Is Tencel an Environmentally Friendly Alternative to Bamboo Fabric?


There’s never only one side to any story. Bamboo fabric is a classic example of a product that on the surface sounds very green. Bamboo plants grow incredibly quickly, can be planted in areas unsuitable for other crops, and rarely need any pesticides or herbicides. But issues arise with the way the fibres are processed and the fabric manufactured.

The most popular manufacturing process involves sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide, both highly toxic chemicals to humans, and when released into the environment. The majority of bamboo fabric production takes place in China, a country not renowned for worker’s rights or environmental respect.

Bamboo fabric may have something to learn from another material that’s been produced quietly, with little environmental fanfare, for the last twenty years. Lyocell, sold as Tencel, is a fabric made from wood pulp. Tencel and Tencel blends drape well and are used predominantly in dresses and formalwear.

Tencel is manufactured in a proprietary process by the Lenzing Group, a international group of companies based in Austria. Lenzing describe themselves as “committed to the principles of sustainable management and very high environmental standards.” Tencel is manufactured in a similar way to bamboo fabric, but with important differences that may be the solution to green bamboo fabric manufacturing.

Here’s the recipe. First, take some wood pulp. Lenzing’s pulp mill uses hardwood – mostly birch and oak – from sustainable forestry plantations. The trees are chemically pulped and bleached. Lenzing say they utilise a closed-loop process and don’t use chlorine bleach to minimize environmental impact. However, Lenzing also buys wood pulp and their website becomes vague as to what conditions their suppliers’ wood pulp is manufactured under.

Next, the wood pulp is turned into fibres through a process called “solvent spinning”. Wood pulp is dissolved in a chemical called N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide (NMNO). The liquid is squirted through thousands of tiny holes in a spinneret, forming individual Tencel fibers. The spun fibres are washed, the NMNO is retrieved from the water, and it is purified, and reused in a 99% closed-loop process. NMNO can be toxic, but much less so than the sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide used for processing bamboo. Small quantities of NMMO are actually produced in the body as a metabolite of several common drugs.

With a sustainable source of wood pulp, Tencel manufacturing has a much lower environmental impact than bamboo fabric. But despite considerate forestry practices, tree farms are more damaging to the ecosystem than growing bamboo. When natural forests are cleared for farms the local ecosystem suffers from the reduction in bio-diversity in the area. Bamboo is the slight winner here: it naturally colonises areas other plants find challenging and often grows with few other species for company, so it has less environmental impact when planted as a monocrop on a farm. Bamboo also grows much faster than hardwood trees, processing many times more CO2 from the environment than trees can.

Bamboo can be grown ecologically, and because of the increasing popularity of bamboo, companies are developing new, greener, ways to process the fibres ecologically, inspired by Tencel processing. Companies like Pure Bamboo are using new closed-loop processing methods, and hopefully more will follow.

Tencel is currently more eco-friendly to manufacture, and – depending on your standards – acceptably eco-friendly to grow. But bamboo fabric has the potential to be a true eco-friendly cloth.

For more on Tencel, What is Tencel on Wisegeek.

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This post was written by one of Green Cotton’s contributing writer’s Brit.

HEMP: Making a Comeback


Hemp is one of the strongest natural fibers today. Widely misunderstood and undervalued for its usefulness, industrial hemp fiber has inherent insulating properties that wick moisture and helps block UVA and UVB rays. As a crop, it is naturally resistant to pests and therefore does not require heavy use of toxic pest and herbicides. As a fabric, like bamboo, hemp has natural antibacterial and anti-mold properties and happens to use a fraction of the water that cotton requires to grow. When it comes to growing, hemp is similar to linen, another stalk fiber.

Hemp is a traditional fiber crop which can be grown in a wide range of climates including the UK, Canada and Australia. This low input crop needs few chemicals and is easy to grow organically. The fabrics produced are renowned for their durability and ability to “breathe”. Bioregional solutions for Sustainability recently posted information on the UK’s movement toward industrial hemp production for clothing purposes.


  • Clothing (all kinds, but primarily heavier, sturdier fabric items such as pants, shoes, handbags, sweaters, jackets, etc). Hemp CAN be made into T-shirts, blankets, shorts and softer, thinner items but these generally require more processing since the natural fiber does organically possess thickness.
  • Food Products: hemp seed oil, hemp oil, toasted seeds, coffee, flour, protein powders and bars.
  • Beauty products: lotions, butters, crèmes, lipware, oils, perfumes.
  • Construction materials.
  • Ropes, bags and other heavy duty fiber use.
  • Other uses.

Hemp is legal to grow and produce in Canada since 1998. Industrial hemp is entirely different than marijuana. Check out this CNN video on Hemp production in Canada with a focus on one company, Manitoba. They export $10 million /year in hemp food products alone. Products include a number of oils, coffee, protein powders, toasted hemp seeds, flours and other items. They also make a variety of body care products and other products including varieties of hemp oil (cold pressed, cold filtered).

Interestingly, Canada requires testing of all crops during the growing season. Samples are taken of the crop and sent to authorized testing labs for THC composition readings. Maximum level of THC allowed in industrial hemp crop in Canada is.3%. For comparison, marijuana is anywhere between 5 – 20% THC, so there is a significant difference, which makes the management of industrial hemp production rather straight forward and feasible.

Looking for a clothing store near you that sells Hemp products?

Well, you just might be in luck! A new website has launched Hemp Clothing Stores for specifically this purpose: to help consumers find Hemp stores all across the country. The site uses a digital map which you can customize to your own interests (flagging favorites etc.). However, when I tried it out for the Maryland/DC area, I did run into problems. My guess is that they are still working out some of the programming glitches, but the idea is a great one. Now we need one for green clothing in general, including organic cotton, bamboo and tencel.

Hempest founded in 1995, has the goal of bringing hemp back to the marketplace and into public discourse. With the belief that the market is the best place to bring out change, Hempest aims to create good products at a reasonable price to simultaneously raise awareness on the value of this plant. Hempest has an urban, alternative beat to it, with a focus on causal, alternative, comfortable clothing wear. They have two stories in Boston (Harvard Square and Newbury Street), North Hampton, MA and one in Burlington VT.

For an short video on the harvesting of hemp for hemp oil and food products click on the link.

Braintree Hemp is a globally established hemp company originating in Australia and supplying to stores all across Australia as well as London and anywhere through their online store. For them, hemp clothing is not just about high quality products, but it is also about the environmental advantages of the fibre– from cultivating and processing through to the manufacture of the textile. They also have a robust on-line store with purchasing capabilities in Euros, Pounds and US dollar.

A variety of other stores also sell a selection of hemp clothing and brands. The stores highlighted here on this post are merely those that are devoted purely to hemp fiber. Photo Source for both Photos: Flickr.

CHALLENGE: While hemp IS becoming more and more mainstream, in reviewing several of the companies that are out there using hemp, it seems that at least in the USA it is still alternative, associated with urban-street, casual attire and is sill co-branding with some marijuana-esque symbolisms and references. While this is hitting a market niche, I would argue that there is value to hemp that can and should go beyond an alternative market. Hemp needs to be positioned as a mainstream fiber even more and given the credibility it deserves as a low impact, sustainable, multi-use fiber that definitely has a place in the fashion world. While it would help if it could be legally growm in the US, the fact that it is widely available in Canada should not stop retailers from integrating this fiber into some of their lines. Some already are and hats off to them.


Bamboo Processing Considerations II


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By Shana

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 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.


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Source: Flickr (Ewe Give Me Knits!)

Top photo source: Flickr (spiffxp)

Bamboo: Processing Considerations

Organic Clothing Blog recently brought our attention to the important distinction between bamboo, the miracle plant, and bamboo fiber, the more troublesome fabric. While bamboo is indisputably one of the world’s most sustainable and eco-friendly grass plants, the clothing fiber is not easy to produce from the raw grass, nor apparently as sustainable. Manufacturing the fiber into a usable fabric appears to be wrought with environmentally concerning effects.


Two well know processes exist for producing regenerated bamboo fiber:

1) Chemical Processing: Sodium hydroxide (NaOH- also known as caustic soda or lye) is used to ‘cook’ the fiber into a form of regenerated cellulose fiber
carbon disulfide is used for hydrolysis alkalization combined with multi phase
bleaching. This process produces a fiber also known as bamboo rayon or modal.
Chemical processing is the most popular bamboo fiber regeneration process.

2) Mechanical Processing: In mechanical transformation, machines are used to crush the woody parts of the bamboo plant; natural enzymes are then used to break the bamboo into a mushy mass at which point the individual fibers are combed out and spun into a yarn. This is similar to the process used to make linen. As such, the end product in this process is also known as bamboo linen. This process is much less popular than chemical, primarily because it is much more labor intensive and costly.

Both processes present environmental hazards and harmful health effects. As for the chemicals (the more widespread process), breathing in carbon disulfide is known to cause tiredness, headache and nerve damage among the exposed. At factory plants it is also associated with neural disorders among rayon manufacturers.

Low levels of exposure to sodium hydroxide is also known to cause irritation of the eyes and skin. As a strong alkaline base in its crystalline form, caustic soda (NaOH) is one of the major ingredients of Drano. These same chemicals are used not only for bamboo, but in standard rayon processing from wood or cotton waste byproducts.

Because of the health risks posed by these chemicals, coupled with the negative environmental impacts in surrounding factory plants, bamboo manufacturing, like other regenerated fibers produced using hydrolysis alkalization, is not considered eco-friendly, nor sustainable. However, important to note is that some companies ARE producing bamboo organically, using processing that do not involve bleaching.

Yet, what is the alternative? When assessing environmental impacts, we must always weigh the alternatives, one of which is traditional cotton. In the case of cotton, while in some cases the processing may be less chemical intensive (although not always) the growing is one of the most environmentally destructive crops in the world both in terms of water and pesticide use.

In addition, it appears there are some organic bamboo processing pioneers out there and more are on the way. I am certain that it is only a question of time before we develop environmentally friendly processes to transform the pulp into fine fibers. Consider the green progress made in household cleaning, lawn fertilizer and pesticide products. It is only a question of time before we discover greener methods for bamboo processing, too.

Additional advantages of Bamboo: Bamboo fabric is very soft and can be worn directly next to the skin. Many people who experience allergic reactions to other natural fibers, such as wool or hemp, do not complain of this issue with bamboo. The fiber is naturally smooth and round without chemical treatment, meaning that there are no sharp spurs to irritate the skin. (Source: Wise

More on Bamboo ( Bamboo fiber resembles cotton in its unspun form, a puffball of light, airy fibers.

Photo Credit: Organic Clothing Blog

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What do conventional fashion designers Diane vonFurstenberg,
Oscar de la Renta, Kate O’Connor, Agnes B and eco-fashion designers Amanda Shi of Avita, Linda
Loudermilk, Katherine Hamnett, Miho Aoki and Thuy Pham at United Bamboo, Sara Kirsner at Doie Designs, and clothing
manufacturers Bamboosa, Shirts Of Bamboo, Jonano, HTnaturals
in Canada and Panda Snack, and fabric
manufacturers Table Bay Spinners of
South Africa, Richfield Tang Knits Ltd.
in Mauritius have in common? Bamboo.
Chemically manufactured bamboo fiber is a regenerated
cellulose fiber similar to rayon or modal. Chemically manufactured bamboo is sometimes called bamboo rayon because of the many similarities in the way it is chemically manufactured and
similarities in its feel and hand.


The manufacturing processes where bamboo the
plant is transformed into bamboo the fabric are where the sustainability and
eco-friendly luster of bamboo is tarnished because of the heavy chemicals

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Organic Wool on the Rise in Australia

Demand is surging. In a country that has steadfastly relied upon wool production– with some 25% of Australia’s land mass occupied by sheep flock, organic wool is taking hold among herders with for the first time, the highest premium on the market (20% over conventional fleeces). Looks like those Australians will be herding more and more of the organic curly haired ruminants!

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The incentive for graziers to embrace organic wool is the same as that attract food farmers. Better returns. Organic wool is fetching up to a 20% premium over conventional fleeces. Elders Wool Marketing Manager Michael Blake observed that organic wool needed to be treated as mainstream – such was the demand – rather than as a niche, one-off line.
wool continues to represent about 6% of the gross value of agricultural production, and our sheep flock of about 107 million curly haired ruminants apparently occupy some 25% of Australia’s land mass. Yet organic wool seemingly only makes up 1% of this renewable fibre crop.


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