Is bamboo the right fibre for your products?
By Gus Bartholomew, Supplycompass
Choosing materials for your fashion or homewares brand is one of the most important decisions you’ll need to make about the products you sell. That single decision can have a major impact on the success of your business. What your products are made of will influence customers almost as much as what the product is used for. And this applies to both furniture and fashion.
Being aware of the value of different materials and how they can be incorporated into your products is an important skill and knowledge base to develop; it will influence the success of your products in the marketplace. Bamboo fibre is an often-overlooked material in the fashion and furniture industries, and yet it offers a unique and sustainable option for brands to explore in their search for new and interesting materials for their products.
Bamboo’s uniquely fast growth, moisture wicking fibres, and ease of cultivation have made it a popular cellulose source for fabric manufacturers. Bamboo can be processed mechanically and chemically into a variety of fabrics, which possess varying physical attributes and socio-ecological footprints.
Here’s an overview of how bamboo fabrics are produced, their respective properties and impacts, and why it’s definitely worth considering bamboo as a material for your clothing or furniture brand:
China and India are the world’s largest producers of bamboo, followed by Myanmar and Thailand. Bamboo is often generically “greenwashed” as a sustainable crop due to its;
– Dense growth patterns (efficient use of space)
– Complex root structure (prevents erosion and maintains soil health)
– Very high respiration rates (significant carbon dioxide absorption and oxygen production)
– Water efficiency (doesn’t require irrigation)
– Hardiness (doesn’t require pesticides or insecticides)
Although these features lend themselves to environmental causes, case-specific factors such as land clearing, harvesting practices, labour conditions, and supplementary irrigation or pesticides (which are not necessary for bamboo growth, but are performance enhancing) must be factored in when determining sustainability.
It’s worth noting that while bamboo is often attributed unique properties such as being antibacterial, due to the variety of bamboo species and material production processes, these should not be credited without product specific testing. Not all of the different species of bamboo behave in the same way or have the same characteristics.
There are two primary methods for processing bamboo fibres; mechanically and chemically.
Mechanical processing yields the most environmentally friendly bamboo fabric. The woody grass shoots and leaves are pulverised and then retted (soaked in water) to soften. Next, the fibrous pulp is combed, refined, and spun into yarn. The result is a bamboo ‘linen’, or ‘natural’ bamboo fabric which is suitable for dyeing and does not require intensive pre-treatment. Due to the time and labour intensity of the mechanical processing, natural bamboo fabric is relatively expensive and difficult to source.
Chemical processing is used to produce the vast majority of bamboo fabrics. Within this category, conventional viscose processing is the most common method, and is also the most detrimental to human health and the environment. While chemical processing is the cheaper method of processing bamboo fibres, it is far less sustainable. The chemicals used to process the fibres include sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide, which are potentially harmful to the people working with it and the wildlife in the area, especially if the chemicals reach any water sources.
Viscose Bamboo Rayon.
This process requires considerable energy and chemical input. Bamboo is first crushed, then soaked in a sodium hydroxide solution, pressed, dried and crushed again. Carbon disulfide is added to create a gel, which is again treated with sodium hydroxide, before being pressed through narrow nozzles into sulfuric acid to create threads, where it hardens and is finally spun and woven. The end fabric is soft, drapes similarly to silk, and is well suited to garment manufacturing. However, the material’s functionality often comes with hidden costs such as worker illness from chemical exposure, and negative effects on the environment. One of the most significant environmental effects is wastewater laden with a large variety of chemicals being freely discharged during the manufacturing process.
Lyocell Bamboo Rayon
An alternative rayon fabric with limited environmental impacts, lyocell rayon is produced in a closed-loop viscose process which utilizes a non-toxic solution (amine oxide) and minimizes water and energy consumption. The processing steps are similar to conventional viscose rayon: bamboo is pulped, softened, thickened, and formed into weavable fibre. The end product, however, is notably free of chemical residues, and has not been associated with worker illnesses or environmental damage. Additionally, virtually all of the amine oxide solution is recovered and reused. Lyocell rayon performs at least on par with conventional rayon fabric, and is not significantly more expensive to produce.
5 reasons to consider using bamboo
The following five details about bamboo fibres can be used as a checklist to determine if it is the right material to use for your products;
If using sustainable materials in your products is of interest to you, bamboo fibre should definitely be a material to consider. Bamboo can be grown sustainably without the use of pesticides and fertilizers due its fast growth rate and protective coating, and can be processed sustainably if the mechanical, rather than chemical, processes are chosen.
Strength and Flexibility
Bamboo fibres are naturally strong yet very flexible. This is a rare combination to have in clothing or furniture materials and it opens many doors for product designs and uses. When used in furniture bamboo fibres are comfortable to sit on and have the flexibility to bend with a person’s weight.
Bamboo is very light and easy to move, which makes it a practical material to use for larger furniture pieces such as tables and benches, enabling people to lift and move their furniture as they please.
Practicality & Comfort
Aside from being arguably more comfortable than cotton and polyester fabrics, bamboo fabric has the ability to absorb water and keep the wearer extremely dry; it is highly breathable, odour resistant, and thermally regulating. Bamboo fabric feels silky and luxurious, providing unparalleled comfort. Due to its flexibility, furniture made of bamboo can be very comfortable and less rigid than those made from other materials such as wood.
Bamboo fibre is very strong and doesn’t wear badly over time, regardless of how many times it is washed or dried. Its sturdiness also prevents pilling from occurring after washing and drying. Furniture made from bamboo is very smooth due to a natural coating of oil that exists in its fibres, and it can be cleaned easily.
Natural bamboo fabric is one of the most ‘green’ fabrics available – if the right fibres and processing are chosen. It should definitely be considered for high quality fashion and furniture products. Mechanically produced bamboo fibres are far more sustainable than those that are chemically produced, and some bamboo mixtures are better for the environment and human health than others. For example, lyocell bamboo rayon is far more sustainable than viscose bamboo rayon.
Overall, being aware of “greenwashing” when choosing between bamboo fabrics, as well as the significant socio-ecological differences between production processes is important. Not all bamboo fabrics are made in the same way, or have the same sustainability benefits, so being aware of which specific bamboo fabrics you are using is very important.
By choosing a genuinely sustainable and eco- and health-friendly source of bamboo you can be sure you have a high quality, compassionate material for your fashion or furniture brand.