Bamboo fabric – eco-friendly or what?

We write newsletters because our customers read them – and like us, care about our planet and what indeed we will leave behind us. We may be a small voice, but small voices have often changed the world – irrevocably.

On Monday, we wrote about Cotton and why we would not use it in a facecloth. Today, in our quest to find an eco-friendly material, we write about the fast-growing grass, bamboo. It’s used in everything from homewares to fabric and it seems to be the miracle crop. But what’s the truth in all of this? Does it really have UV protection and antibacterial properties.

Bamboo cultivation

From what we read, it requires no fertiliser or pesticides. The majority is grown in China, but with the secrecy that surrounds most of what is done in that country, there is no information about what happens when it is intensively harvested, as it is, or what sort of land, even homes have been cleared to make way for bamboo.

Bamboo Fabric

When we first set out on our journey to find the best facecloth for our customers, we thought that bamboo might be the answer and while it may be true in the cultivation process, we were shocked when we started to read about the manufacturing processes.

The first procedure is to spin the fibres into thread and then into what’s known as ‘rough linen’. It’s far too harsh for the soft products in demand, so the next step is to make the silky soft bamboo fabric (rayon) that you find in sheets, underwear and other commodities. This is where the sustainability of bamboo gets more questionable.The bamboo cellulose material is dissolved in a horrible toxic chemical solution to produce a pulpy viscous substance. Then through various manufacturing techniques, its spun into fibres. The problem is that about half of the chemicals used are hazardous waste that cannot be recovered or re-used, and as a result go into the environment. First the bamboo stalk is dissolved by a toxic liquid containing sodium hydroxide and carbon disulphide. These chemicals transform the stalk into long cellulose strands which then create bamboo textiles, but it’s a nasty process.

Poisoning the rivers

Carbon disulphide is toxic, and it’s notorious for evaporating into the air; so, exposure to it can have detrimental effects on the human reproductive system – which is bad news for anyone in who is forced to work with it. There are reports that carbon disulphide is simply run-off into the rivers and waterways in China, and then into the sea.

The Independent newspaper writes that 200million cubic metres of sewage (plastic and other awful stuffs) were found off China’s shores last year where “most of the waste was dumped in the delta regions of the Yangtze and Pearl rivers, both major industrial zones on China’s eastern coast.” China, from what we read, is trying to clean up its rivers, but looking at some of them from satellite pictures, the waters (we use the word river in loose terms) are all sorts of nasty colours; hardly what one would think fish could swim in, never mind humans who have to drink it, could survive on. In consequence, we think that the river cleaning (if it ever actually takes place) will occupy many, many years of work and huge amounts of capital expenditure.

On the bright side, Bamboo has positive attributes in that grown in the right conditions, it prevents soil erosion, it produces more CO2 per hectare than timber and it is self-seeding which is perhaps a boon in areas of economic hardship. It is also more resilient in times of flooding and drought – that we seem to be seeing so much more of these days. But the simple facts are that the manufacturing process for bamboo rayon should be closed loop. In other words, the harmful chemicals are recovered and recycled. Sadly, there no examples of this to be found anywhere that we can see.

So, the next time that you are shopping, please don’t simply accept a label that says “made from bamboo” being good for us or for the planet. If grown, processed and used right, it has potential, but for now as the ‘jury is out’ and we will keep it off our shopping list as a product suitable for a facecloth for our health-conscious customers. The questions and answers about its UV protection and antibacterial properties, or otherwise, we will leave to another day.

On Friday, we will write about linen.

So, for now, all the best from Jim and Sheila and the team at  We hope that you find this article to be of interest.