In search of the perfectly sustainable fabric

Bamboo Fabric

8-minutes to read

BAM is a business truly committed to sustainability. We use bamboo because it’s one of the planet’s most sustainable crops.

There are many reasons that bamboo is good for the planet. There are a few reasons that it’s not. In reality, there’s no fabric that gets everything right. Given all the considerations that impact how sustainable a fabric is, why do we believe in bamboo and the role it has to play in sustainable clothing?

Impact on biodiversity

Bamboo doesn’t need pesticides. It also has a strong root system which stores carbon. Because the root isn’t removed during harvesting, this improves soil health and supports biodiversity. Bamboo’s positive impact on biodiversity is one of its selling points.

Conventional viscose and lyocell (Tencel™) come from hardwood trees. Typically, in a ‘sustainably managed’ forest, a new tree is planted for each one that is cut down. However, this doesn’t address the problems with soil erosion and habitat destruction that come with deforestation because once the tree is cut down the root system will die. The new tree will take years to grow back.

Conventional cotton can have an extremely harmful impact on biodiversity due to heavy pesticide use. This, along with other industrial agricultural methods causes soil erosion – one of the biggest threats to biodiversity. The pesticides also make their way into surrounding eco-systems through the air and through irrigation run-off which in turn poisons wildlife, fish and bees.

Organic cotton is better than conventional cotton because it doesn’t need pesticides.

Land use

The fashion industry is set to increase its land use by 115 million hectares by 2030 (Global Fashion Agenda & Boston Consulting Group, Pulse of the Fashion Industry (2017)). That’s an increase five times the size of Great Britain.

Cotton takes up a lot of land – 2.5% of the  world’s arable land (The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future (2017)) And while organic cotton solves many of the problems associated with cotton cultivation, it’s not viable to simply switch to organic cotton as it just needs far too much land. 

Bamboo uses 50% less land than cotton to produce the same amount of fibre and can be grown on degraded land where other crops won’t grow.

Conventional viscose and lyocell (Tencel™) come from hardwood trees. Cutting them down can lead to deforestation which in turn releases greenhouse gases into the environment and impacts soil strength.

Water use

Cotton needs to be irrigated to grow. It can take 2700 litres of water (including rainwater) to make the cotton for a shirt . This is particularly concerning when cotton is grown in areas of water scarcity where water needs to be irrigated, compromising the supply of water to the local population who need it to drink.  

Organic cotton is better than conventional cotton because it absorbs more natural rainfall so less irrigation is needed.

Bamboo doesn’t need any irrigation as it grows using natural rainwater.

Processing

Bamboo

In order to turn bamboo pulp into a fabric we use a viscose process which uses chemicals. When people question the sustainability of bamboo it’s normally because of this chemical process.

We know that if managed and treated responsibly there is no need for chemicals to be damaging to people or the environment. We believe it’s possible to eliminate chemical pollution and we’ve set ourselves a goal to do so by 2030.

Across the industry we are seeing huge improvements in technology, chemical recovery and waste treatment processes. Our focus is on being a part of that change whilst also embracing the possibilities of lyocell and recycled viscose.

Lyocell

Lycocell is an alternative process to Viscose. It also uses a chemical process with the upside that the main chemical it uses is organic and can be 99% recovered and re-used. Its downside is that it uses hardwood trees as a raw material which, as we’ve seen, impacts biodiversity even when it’s grown in sustainably managed forests.

The real limitation, however, is that lyocell makes up less than 10% of the regenerated cellulose market. The reality is that lyocell is unlikely to ever replace viscose completely.  Switching the whole MMCF (man-made cellulosic fibres) industry over to lyocell would take an unfeasibly long time. We’ll have a bigger impact more quickly by putting our energy behind improving the viscose process.

So what fabric should you choose?

Cotton needs a lot of land, pesticides and irrigation. Organic cotton is better because it doesn’t need pesticides or irrigation, but it still needs the land. Lyocell is a really exciting fibre – we use it under the brand name Tencel – but it relies on cutting down trees to make it. Bamboo doesn’t need pesticides or irrigation and it needs half the land of cotton. But turning bamboo into fibre does require a chemical viscose process. There’s no perfectly sustainable option but new advances for every fabric are playing an important part in how the industry reduces its overall impact: we’d love to work with a bamboo lyocell, it just hasn’t been developed yet.

We believe that bamboo’s positives outweigh the negatives. But more importantly we believe that if we want to create a regenerative fabric with no downsides, then the only way to do that is to systematically address those downsides.

So how are we doing that?

As part of our goal to be impact positive, we are reducing any remaining pollution from our textile processing to zero. To do that we’ve traced back through our entire supply chain to ensure we know exactly who is making our fibre and dyeing and finishing our fabrics. When it comes to the viscose process, we have visited both of the viscose producers used by our suppliers. We know for ourselves exactly how our bamboo viscose is made and we have made a commitment to only work with textile manufacturers who have responsible chemical management systems and waste treatment practices and who invest in the technology needed to make things better.

We don’t shy away from the realities of bamboo viscose because – despite these chemicals – it is still one of the most sustainable fibres available and it’s a planet-friendly alternative to conventional viscose, cotton & polyester. And even more than that, with all the focus the industry is putting behind improving the viscose process, it has the potential to be a truly regenerative fabric.