Bamboo: Not as Green as It Seems

A government agency has criticized four clothing companies for advertising bamboo as “green.”

July 31, 2012

The Details:
Four companies that use bamboo for clothing and other household fabrics were charged by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for deceptive advertising techniques: claiming that the fabrics are made from “bamboo fiber,” are manufactured using an environmentally friendly process, are naturally antimicrobial, and will biodegrade. In point of fact, says the FTC, “bamboo fiber” is really rayon, the same fiber invented in the 1850s. Rayon is traditionally made from wood pulp, but it can be made from any pulpy substance, including bamboo, and the FTC had issues with these companies selling rayon under a misleading label that made it seem more eco-friendly than wood-based rayon. Furthermore, they add, both wood-based and bamboo-based rayon are manufactured using air-polluting caustic soda, or lye, which isn’t environmentally friendly and destroys any antimicrobial characteristics that may have existed in raw bamboo pulp. Regarding claims of biodegradation, the FTC says that bamboo won’t biodegrade if tossed into a landfill, where most of our trash ends up.

What It Means:
The FTC isn’t the first to criticize bamboo-clothing manufacturers for advertising the fiber as eco-friendly when the process of converting the pulp into fiber employs such caustic chemicals. In a recent article for the Council of Fashion Designers of America, a representative from the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is currently working with textile mills to lessen their environmental impacts, recommended that any designer looking for more eco-friendly fabrics should avoid bamboo. Bamboo does have an eco upside: It grows quickly, replenishing itself in as little as 5 years after it’s been harvested (compared with 15 to 20 years for trees), and it requires few pesticides and very little water. But for clothing that’s lighter on the planet than petroleum-based polyester or chemically grown cotton, there are better choices.


Here are a few tips if you’re looking to go green with your wardrobe:

•  Be thrifty
As in thrift store. The greenest clothes come preworn. Reused clothing stays out of the landfill and saves the fossil fuels used to make, package, and transport a new garment. So visit the used-clothing or vintage clothes store nearest you before hitting the mall.

•  Favor plant fibers
Organic cotton is still relatively water-intensive, but its production doesn’t result in a load of chemicals being dumped into the soil. And you can find green clothes made from other less-thirsty plants, such as flax (which is used to make linen) and hemp.

•  Save the bamboo for flooring
Bamboo’s environmental downsides come primarily from the processing of its pulp into fiber for use in clothing, bedsheets, towels, and other fabric products. However, it’s still a better choice than most wood used in things like hardwood flooring, cutting boards, and furniture.

•  Recycle your old clothes
The FTC accused bamboo specifically of not biodegrading in landfills, but in reality, no clothing will degrade in a landfill, whether it's made from cotton, bamboo, or any other fiber. When your clothes have worn thin, send them to a charity. You may not think your holey white T-shirt is worth anything, but the charity can sell it to a textile recycler, which will turn it into rags or even acoustic stuffing for your car doors. Just make sure your donated clothing is clean; a single pair of dirty underwear can contaminate an entire bin of recyclable clothing, condemning the clothes to a landfill.