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Bamboo, from "Cheat Sheet"
By Shane Dale
October, 2009

Question: Why is bamboo considered an eco-friendly fabric? Is there anything about bamboo that is not eco-friendly? What are the positive aspects of bamboo as a fabric? What are the negatives? For which industries is bamboo apparel best suited? How does one properly care for and treat bamboo garments?

Answer: Most folks familiar with bamboo apparel will tell you the same thing when asked “Is it an eco-friendly fabric?” Absolutely. Is its manufacturing process also eco-friendly? Not so much.

Colette Chandler, founder of The Marketing Insider and an expert at spotting the practice of greenwashing (falsely claiming that one’s products are environmentally friendly) says bamboo, which is considered a plant or a grass instead of a tree, is eco-friendly in that it grows rapidly without the aid of chemicals. “It’s ready for harvesting in about four years, so it reaches maturity pretty quickly, and it doesn’t require replanting after harvesting,” she says. “It continually has new sprouts, and it does this in a very natural way without the need for pesticides and fertilizers.”

Plus, it protects the air, says Jennifer Chu, product manager for Ash City (asi/37127), “by extracting vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and releasing 35% more oxygen into the air vs. other cellulose crops or forests.”

Jason Neve, creative director for Boardroom Eco-Apparel (asi/40705), says bamboo is much more sustainable than cotton. “It can grow anywhere from 24 inches to 36 inches in a single day,” he says. “It doesn’t require loads and loads of pesticides like cotton does, and it doesn’t require as much water. Even organic cotton requires a lot of water.”

Non Eco-Friendly Aspects
“It’s not that bamboo is not eco-friendly; it’s that the production may not be eco-friendly,” Chandler says. “When you start transforming it into fibers, the problem you have is the heavy use of chemicals. Some people are saying they’re toxic.”

That’s why, according to Chandler, many environmentalists believe that most bamboo fabrics are not worthy of being labeled as sustainable or organic.

Neve says bamboo is “the bad boy on the block” compared to other eco-friendly materials. “It’s not necessarily the growing of the fiber; it’s the dyeing and the finishing that accounts for up to 70% of the impact on the environment,” he says.

The best way to create bamboo apparel is to treat the water and recycle the chemicals after the process is done, but this is extremely rare. “Our research shows that actually doesn’t happen,” Neve says. “In Bangladesh, there are 5,000 bamboo manufacturers and only one guy who recycles the chemicals.”

Chandler says some newer manufacturing processes have emerged that can be considered eco-friendly. A Boston-based company called Greenyarn, for example, has developed a fabric made from nano-particles of bamboo charcoal, and the company states that no dyes or bleaches are used during the manufacturing process.

Many Good Things
Bamboo’s natural properties can be a real plus. “Its inherent absorbency wicks moisture away from the body to evaporate perspiration quickly,” says Chu, adding that bamboo is softer and more comfortable than cotton, and has a hand feel that is similar to silk.

Because it’s naturally wicking, bamboo lends itself readily to performance wear. “I’ve seen a number of workout shirts made of bamboo,” Chandler says. “It feels like silk and it wicks. You can’t go wrong there.” Chandler adds that bamboo is more wrinkle-resistant than cotton.

Bamboo is also 100% biodegradable and has natural antimicrobial and antifungal properties, according to Neve. “When you sweat, you basically are depositing your sweat onto the fiber. The smell comes from the bacteria growing on the surface of the fabric,” he says. “If you sweat, it won’t smell when you wear bamboo. With polyester, they use antimicrobial chemicals. But bamboo has that built in.”

In addition, bamboo can be combined with other fibers to create a blend. One of the most popular fabrics at Colorado Trading & Clothing Company (asi/45792) is Soybu, a product line that features apparel made of a combination of bamboo and one or more of a number of fabrics, including polyester, organic cotton, soy and Spandex. Aleida Junta, director of design and production, says Colorado Trading wanted to offer a hybrid product at a low price point that can also be considered eco-friendly. The 85% bamboo/15% soy combination is “very good for people with sensitive skin,” Junta says. “It kind of refreshes the amino acids on the surface of the skin.”

Junta says that the most popular Soybu-based products are its Micro Terry robes and loungewear. Micro Terry is a blend of bamboo, polyester, cotton and Spandex, which has a soft feel and moisture-wicking properties, Junta says. Colorado Trading also just added a T-shirt line that is 70% bamboo/30% organic cotton. “Our general brand approach is we’re trying to do a hybrid, value-based product,” she says.

Negatives to Consider
Neve says bamboo can be slightly difficult in terms of everyday care, compared to competing fabrics. “Some of it can peel fairly easily, and some of it is too stretchy, depending on the amount of Spandex that’s in there,” he says. “That makes it great for women’s apparel, but some bamboo is too stretchy for guys. It can sort of break down a little quicker.”

Bamboo also takes longer to dry than other apparel. Use a gentle washing machine cycle with cold or lukewarm water for bamboo apparel, but line dry it instead of putting it in the dryer.

Some people have also complained that bamboo is too moisture-wicking. “Some guy told me, ‘I can’t wear it next to my skin because it absorbs all the moisture,’” Neve says. “So sometimes, it’s the greatest positive that turns out to be a fault.”

Chu adds that bamboo rayon fiber tends to be delicate and is subject to greater shrinkage than other fabrics.

Top Apparel and Industries
Neve says bamboo T-shirts and golf polos are popular among frontline staffs. The fabric also allows professionals who attend a lot of trade shows or are otherwise on the go to stay comfortable, according to Neve. “Anywhere polyester would usually go, the bamboo goes in there as well,” he says. “Everybody out there has the Nike pro-fit golf polo, so they want something a little different. This is something they can wear and be more street-smart, a little more street fashion.”

Big corporations and government organizations also love bamboo, Neve says, because of the leg up it provides them in terms of public relations. “We actually have green-colored bamboo fabric, and that gets bought the most,” he says. “Not only can they say they are going green, but the shirt is actually green. That does the trick and makes the company look good.”

Neve does caution that bamboo isn’t suited for jerseys for sports like baseball or hockey. “It’s not technical enough,” he says.

Junta says Soybu apparel is popular at sporting goods stores – Dick’s Sporting Goods, for example – and resort gift shops. “What we do best are classic basics, like everyday hoodies and stuff,” she says. “We sell them on the fact that it’s a strong product for them because it’s a good price point.”

Shane Dale is freelance writer based in AZ.

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