Fabric made from bamboo seems like the perfect material to spark a sustainable fashion revolution. The ultra-soft fabric is versatile and breathable, and it effortlessly wicks moisture away. The plant itself is a model example of sustainability — it can be grown without pesticides or fertilizers, requires little water, and can grow up to four feet in a single day.
But if clothing made from organic and eco-friendly fabrics are important to you, bamboo is a fashion don’t.
Look a little closer at the fabric details on any website selling bamboo clothing. Underneath the description, you’ll probably see something like “viscose made from organically grown bamboo.”
At first glance, this doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. That dress is still made from organic bamboo, right? Well, sort of. Viscose and rayon really are made from organic bamboo. It’s the manufacturing process that creates an ecological disaster.
How Bamboo Clothing Is Made
Making fabric from bamboo is a chemical process that’s closer to making paper than spinning fluffy cotton tufts into yarn.
Leaves and stems are crushed into a pulp, dissolved in lye, and pressed. The pressed sheets are crumbled, mixed with carbon disulfide, and ripened, filtered, and pressed again.
The resulting chemical slurry is then pushed through spinneret nozzles into a vat of sulfuric acid. From here, the acid hardens the mix into synthetic fibers and creates the thread. The thread is then spun into yarn and woven into fabric.
Chemicals involved in this process not only create a lot of waste, but they’re also linked to dangerous health effects. Carbon disulfide can cause serious neurological effects such as headaches, confusion, and psychosis. The base of lye, sodium hydroxide, can cause irritation to the eyes and skin.
What Are Your Clothes Really Made Of?
Despite a manufacturing process laden with damaging chemicals, it is technically accurate to say viscose and rayon are made from bamboo — and you’d better believe retailers take advantage of this technicality to market their clothing to seem more eco-friendly than it actually is. That’s why clarifications like “rayon made from organic bamboo” appear in product descriptions.
Not including full disclosures with bamboo clothing is deceptive advertising, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The watchdog organization takes these rules pretty seriously — it has cracked down on companies exploiting the connection between bamboo and textiles to market their products as eco-friendly.
In 2009, the FTC sent warning letters to retailers purporting to sell eco-friendly bamboo clothing without specifying that the fabric is actually rayon made from the plant. Most companies changed their tactics, but a few of the biggest names did not. Major players including Amazon, Macy’s, and Sears were fined in 2013 by the FTC for continuing to sell deceptively labeled clothes for years after they were warned.
Sustainable Alternatives To Bamboo Clothing
Eco-friendly fashion doesn’t just have to mean hippie-style gauzy blouses and flowing skirts (unless that’s what you’re looking for!). Plenty of companies design clothes that are high-quality, ethical, and great for the planet.
In fact, once you know what to look for, filling your closet with environmentally conscious clothes is easy. While it might take a bit of detective work to uncover what a garment is made of, manufacturers have to provide the information.
Before you buy a new outfit, keep in mind that the devil is in the details. Read the tag inside the garment, and study the product description on the website. Here are a few environmentally conscious fabrics to look for:
- Organic cotton
- Alpaca wool
- Vegan or peace silk
We also put together this list of badass sustainable fashion brands like Reformation, Everlane, and People Tree. The next time you’re in the mood for some retail therapy, be sure to check out these shops, and let us know if we missed your favorite.