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The advantage of many renewable fibers such as bamboo is that they can be grown without petroleum based toxic pesticides, herbicides and defoliates such as those that are typically used in cotton growing.
Despite the nearly impeccable growing characteristics of bamboo, there are some concerns associated with its processing (as noted in my recent post Bamboo Processing Considerations I). Since that post, I have come across evidence suggesting that there are companies currently processing bamboo in a low impact manner.
At Green Festivals in DC, I visited Jonano, one of the best eco-fashion apparel stores in my view, and spoke with Bonnie Seifers (owner and designer of the company). According to Bonnie, it is possible to process bamboo without harsh chemicals and damaging environmental impacts. Her process (obviously proprietary) does not use bleaching and is apparently organic. Jonano carries a range of organic clothes for men, women and children with a fashionable, yet comfortable look. Many of her fabrics derived from bamboo and processed into her own proprietary blend called ecoKashmere.
Further to the green bamboo processing argument, last weekend I had the opportunity to visit Envi, a relatively new eco-friendly clothing store on Newbury Street in Boston, MA. Envi carries a broad range of green apparel labels from Stuart + Brown, to Panda Snack, Twice Shy and Toggle as well as Edun.
While small, the store carries a variety of styles including some of the softest, most appealing bamboo shirts and skirts I have seen. In chatting with the salesperson, I learned that at least some of the companies producing bamboo clothing are borrowing from the practices of Tencel production and reusing the solvents throughout the pulverizing and combing process, such that environmental damage is minimized. So it may be the case that the bamboo clothes (at least those in Envi Be Green and by Jonano) are more green than originally thought.
While it is very difficult to get a solid handle on exact bamboo processing steps and components, Tencel production appears to be one of closest comparison. Tencel is similar to bamboo in a number of respects.
Tencel is the brand name for a fiber generically called lyocell, and lyocell is a man-made fiber from natural wood pulp. It has proven popular in clothing primarily because it is absorbant , soft and comfortable. It is particularly appealing in high humidity climates. Lyocell (or tencel) is stronger that cotton and rayon and does not lose strength when wet. It is frequently blended with cotton or polyester, typically in oven fabrics. It is manufactured using a solvent spinning process, but the solvent is reused so that there is little environmental exposure.
Patagonia, a remarkably innovative outdoor clothing company with one of the most pioneering green track records of the last two decades has been using tencel for quite some time. According to Kill Vlahos, environmental analysis director for Patagonia, “Tencel production is a closed loop system. All solvents remaining after processing are reused; none gone into the waste steam. Most processors won’t talk about bamboo processing. They say it’s a proprietary process. We need disclosure, and the information we get has to reveal true environmental advantages for us to consider the fiber.” Source: ‘All Natural” in http://www.geartrends.com Winter 2005
So if this is also the case for Bamboo, then we are looking at a much more eco-friendly product. However I dare say that not all companies are embracing the closed loop production process (without multi-stage bleaching). At Green Festivals, I asked as many vendors as possible who were selling bamboo fabrics/products, and only one of them, Jonano confirmed organic, eco-friendly processing. Others, such as Pure Fiber, mentioned that they do not have full information on the processing, since it is proprietary and done before they get the fabric (in places such as Pakistan).
Hopefully someday we will have a better certification process available that will also include the processing of these fibers. Until that time however, it is important to ask questions on the sourcing of materials and make sure that the processing meets your own standards of green-ness.
Source: Flickr (Ewe Give Me Knits!)
Top photo source: Flickr (spiffxp)