being one potential example of this.
But, there’s also the consumer usage, maintenance and waste/recycling stages to consider as well.
Some bamboos and hemps could be reasonably sustainable when sustainably/responsibly grown, and combining that with closed loop processes, naturally derived production chemicals, and similarly more natural/organic and eco friendly post-growing processes and chemicals used.
Regarding bamboo and certification:
It is important that bamboo come from FSC (the Forest Stewardship Council) certified stands
Some [you have to check this on a case by case basis] … bamboo viscose fiber … is produced in a process that has no water pollution or solid waste disposal problems, and that has only minimal air pollution
Where the bamboo comes from can play a part in it’s overall sustainability, and it’s possible individual bamboo products need their own individual sustainability assessment:
Some argue that the environmental costs of production – and the fact that bamboo resources are located far from western consumer markets – outweigh the plant’s green benefits.
But, all bamboo products need their own lifecycle assessment to determine overall if they are eco friendly or not (the different variables of growing and production, and transport, delivering to the consumer etc. need to be taken into account)
The above summary and the information found in this guide is a generalisation only.
* Note that bamboo growing/farming, and processing may differ by country, especially between the first world and developing world countries.
* Different conditions, climates, soils, farming technology, farming methods and other factors can impact how well Bamboo grows, and different factories and processing plants have different procedures.
These factors and others can impact the final sustainability and eco friendliness of any particular product.
There’s also the social impact, economics and practicality to consider.
Just because something is eco friendly and sustainable to produce – it doesn’t mean that it is good for employment, profitable or even practical to produce (for businesses and workers) or use (for consumers).
So, there can be a weighing up of product priorities, preferences (for buyers, sellers, and society) and conflicts of interest to consider (political and corporate agendas can sometimes play a part too for example).
What Is The Bamboo Plant?
Bamboo is an evergreen perennial flowering plant in the subfamily of the grass family (wikipedia.org)
Having said that, there are different species of the bamboo plant to consider as well.
In general, bamboo has a reputation as a fast growing grass.
Bamboos include some of the fastest-growing plants in the world, due to a unique rhizome-dependent system.
Certain species of bamboo can grow 91 cm (36 in) within a 24-hour period, at a rate of almost 4 cm (1.6 in) an hour (a growth around 1 mm every 90 seconds, or 1 inch every 40 minutes).
Production Of Bamboo
We do not have specific numbers on the production totals or shares of bamboo at this time.
But, you can read more about the production share of natural fibres compared to synthetic fibres in this guide.
Countries That Grow Bamboo
Bamboo as a crop or a plant is well established in some countries, and to a lesser extent in others.
There’s three main bamboo growing areas in the world, with the Asian area being the most prominent in terms of total growing area.
The Southeast Asia monsoon zone is home to 90% of total bamboo forest area (countries like China, India and Japan are some of the best for bamboo production)
The main bamboo producing countries are China, India, Japan, Myanmar, Thailand, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines.
Southeast Asia monsoon zone (southeastern China, southwestern China, Indochina and the Indian subcontinent) is the world’s bamboo distribution center, the region has concentrated 80 percent of the world’s bamboo species, 90% of the total bamboo forest area.
China, India and Japan are the best countries for bamboo production and bamboo resource development.
The world’s bamboo forest area is about 22 million hm2.
The geographical distribution of the world’s bamboo can be divided into 3 main areas – namely the Asia bamboo region, the Americas and Africa bamboo zone area.
The main bamboo producing countries are China, India, Myanmar, Thailand, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka.
How Is Bamboo Grown & Harvested?
You can read more about how bamboo flowers and is grown at madehow.com
But, some farms and countries may harvest Bamboo in a slightly different way depending on technology, growing conditions, farming methods and so on.
How Is Bamboo Processed?
You can read more about how bamboo is processed at madehow.com
Depending on the product being made and processing facility, bamboo may be processed differently in different supply chains
What Is Bamboo Used For – Products
Bamboo can be used in thousands of products across a range of industries
Both the bamboo shoots and the cane can be used from the plant, as well as the leaves in some applications too
Bamboo is commonly used for building materials, as a food source, and as a versatile raw product.
Bamboo has a higher specific compressive strength than wood, brick or concrete, and a specific tensile strength that rivals steel.
Bamboo can be used in 1000’s of products, including but not limited to clothing/textiles, tissue/paper, furniture, cars, floorboards, energy, food and beverage and more.
Bamboo shoots that grow off the side of the stem can be picked for food, and the bamboo cane is usually cut out after 3 to 5 years and used for things like building materials, or further broken down for use of the fibres inside for example.
Bamboo Used In Textiles – Growing, Processing, & Traits
There’s several ways bamboo fibres can be processed:
Chemical processing with a closed loop system that captures chemicals, dyes, and so on
bambootextiles.com.au provides a good summary of the chemical bamboo fibre production and processing process:
Bamboo textile fibre is made from bamboo timber which has matured in the forest for at least 4 years.
When harvested [at maturity] they are taken to mills where they are crushed and submersed in a strong solution of sodium hydroxide which dissolves the bamboo cellulose.
With the addition of carbon disulfide it renders the mix ready to regenerate fibres which are then drawn off, washed and bleached to a bright white colour and dried.
The resultant fluff is very long in staple and visibly finer than other fibres.
Then they are spun into yarn, like any other textile fibre.
The two main chemicals used in the process are sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide … With adequate ventilation [carbon disulfide] is not a problem these days and it breaks down when in contact with the natural elements.
Neither carbon nor sulfur are poisonous elements.
Sodium hydroxide is also known as caustic soda, and it is true that it is strongly alkaline and will react with many substances.
However, it is not toxic at all …
Since the fibers of bamboo are very short (less than 3 mm (0.12 in)), they are not usually transformed into yarn by a natural process.
The usual process by which textiles labeled as being made of bamboo are produced uses only rayon made from the fibers with heavy employment of chemicals.
To accomplish this, the fibers are broken down with chemicals and extruded through mechanical spinnerets; the chemicals include lye, carbon disulfide, and strong acids.
Retailers have sold both end products as “bamboo fabric” to cash in on bamboo’s current eco friendly cachet; however, the Canadian Competition Bureau and the US Federal Trade Commission, as of mid-2009, are cracking down on the practice of labeling bamboo rayon as natural bamboo fabric.
Under the guidelines of both agencies, these products must be labeled as rayon with the optional qualifier “from bamboo”.
Despite companies using chemicals to break down bamboo fibre at the processing stage, some companies are able to do this in a more eco friendly way.
Bamboo can use closed loop processes that capture chemicals and dyes – but make sure that bamboo is certified to guarantee the process used
– fashion-incubator.com, and 1millionwomen.com.au
Lyocell with bamboo can be better environmentally as well
How Much Water Is Used To Grow & Manufacture/Process Bamboo?
Bamboo generally requires a lot less water than regular cotton, but probably about the same or slightly more water than organic cotton.
Bamboo requires 1/3 the amount of water to grow that cotton uses
Very little bamboo is irrigated and there is sound evidence that the water-use efficiency of bamboo is twice that of trees.
This makes bamboo more able to handle harsh weather conditions such as drought, flood and high temperatures.
Compare bamboo to cotton which is a thirsty crop – it can take up to 20,000 litres of water to produce 1 kg of cotton and 73% of the global cotton harvest comes from irrigated land.
… organic cotton … [is] a thirsty plant with around 256.6 gallons of water required to grow enough to make a single t-shirt.
Bamboo is a similarly thirsty but is faster growing and hardy, so doesn’t really benefit from additional fertilisers.
[bamboo needs] Ideally, about an inch [of water] a week … (in 1-3 applications per week).
In many climates, after the bamboo has been in the ground for 3-5 years, water is no longer necessary for survival.
Keep in mind, bamboo that doesn’t get a regular watering during the summer won’t look as good as bamboo that does.
Carbon Footprint Of Bamboo, & How Much Energy Bamboo Uses
Bamboo crops take in almost five times the amount of greenhouse gases and produce 35% more oxygen than an equivalent stand of trees
China has a native giant species of bamboo called Moso bamboo.
One hectare (an area roughly the size of an athletics track) of this species can store up to 250 tons of carbon (Qi, 2009).
… this translates into the amount of carbon that was produced in 2009 by around 160 people in China (or, equivalently, 50 people in the U.S.A.).
Each year, a hectare of Moso bamboo absorbs 5.1 tons of carbon, which can compensate for the CO2 emissions of three people in China (or one person in the U.S.A.).
Bamboo is a natural fibre, and so according to Oecotextiles, has a lower carbon footprint than synthetic fibres:
At the fiber level it is clear that synthetics have a much bigger footprint than does any natural fiber, including wool or conventionally produced cotton.
So in terms of the carbon footprint at the fiber level, any natural fiber beats any synthetic – at this point in time.
Best of all is an organic natural fiber.
Bamboo can be carbon neutral, but each product depends on factors like where the bamboo is grown, how it’s processed, transportation etc.
How Much Pesticide Does Bamboo Need To Grow
Bamboo might not need as much pesticide or fertilizer as other plants.
A huge benefit of using bamboo as the organic base for textile fibres is that there is no need for pesticides or fertilizers when growing bamboo.
However, herbicide and fertilizer applications are common in some places to encourage edible shoot growth.
Bamboo also contains a substance called bamboo-kun – an antimicrobial agent that gives the plant a natural resistance to pest and fungi infestation, though some pathogen problems do still exist in some bamboo plantations.
By contrast, only 2.4% of the world’s arable land is planted with cotton, yet cotton accounts for 24% of the world’s insecticide market and 11% of the sale of global pesticides.
How Much Fertilizer Does Bamboo Need To Grow
Fertilizing [bamboo] isn’t usually necessary if the bamboo is in the ground, but often will promote larger growth with greener foliage.
Bamboo is dormant in the winter, so the best time to fertilize is in the spring and summer.
For bamboo in the ground, organic fertilizer, such as mushroom compost, aged horse manure, fish meal, feather meal, or blood meal are all good options.
Bamboo, & Land Degradation & Soil Health
The root system of bamboo might help preserve soil health.
Yearly replanting of crops such as cotton leads to soil erosion.
The extensive root system of bamboo and the fact that it is not uprooted during harvesting means bamboo actually helps preserve soil and prevent soil erosion.
The bamboo plant’s root system creates an effective watershed, stitching the soil together along fragile river banks, deforested areas and in places prone to mudslides.
It also greatly reduces rain run-off.
Conventional cotton-growing also causes a severe reduction in soil quality through the impact of constant use of pesticides on soil organisms.
Because of the bamboos fast growth and dense foliage, it will quickly deposit a thick layer of leaf litter covering the ground, which will then start restoring degraded soils and re-establishing a cooler micro-climate.
A bamboos root system grows into a dense ‘mat’ of fine roots which is shallow but wide spread.
This means that its ability to hold soil together is excellent, even in areas where erosion caused by flowing water is a problem.
It will hold soil together along fragile river banks, deforested areas, dam walls and spillways.
The Yield Of Bamboo
Yield is an important measure of efficiency – which is important to measure if you want to be sustainable with resources, inputs and the whole growing and production process.
Bamboo takes around 4 years to mature … in rain-fed systems, bamboo can yield from 5 to 40 tonnes per hectare per year.
In irrigated plantations, this yield can increase to 100 tonnes.
Bamboo’s extraordinary growth rate makes it a cheap, sustainable and efficient crop.
Bamboo grows very densely, and its clumping nature enables a lot of it to be grown in a comparatively small area, easing pressure on land use.
With average yields for bamboo of up to 60 tonnes per hectare greatly exceeding the average yield of 20 tonnes for most trees and the average yield of 2 tonnes per hectare for cotton, bamboo’s high yield per hectare becomes very significant.
How Many Chemicals Does Bamboo Use In The Processing Stage?
This is perhaps the part where bamboo can fail as an eco friendly option (unless you are talking about certified organic bamboo).
Bamboo can take a lot of chemicals to produce the bamboo rayon viscose from the raw bamboo material (assuming the manual method of fibre extraction is not used – which it usually isn’t because it’s more time consuming and expensive).
According to GoodOnYou.eco:
Bamboo rayon is most commonly made through what is known as the viscose process, which involves dissolving cellulose material (such as wood chips or bamboo) in a chemical solution to produce a pulpy viscous substance.
This is then pushed through a spinneret, and “spun” into the fibres that can then be made into threads and fabrics.
The chemicals used in this process are highly toxic and a risk to human health.
About 50% of hazardous waste from rayon production (including the bamboo variety) cannot be recaptured and reused and goes directly into the environment.
You can read more about the chemicals and processing stage for bamboo in this goodonyou.eco resource, or this Oecotextiles resource
Pollution Of Land, Water, & Soil/Land By Bamboo
There isn’t as much pollution at the cultivation/growing stage, but definitely at the processing stage there is if it uses chemicals.
Polluted water can be discharged from processing plants and get into streams and rivers, and leach into the soil and groundwater tables.
Impact Of Growing Bamboo On Humans and Human Health
Same as above – not as much risk of pesticides causing risk to human health at the growing stage.
But, if chemicals are used in the processing stage, then factory workers may be at risk, and obviously bamboo fabric will have chemicals and possibly dyes on it.
Those with allergies may be at risk.
Impact Of Growing Bamboo On Animals & Wildlife
Depends if the processing stage is closed loop or not.
Chemicals discharged in water sources can be harmful to amphibians and water organisms.
Pandas and other animals who live amongst bamboo or depend on it for a food source may also be affected.
Economic Impact Of Bamboo
Economic Value Of The Bamboo Industry
Bamboo has a global economy valued at 60 billion a year in 2016
Global market for bamboo is expected to be valued at US $3.6 Bn by the end of 2017
APAC [Asia Pacific] is expected to account for more than 2/3rd share of the global bamboos market by the end of 2017.
APAC is projected to create a total incremental $ opportunity of close to US$ 5000 Mn between 2017 and 2027 and is projected to be the most attractive region in the global bamboos market over the forecast period.
General Economic Impact Of Plant Based Fibres
Plant and crop based fibres may be the only type of fibre that can be produced in some regions of the world, and might offer other benefits too, such as being able to be grown alongside or in rotation with another plant, crop, or other agricultural product.
Practical Benefits Of Bamboo Fibres & Staples
Bamboo fibre and staple fibre traits can lead to it having different softness, durability, absorbency and other features compared to other fibres when used in textile products, or as a general fibre
The longer staple and higher tensile strength [of bamboo] is what makes a tough, soft yarn – which is not as susceptible to wearing and fraying as many other yarns.
This is what gives bamboo fabrics excellent durability.
The hollowness of the fibre contributes to its very high level of absorbency.
But it also takes longer to dry on a clothesline.
The hollowness of the fibre also enables it to hold dyes and pigments more readily and permanently, thus making it much more colourfast.
Some More Bamboo Stats & Facts
You can read some interesting stats and facts about bamboo in the softschools.com resource
What Is Rayon?
Rayon from bamboo comes from the bamboo fibres when they are broken down using chemicals.
In a nutshell, rayon is a fabric made from purified cellulose fibres, which are typically created from wood pulp.
Though rayon is derived from natural materials, it requires certain chemicals, so it’s considered to be a semi-synthetic fabric.
One of the most common types of rayon is viscose rayon, which has a lot in common with cotton.
It’s breathable, moisture-absorbent, and a popular choice for casual and athletic wear.
It also shows up in dresses, blouses, and outerwear.
Secondary types of rayon include modal rayon (typically made from beech trees) and lyocell (seen in everything from denim to dress shirts).