Sep 01 2009
Recently the Federal Trade comission charged four manufacturers of clothing and other cloth products made from bamboo of deceptive labeling. FTC Charges Companies with ‘Bamboo-zling’ Consumers with False Product Claims The complaints stated that the companies were claiming that the cloth was made from “Bamboo Fiber” when it was in fact, rayon.
The complaints also charge the companies with making false and unsubstantiated “green” claims that their clothing and textile products are manufactured using an environmentally friendly process, that they retain the natural antimicrobial properties of the bamboo plant, and that they are biodegradable.
This action has taken a lot of people by surprise, and has generated a fair amount of discussion on some of the green business discussion groups where we hang out. The entire event illustrates some of the problems faced by people and customers attempting to lead more ecological minded lives. So what’s going on?
First of all, let’s talk about bamboo. Bamboo is a pretty amazing crop.
Growing bamboo is considered eco-friendly agriculture because growing bamboo crops is actually quite healthy for the environment. Unlike other crops, bamboo requires little to no pesticides to grow because of a natural bio-agent that is bound to the plant at the molecular level called bamboo kun. This creates very little surface runoff in the end, and saves on water as well.
The way bamboo grows is also environmentally friendly. The root systems of bamboo are thickly clumped balls. This helps keep soil together, and protects against erosion. The debris that falls from a growing clump of bamboo is also good because it fertilizes the ground at the base of the bamboo culms and feeds it, eventually fertilizing the soil as well, which may have become desertified through many years of planting other crops.
In addition, Bamboo grows quickly, typically reaching maturity in 4 years. Compare that to an Oak tree that typically takes decades.
bamboo just might be the world’s most sustainable resource. It is the fastest growing grass and can shoot up a yard or more a day. Bamboo reaches maturity quickly and is ready for harvesting in about 4 years. Bamboo does not require replanting after harvesting because its vast root network continually sprouts new shoots which almost zoom up while you watch them, pulling in sunlight and greenhouse gases and converting them to new green growth.
Bamboo has a number of great uses. Many people like banboo flooring or bamboo utensils.
So what’s the problem? The first problem is that there really is no such thing as “bamboo fiber”. The creation of bamboo cloth is a chemically intensive process, that uses some fairly toxic chemicals. It is not an Earth friendly process. Organic Clothing Blog describes the process.
While specifics can vary, the general process for chemically manufacturing bamboo fiber using hydrolysis alkalization with multi-phase bleaching technology – which is the dominate technology for producing regenerated bamboo fiber – goes like this:
- Bamboo leaves and the soft, inner pith from the hard bamboo trunk are extracted and crushed;
- The crushed bamboo cellulose is soaked in a solution of 15% to 20% sodium hydroxide at a temperature between 20 degrees C to 25 degrees C for one to three hours to form alkali cellulose;
- The bamboo alkali cellulose is then pressed to remove any excess sodium hydroxide solution. The alkali cellulose is crashed by a grinder and left to dry for 24 hours;
- Roughly a third as much carbon disulfide is added to the bamboo alkali cellulose to sulfurize the compound causing it to jell;
- Any remaining carbon disulfide is removed by evaporation due to decompression and cellulose sodium xanthogenate is the result;
- A diluted solution of sodium hydroxide is added to the cellulose sodium xanthogenate dissolving it to create a viscose solution consisting of about 5% sodium hydroxide and 7% to 15% bamboo fiber cellulose.
- The viscose bamboo cellulose is forced through spinneret nozzles into a large container of a diluted sulfuric acid solution which hardens the viscose bamboo cellulose sodium xanthogenate and reconverts it to cellulose bamboo fiber threads which are spun into bamboo fiber yarns to be woven into reconstructed and regenerated bamboo fabric.
This gives some feel for how chemically intensive the hydrolysis-alkalization and multiphase bleaching manufacturing processes are for most bamboo fabrics that are promoted as being sustainable and eco-friendly.
There are some innovations in the works that might be more Earth friendly, but we have not seen enough detail to make a judgement.
So for us, for right now, Bamboo fabric is off the list.