When it comes to adventure sports clothing and equipment, is bamboo pushing out the new shoots of a sustainable future or does it leave a bitter taste in the mouth?
Bamboo. You might know it as the final thing you pick up on a trip around Ikea, to others it is a readily available and super strong building material, to others still, it can be paper, food and medicine.
Now the adventure sports community too is turning to bamboo, and in this two part article, Im asking if bamboo really is the eco-friendly high performance fabric we have been waiting for, or just another green washed also ran?
First up, how does pure bamboo fabric perform?
Lightweight, almost silk-like, Bamboo material has a superb natural softness. A material that is ideal for wearing next to the skin, it has antibacterial properties and is naturally hypoallergenic. Also, due to the natural hollow cross-section in the fiber it is 3-4 times more absorbent than cotton and very breathable so it might be your first choice when you want to get sweaty. Add this to the fact that bamboo clothing is naturally anti-static so will not stick to you and that it is 98% UV protective ( this equates to an approximate Sun Protection Rating of 50 ) it begins to look like a miracle fabric.
What are the environmental benefits of bamboo clothing?
The natural resistance of the clothing produced by this incredibly versatile fiber can be traced back to its fierce resistance in the wild. Bamboo grows incredibly quickly, both the natural and the industrial culture of this plant is achieved without the use of any pesticides or fertilizers. Growing at a rate of up to a foot a day, bamboo reaches its maximum height in about 3 months and reaches maturity in 3-7 years. Its stunning, low maintenance, growth rate coupled with its myriad uses in every element of human existence makes it arguably the most sustainable resource on earth. A grass plant, it is rain-fed and helps to reduce soil erosion as in harvest, it is cut, not uprooted and re-shoots. The yield you get from an acre of bamboo is 10 times greater than that of cotton and requires much less water. Bamboo is also credited with being a more efficient converter of greenhouse gasses absorbing much more carbon dioxide and producing more oxygen. If we were to stop sourcing from existing bamboo forests which are habitats for many, not least the under threat panda bear, then this can start to be considered a genuinely sustainable material. Often a lack of transparency in bamboo sourcing clouds this issue, but there are FSC certified bamboo forests out there, so look out for the label if you buy bamboo.
Bam Boo? – Is it all too good to be true? The hidden environmental costs of bamboo clothing: what we arent being told about getting from plant to cloth…
For now, say Patagonia, who are also working hard to unlock bamboos potential, bamboo is not yet the sustainable answer some claim it to be.
To arrive at a bamboo fabric, bamboo fibers, like cotton, are worked into a pulp until the original wood separates into tiny individual cellular fibers which are spun and then woven into sheet cloth.
They say that the solvents used for the process of solution spinning, for example carbon disulfide, are toxic chemicals that in this example is a known human reproductive hazard. During the process to recover the rayon fiber, bamboo is dissolved in a strong solvent to make a thick, viscous solution that is forced through a spinneret into a quenching solution where strands solidify into fiber. This carries great concerns for the health of those processing bamboo fibers, and the water courses around the factories. This danger can of course be met responsibly through adherence to guidelines in the handling and disposal of toxic chemicals. But are they? Again, this is a question relating to transparency in the textile chain that Ill explore further sometime.Burnt BambooWhile some companies are producing fabrics derived entirely from this plant, others are carbonising it and sticking it to their man-made fibres. They both give their products the title of bamboo clothing. The North Face have developed a Carbon bamboo range that uses this technology. Carbon that absorbs moisture and dries incredibly quickly is integrated into the manmade or otherwise fibre. This is an effective technology and is certainly worth pursuing, in its own right. My only gripe is that these products are marketed as bamboo clothing, jumping onto the bandwagon of those companies that – whilst currently perhaps a compromise too far – are genuinely looking to make bamboo the sustainable fabric it has the potential to be.There are also arguably better sources of carbon than this. Cocona for example use activated carbon made from coconut shells to achieve the same result. A great example of sustainability cycles with the byproduct of one existing industry contributing to another industry. To-Boo or Taboo? I am utterly convinced that Bamboo holds a potential that could revolutionise adventure sportswear and clothing generally. However we have an important choice to make right now. Do we rush in to claim a compromised and pale green victory, accepting bamboo sometimes sourced from unknown, potentially unsustainable sources and damaging fragile ecosystems, which is then processed with a combination of chemicals that can be damaging to local environments and to workforces? Or do we pause, and insist that this plant be farmed sustainably and processed responsibly with zero impact on the health of peoples and places. Only when such a transparent bamboo supply and production chain is presented can we be confident that it does truly represent what is best in sustainable development – a product that performs better than its predecessors, but is also a product that minimises or nullifies our impact on the environment. Who is doing what with Bamboo? If you are already convinced by Bamboo clothing, then you can find a range of sweaters, beanies and t shirts at Mountain Junky – an organization started to share experiences of the mountains that have developed their own range of clothing. This pic is of the Beanie Hat Olive Green from Mountain Junky. Bridgedale have also released crew and lo socks for men and women, this has a bamboo viscose content of 35%.
The North Faces Mauna Kea long sleeved cycling layer uses their carbon bamboo technology.
Patagonia, in their search for an alternative and more eco friendly fabric with the same attributes as silk and bamboo have developed Tencel. It is also a regenerated cellulose fiber. This time from (FSC) sustainable eucalyptus wood, it is processed with a non-toxic spinning solvent in a closed-loop system. Check out Patagonias Tencel / Organic Cotton Mandeville Hoody.
In the second half of this article we look at the use of Bamboo in bikes and seeing how it can provide solutions in mass bicycle production for developing nations, and a great building material for start up community tourism projects. Look out also for a future article where we dig deeper into the transparency of bamboo clothing production among different retailers. If you want to agree or disagree with any of the opinion in this piece, please do not hesitate to use the comments section below and we will be sure to engage in the discussion.
For those interested in exploring further, click here for a a pdf of Patagonias full article on bamboo.