In this short guide, we look at how sustainable and eco friendly Bamboo really is according to different measures.
Summary – How Sustainable & Eco Friendly Is Bamboo For Clothing, Fabric & Textiles?
Overall, bamboo seems to have a very sustainable and eco friendly growing process.
It rates somewhere similar to organic cotton in that regard, but probably better than regular cotton – because bamboo generally needs no pesticides, little irrigated water, and it grows very fast.
It probably has similar carbon sequestration properties to cotton, and some sources indicate bamboo is even better than a stand of trees in terms of carbon sequestration and producing oxygen.
Moso bamboo is a species of bamboo that is identified by some as having good carbon absorption/storage abilities.
Bamboo may also lead to better soil health and less soil degradation than cotton because of bamboo’s root system (the way it creates a watershed and holds soil together), and the fact that bamboo usually doesn’t have to be dug up and replanted like cotton.
Whilst bamboo does have it’s own natural anti bacterial agent, called bamboo kun, that fights pest and fungi infestation, it still does use herbicide and fertilizer applications in some places, and pathogen problems can still exist in some places (fertilizer applications can be organic though).
The chemical processing stage is where bamboo (particularly bamboo rayon) might not be as sustainable or eco friendly as it could be.
Heavy chemicals can be used in this process, and can be discharged into the environment via wastewater (these chemicals are required to produce bamboo rayon viscose).
Some companies or manufacturers that use bamboo cellulose do use closed loop processing – where they capture the chemicals used (although, a certain % of chemicals may not be able to be recaptured or re-used).
They may also treat their wastewater, and minimise chemical disposal into the environment – but there is no official certification on organic bamboo yet for example.
You also have to consider that bamboo transported to Western countries from China has a transport footprint to consider.
Elkie Ark has a good article about transparency in what ‘organic bamboo’ might actually involve
Some sources indicate that for overall sustainability, it might be worth looking at GOTS certified cotton, recycled cotton, 100% natural linen, and companies that are very transparent with their supply and production processes, or have a range of recognized sustainability certifications across various stages of their supply/production process (growing, production, dying, bleaching, finishing, weaving, and so on), with TENCEL’s lyocell and modal fibres being one potential example of this.
But, there’s also the consumer usage, maintenance and waste/recycling stages to consider as well.
Some bamboos and hemps could be reasonably sustainable when sustainably/responsibly grown, and combining that with closed loop processes, naturally derived production chemicals, and similarly more natural/organic and eco friendly post-growing processes and chemicals used.
Regarding bamboo and certification:
It is important that bamboo come from FSC (the Forest Stewardship Council) certified stands
Some [you have to check this on a case by case basis] … bamboo viscose fiber … is produced in a process that has no water pollution or solid waste disposal problems, and that has only minimal air pollution
Where the bamboo comes from can play a part in it’s overall sustainability, and it’s possible individual bamboo products need their own individual sustainability assessment:
Some argue that the environmental costs of production – and the fact that bamboo resources are located far from western consumer markets – outweigh the plant’s green benefits.
But, all bamboo products need their own lifecycle assessment to determine overall if they are eco friendly or not (the different variables of growing and production, and transport, delivering to the consumer etc. need to be taken into account)
The above summary and the information found in this guide is a generalisation only.
* Note that bamboo growing/farming, and processing may differ by country, especially between the first world and developing world countries.
* Different conditions, climates, soils, farming technology, farming methods and other factors can impact how well Bamboo grows, and different factories and processing plants have different procedures.
These factors and others can impact the final sustainability and eco friendliness of any particular product.
There’s also the social impact, economics and practicality to consider.
Just because something is eco friendly and sustainable to produce – it doesn’t mean that it is good for employment, profitable or even practical to produce (for businesses and workers) or use (for consumers).
So, there can be a weighing up of product priorities, preferences (for buyers, sellers, and society) and conflicts of interest to consider (political and corporate agendas can sometimes play a part too for example).
How Much Water Is Used To Grow & Manufacture/Process Bamboo?
Bamboo generally requires a lot less water than regular cotton, but probably about the same or slightly more water than organic cotton.
Bamboo requires 1/3 the amount of water to grow that cotton uses
Very little bamboo is irrigated and there is sound evidence that the water-use efficiency of bamboo is twice that of trees.
This makes bamboo more able to handle harsh weather conditions such as drought, flood and high temperatures.
Compare bamboo to cotton which is a thirsty crop – it can take up to 20,000 litres of water to produce 1 kg of cotton and 73% of the global cotton harvest comes from irrigated land.
… organic cotton … [is] a thirsty plant with around 256.6 gallons of water required to grow enough to make a single t-shirt.
Bamboo is a similarly thirsty but is faster growing and hardy, so doesn’t really benefit from additional fertilisers.
[bamboo needs] Ideally, about an inch [of water] a week … (in 1-3 applications per week).
In many climates, after the bamboo has been in the ground for 3-5 years, water is no longer necessary for survival.
Keep in mind, bamboo that doesn’t get a regular watering during the summer won’t look as good as bamboo that does.
Carbon Footprint Of Bamboo, & How Much Energy Bamboo Uses
Bamboo crops take in almost five times the amount of greenhouse gases and produce 35% more oxygen than an equivalent stand of trees
China has a native giant species of bamboo called Moso bamboo.
One hectare (an area roughly the size of an athletics track) of this species can store up to 250 tons of carbon (Qi, 2009).
… this translates into the amount of carbon that was produced in 2009 by around 160 people in China (or, equivalently, 50 people in the U.S.A.).
Each year, a hectare of Moso bamboo absorbs 5.1 tons of carbon, which can compensate for the CO2 emissions of three people in China (or one person in the U.S.A.).
Bamboo is a natural fibre, and so according to Oecotextiles, has a lower carbon footprint than synthetic fibres:
At the fiber level it is clear that synthetics have a much bigger footprint than does any natural fiber, including wool or conventionally produced cotton.
So in terms of the carbon footprint at the fiber level, any natural fiber beats any synthetic – at this point in time.
Best of all is an organic natural fiber.
Bamboo can be carbon neutral, but each product depends on factors like where the bamboo is grown, how it’s processed, transportation etc.
How Much Pesticide Does Bamboo Need To Grow
Bamboo might not need as much pesticide or fertilizer as other plants.
A huge benefit of using bamboo as the organic base for textile fibres is that there is no need for pesticides or fertilizers when growing bamboo.
However, herbicide and fertilizer applications are common in some places to encourage edible shoot growth.
Bamboo also contains a substance called bamboo-kun – an antimicrobial agent that gives the plant a natural resistance to pest and fungi infestation, though some pathogen problems do still exist in some bamboo plantations.
By contrast, only 2.4% of the world’s arable land is planted with cotton, yet cotton accounts for 24% of the world’s insecticide market and 11% of the sale of global pesticides.
How Much Fertilizer Does Bamboo Need To Grow
Fertilizing [bamboo] isn’t usually necessary if the bamboo is in the ground, but often will promote larger growth with greener foliage.
Bamboo is dormant in the winter, so the best time to fertilize is in the spring and summer.
For bamboo in the ground, organic fertilizer, such as mushroom compost, aged horse manure, fish meal, feather meal, or blood meal are all good options.
Bamboo, & Land Degradation & Soil Health
The root system of bamboo might help preserve soil health.
Yearly replanting of crops such as cotton leads to soil erosion.
The extensive root system of bamboo and the fact that it is not uprooted during harvesting means bamboo actually helps preserve soil and prevent soil erosion.
The bamboo plant’s root system creates an effective watershed, stitching the soil together along fragile river banks, deforested areas and in places prone to mudslides.
It also greatly reduces rain run-off.
Conventional cotton-growing also causes a severe reduction in soil quality through the impact of constant use of pesticides on soil organisms.
Because of the bamboos fast growth and dense foliage, it will quickly deposit a thick layer of leaf litter covering the ground, which will then start restoring degraded soils and re-establishing a cooler micro-climate.
A bamboos root system grows into a dense ‘mat’ of fine roots which is shallow but wide spread.
This means that its ability to hold soil together is excellent, even in areas where erosion caused by flowing water is a problem.
It will hold soil together along fragile river banks, deforested areas, dam walls and spillways.
The Yield Of Bamboo
Yield is an important measure of efficiency – which is important to measure if you want to be sustainable with resources, inputs and the whole growing and production process.
Bamboo takes around 4 years to mature … in rain-fed systems, bamboo can yield from 5 to 40 tonnes per hectare per year.
In irrigated plantations, this yield can increase to 100 tonnes.
Bamboo’s extraordinary growth rate makes it a cheap, sustainable and efficient crop.
Bamboo grows very densely, and its clumping nature enables a lot of it to be grown in a comparatively small area, easing pressure on land use.
With average yields for bamboo of up to 60 tonnes per hectare greatly exceeding the average yield of 20 tonnes for most trees and the average yield of 2 tonnes per hectare for cotton, bamboo’s high yield per hectare becomes very significant.
How Many Chemicals Does Bamboo Use In The Processing Stage?
This is perhaps the part where bamboo can fail as an eco friendly option (unless you are talking about certified organic bamboo).
Bamboo can take a lot of chemicals to produce the bamboo rayon viscose from the raw bamboo material (assuming the manual method of fibre extraction is not used – which it usually isn’t because it’s more time consuming and expensive).
According to GoodOnYou.eco:
Bamboo rayon is most commonly made through what is known as the viscose process, which involves dissolving cellulose material (such as wood chips or bamboo) in a chemical solution to produce a pulpy viscous substance.
This is then pushed through a spinneret, and “spun” into the fibres that can then be made into threads and fabrics.
The chemicals used in this process are highly toxic and a risk to human health.
About 50% of hazardous waste from rayon production (including the bamboo variety) cannot be recaptured and reused and goes directly into the environment.
You can read more about the chemicals and processing stage for bamboo in this goodonyou.eco resource, or this oecotextiles resource
Pollution Of Land, Water, & Soil/Land By Bamboo
There isn’t as much pollution at the cultivation/growing stage, but definitely at the processing stage there is if it uses chemicals.
Polluted water can be discharged from processing plants and get into streams and rivers, and leach into the soil and groundwater tables.
Impact Of Growing Bamboo On Humans and Human Health
Same as above – not as much risk of pesticides causing risk to human health at the growing stage.
But, if chemicals are used in the processing stage, then factory workers may be at risk, and obviously bamboo fabric will have chemicals and possibly dyes on it.
Those with allergies may be at risk.
Impact Of Growing Bamboo On Animals & Wildlife
Depends if the processing stage is closed loop or not.
Chemicals discharged in water sources can be harmful to amphibians and water organisms.
Pandas and other animals who live amongst bamboo or depend on it for a food source may also be affected.