Green shoots

As sustainable fashion becomes ever more important, new materials are constantly being developed to help create clothing that has a lower impact on the planet. Bamboo, which most of us think of as a wood-like material (or something that pandas eat) may seem like a surprising option to create a soft fabric, but it has emerged an eco-friendly option. In this post we’ll look in more detail at this material, weighing up how it compares to cotton as a sustainable t-shirt fabric.

Why is bamboo considered a sustainable material?

Bamboo – which is a grass – is a very eco-friendly crop. For starters, it’s one of the fastest growing plants in the world and can grow an incredible one metre in just 24 hours, at a rate of 40mm an hour.  Additionally, it does not require the fertiliser or pesticides used in most industrial farming, which means cultivation is low impact and doesn’t lead to polluting chemicals entering the land or water supply (though in some cases these chemicals might still be used). Bamboo goes from seed to harvest in just three years and there is no need to replant – new stalks just keep shooting up over and over again. Bamboo grown in Asia does not have a detrimental impact on water supply either, since it is grown in an environment that has plenty of rainfall – the crop is also fantastic at absorbing C02 from the atmosphere.

How is bamboo material made?

Bamboo is turned into fabric via two methods. One is mechanical, in which the plant is crushed into a pulp and natural enzymes are used to break it down. After this the fibres are combed out and spun into a yarn, creating a fabric similar to linen. The second method uses chemicals, with the plant cooked in sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide. These chemicals can be harmful to workers and the environment. The chemical method is more common as it’s cheaper and creates a softer material, but has been criticised as undermining the green credentials of bamboo. Some companies say these chemicals are only used in a small element of production so don’t have a significant impact on the environment. New techniques are also being developed to create more eco-friendly ways to extract fibre from bamboo.

bamboo fabric explained

What are the benefits of bamboo clothing?

Bamboo fabric has lot of unique properties that make it an appealing choice for eco-clothing. It has a natural sheen and softness which makes it non-irritating and perfect for anyone with sensitive skin. As well as being hypoallergenic, it is naturally anti-bacterial and anti-fungal, which makes it more hygienic and better smelling. The fabric is also more breathable, naturally more wrinkle-resistant than cotton and it absorbs dye better too.

Is bamboo more sustainable than cotton?

As a crop, bamboo is much more efficient than cotton. Cotton uses vast amount of water and is known as one of the most “thirsty crops” around. It takes 2,700 litres of water to grow the cotton needed for one t-shirt and the irrigation needed has an impact on local water supplies. Non-organic cotton is responsible for 25% of the world’s insecticide use. Cotton also needs to be replanted annually and the process of ploughing and replanting leads to soil erosion. Neither of these are issues for bamboo.

The process of converting bamboo into a material does use chemicals, however the same chemicals are often used in the process of treating cotton. Compared to regular, non-organic cotton fabric, bamboo is certainly a more sustainable material.

Bamboo vs organic cotton?

Bamboo and organic cotton should both be free of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. But bamboo still remains a far more efficient crop, creating much more material with lower water use and less land needed too (as well as its positive effect on reducing C02, cooling the the local temperature too). While the process of making bamboo into a fabric uses chemicals that may not necessarily be used in organic cotton, organic cotton could still make use of dying and finishing processes that can be bad for the environment. Both options are strong contenders for a sustainable or eco-friendly t-shirt material, but it is always important to look into the production process to understand how far the producer is going to limit the environmental impact at each stage of the supply chain.

Want to print on organic and eco cotton apparel? ICON Printing offer a range of organic cotton blanks for printing – get in touch with our team to find out more.