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I've read that clothes made from bamboo fibers require about 1/3 the amount of water compared to cotton. Also bamboo grows much faster than cotton and it requires little or no herbicides or fertilizer. This suggests that bamboo has a much lower environmental impact than cotton. Is that really the case?

It seems that only a very small percentage of clothing you can buy in the stores nowadays is made from bamboo (at least where I live). If the advantages are really this big, why aren't more clothing manufacturers switching to bamboo? What are the disadvantages of using bamboo?

  • 2
    Perhaps issues of comfort & washability play a part. While I've never owned bamboo fabric, I know there are great differences between cotton, wool, silk, & hemp (not to mention synthetics), which make them suitable for different applications. Another reason might be supply & demand: lots of producers of cotton fabric out there, so it's readily available in quantity at a low price. – jamesqf Jun 23 '15 at 18:42
  • Some discussion, along similar lines to the best answer, here: theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2008/aug/13/bamboo.fabric – Paul D. Waite Apr 9 '17 at 15:45
  • There is a great article on this at least from a kids perspective wrigglytoes.com.au/blog/bamboo/… – vcetinick Jul 6 at 20:18
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Bamboo Pros

  • Bamboo is a perennial grass.
    • You don't need to put annual effort and energy into it's cultivation.
    • You don't need to disturb the soil, so the soil ecosystem stays intact.
    • NO Soil Erosion!
  • Bamboo suppresses the growth of other plants (weeds) around it so it requires NO Herbicides.
  • Bamboo is VERY hardy against pests and diseases so it requires NO Pesticides, especially if grown in a polyculture. This is in part a result of the fact that bamboo contains a natural antimicrobial compound called bamboo-kun which defends the plants against fungal attacks.
  • Requires NO Fertilizer when growing for fiber. (Note: some bamboo crops grown for the young edible shoots do use some fertilizer and herbicide.)
  • Bamboo grows extremely fast.
  • Bamboo takes less water to grow, and is drought tolerant.
  • Bamboo textiles hold much more water than cotton textiles.
  • Bamboo textiles wick water away from the skin much more quickly than cotton textiles.
  • Bamboo is a better insulator than cotton.
  • Bamboo fiber, when processed naturally, contains a natural antimicrobial compound called bamboo-kun. (Note: Most bamboo fiber is processed using the viscose method, which strips it of the bamboo-kun. Also see comments below for externalities coming from viscose method, which chemically alters the fiber.)
  • Bamboo fiber requires less dye than cotton for colored textiles, and results in more vibrant textiles.
  • Bamboo fibers are softer than cotton fibers.
  • Bamboo fibers do not pill as much as cotton fibers.

Bamboo Cons

  • Since Bamboo holds much more water than cotton textiles, it takes much more energy to dry it after washing. If you are using a cloths line instead of a clothes dryer then this isn't an issue.
  • Bamboo is sensitive to the timing of harvest.
  • Bamboo fibers are less durable than cotton fibers.

Cotton Pros

  • Processing cotton requires less energy and water.

Cotton Cons

  • ethicalconsumer.org/fashion-clothing/campaign-clean-viscose information here should be added to the cons of viscose from bamboo – Uli Alskelung Von Hornbol Jul 17 at 5:49
  • Since that is an issue of chemically modifying natural fibers, and using deceptive marketing, I would be hesitant to call that a con for bamboo. Definitely something that consumers should be aware of though. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. – user2121874 Jul 18 at 6:48
  • I did edit my answer where I mentioned viscose processing, to direct people to your comment. – user2121874 Jul 18 at 6:55
  • Thanks! Super helpful post though, as I have been hesitant to get bamboo clothing due to these issues as well as some concern whether the particles worn off during washing will biodegrade or not but it seems they will. – Uli Alskelung Von Hornbol Jul 19 at 8:58
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I had bamboo pillowcases before, they are very soft but not very durable. So I have to disagree with the con No 2 in Sempie's post. I do know that bamboo fabric need more water to produce, which increases overall environmental impact. However, since bamboo grows really fast, I am not aware of any producer heavily using fertilizer, which is a pro comparing to cotton.

  • Agree. I had several pairs of bamboo socks I bought out of curiosity. they were soft and comfy but wore out much faster than all other kinds. – RedSonja Jan 13 '16 at 12:37
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I will answer you question on the Environmental impact of Bamboo:

As we already know, growing bamboo requires a small amount of pesticides and fertilizers which are great for the environment. However, we should take note that the bamboo has to go through several processes before it is converted into a finished product. There are two methods that are widely used to convert the bamboo into bamboo fibers:

1. Mechanical

Bamboo is crushed and mixed with natural enzymes to aid in the breakdown and then drawn into fibers. This method is eco-friendly but it more expensive owing to the labor involved.

2. Chemical

It is mixed in a cocktail of Chemicals(NaOH and Carbon Disulphide) and heated. This gives out harmful fumes.

As a result,environment-friendliness of bamboo clothing is, mainly dependant on the process involved in the making of Bamboo fiber.

  • Thank you for your answer, but I'm wondering how this relates to cotton. For example if you manufacture bamboo fibers with chemicals, is the total impact of the end-product worse, equal or still better than that of (chemically-treated) cotton? – THelper Apr 14 '17 at 10:39
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One question that wasn't raised was albedo. Cotton albedo is higher than bamboo and for the thousands of square miles used on these crops this is an important plus. But soil erosion is also a very important factor. Surely if cotton is perennial it shouldn't be necessary to plough and re-sow? At least not every year. The crop could easily be cultivated as an insect and fungus free perennial with a little genetic engineering, which I know is unpopular but which is the worst evil; this, or killing all the wildlife and destroying the soil? If, as you say, cotton fibre is more durable, My vote is definitely COTTON.

  • Welcome to Sustainable Living! You raise 2 interesting points. I do wonder how big the effect of albedo is. Do you have any references for this? – THelper Jul 30 at 6:30
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PRO

  • renewable
  • low amount of required water
  • fast growing
  • no herbicides needed

CONS

  • performs very poorly in blocking UV. You could run around naked as well.
  • low comfort (rough)
  • processed raw bamboo fabric isn't antibacterial, even if some manufactures claim it is.
  • low production quantity makes it relatively expensive
  • 3
    Do you have any references for your cons? You mention 'low comfort' but the one bamboo t-shirt I own feels much softer than my cotton t-shirts. Also it's price was comparable to that of a cotton-shirt and both cotton and bamboo are renewable resources. – THelper Aug 14 '15 at 9:57
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    Bamboo, like every other plant, is susceptible to pests, especially when grown on a large scale. So, "no herbicides needed" may be more true for bamboo than for strawberries, say, but that doesn't mean that commercially grown bamboo is free from pesticides. – Earthliŋ Dec 21 '15 at 16:55
  • Totally disagree with the ‘rough’ con post. My bamboo socks are as soft as Cashmere wool and the wicking effect means my feet stay absolutely dry all day. – Julian Midwinter Sep 22 at 0:35

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