Bamboo socks, sheets, tote bags, towels, and a million other bamboo products all seem very sustainable, even though—if you stop to think about it—you’re not sure why. Maybe it’s just the fact that bamboo is a hard, spiky plant, while bamboo fabrics are soft and durable—which makes their production seem impressively futuristic and therefore environmentally friendly.
But it could also be the marketing. Bamboo products tend to come in packaging made from lumpy brown recycled cardboard with tag lines that read “rainforest friendly,” which is nonsense. All of it. Because bamboo fabrics aren’t inherently low impact, you’re just getting suckered.
Problem number one is the level of processing required to turn bamboo into fabric. Because the bamboo sheets or socks you’re buying are typically made from something called bamboo-derived viscose rayon (also sometimes referred to as bamboo silk). And this stuff is a problem.
A quick primer: viscose rayon describes any material made from wood pulp. It’s usually soft and weak, but very cheap to produce and buy—a benefit which, in 2016, made viscose the third most used textile in the world.
But to turn bamboo into viscose you need to reduce the plant pulp into cellulose, which is achieved via an array of corrosive chemicals such as sodium hydroxide, sulfuric acid, and carbon disulfide (which has been associated with elevated incidences of Parkinson’s Disease). And because properly disposing of those chemicals is expensive, most t-shirt-manufacturing economies usually just dump their waste into the nearest river.
“It’s just terribly ironic to market viscose as a green product,” says Paul Blanc, author of Fake Silk: a book that explores the toxic history of viscose and its mistaken identity as a sustainable product.
According to Paul, the real issue is that “sustainable” has become a lucrative yet ambiguous term. A report published by New York University’s Stern School of Business points out that sustainable-marketed products outsold non-sustainable products 90 percent of the time from 2013 to 2018. And so businesses are trying to look as sustainable as they can, even if they’re actually not.
In 2013, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) collectively fined Amazon, Kmart, Macy’s, and Sears $1.26 million for incorrectly labelling their bamboo-derived viscose products, along with 74 other businesses. An additional four businesses were fined in 2015 for the same reason.
So the production of bamboo-derived viscose trashes the planet, and misleads the consumer—but what about other bamboo products? What about those bamboo homeware thingies you keep buying from IKEA: are they bad?
Well, yes. It usually doesn’t matter what product you're buying—whether it’s bamboo linen or rayon or some kind of flat-packet table—it’s all pretty destructive. A 2014 report published by environmental watchdog Dovetail Partners highlights how rising demand for bamboo has resulted in large swathes of deforestation throughout China.
“At the end of the day, it’s very difficult to find a material that's always going to have a low environmental impact. We can’t do that for bamboo more than we can do that for any other material,” says Kathryn Fernholz, the CEO of Dovetail. “We have sustainable timber in the market. We have responsible wood products in the market, and we can have responsibly produced bamboo in the market as well—if there’s transparency in those supply chains and disclosure of those production methods.”
So as usual, the answer is to pay a bit more and buy something that's got some an official certification on it. Because if it’s cheap and made from bamboo, you’re not saving the world.
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