Have you felt the exquisite softness of bamboo?
It’s the latest thing — bamboo towels, bathrobes, T-shirts.
There are even “velour” bamboo diapers.
Bamboo is everywhere, and it has replaced hemp as the new environmental fabric.
Besides being a renewable resource that is completely biodegradable, bamboo is even more sustainable than most natural fibers because it grows in abundance (up to four feet a day in some places) — and wildly, without the help of pesticides and fertilizers, unlike its industrialized cousin, cotton.
“Bamboo is the fastest growing canopy for the regreening of degraded areas and generates more oxygen than an equivalent stand of wood trees,” according to “http://www.bamboofabricstore.com” www.bamboofabricstore.com, an online retail outlet in Australia.
“Bamboo also has fantastic soil holding capabilities helping to prevent erosion.”
Bamboo is shockingly silky and draping considering the stiff plant it is made from, the one we associate with panda bears in China and tiny huts.
As a plant, it is highly durable; in cities such as Hong Kong and Shanghai, bamboo is used as scaffolding on skyscrapers.
Once a pulp, or a T-shirt, bamboo is highly absorbent — 60 per cent more absorbent than cotton; it also absorbs water, or human sweat, faster than other textiles.
Bamboo is more breathable than cotton.
One Chinese manufacturer calls it “air conditioning” fabric.
And to top it all off, no chemical antimicrobials, which can cause skin allergies, are added to protect the fabric from growing bacteria and getting smelly, because bamboo is naturally anti-bacterial.
It is even being added to other fabrics as a replacement to chemical antimicrobials.
If this is all true, this is all good news because it threatens to put cotton out of business.
And why is this desirable?
Cotton today covers five per cent of the world’s cultivatable surface.
Entire countries are being sucked dry by cotton’s demand for irrigation, poisoned by the pesticides required to grow them — cotton uses higher volumes of more toxic pesticides than any other crop, one-quarter of the world’s pesticides, in fact.
Cotton textile manufacturers use toxic dyes to finish their products.
In the United States, cotton plants are genetically engineered.
In Mexico, fragile ecosystems are being destroyed by the extraction of pumice from the earth to ‘stone wash’ jeans, which are made from cotton.
The textile industry that upholds cotton as the world’s democratic fabric (check out any Levi’s ad) is shrouded in deplorable conditions for humans.
Cotton blue jeans are made in sweatshop havens such as Bangladesh, Guatamala and Phillipines, where (mostly) women are paid some of the lowest wages in the world.
Cotton, along with the global garment industry in general, is responsible for a hefty share of the world’s worst labour conditions, including forced labour, throughout its long manufacturing line of cultivation, spinning, dyeing, weaving, cutting and stitching.
And what about bamboo?
Well, the labour practices surrounding this new garment industry have been slow to leak out.
But its claims as the world’s eco-friendly friendly fabric, however, is already being shot down, and what they these criticisms are revealing holds significant implications for garment workers as well as the environment.
There are two ways to process bamboo to make the plant into a fabric: mechanically or chemically.
The mechanical way crushes the woody parts of the bamboo plant and uses natural enzymes to break the bamboo walls into a mushy mass so that the natural fibers can be mechanically combed out and spun into yarn, virtually the same eco-friendly manufacturing process used to produce linen fabric from flax or hemp.
Bamboo fabric made from this process is sometimes called bamboo linen.
Very little bamboo linen is manufactured for clothing because it is more labor intensive and costly.
Chemically manufactured bamboo is sometimes called bamboo rayon.
This is because of the similarities in the way it is manufactured and how it feels.
Most bamboo fabric that is the current eco-fashion rage is chemically manufactured by “cooking” the bamboo leaves and woody shoots in strong chemical solvents such as sodium hydroxide (NaOH – also known as lye or caustic soda, one of the major ingredients of Drano) and carbon disulfide in a process also known as hydrolysis alkalization combined with multi-phase bleaching.
Both sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide have been linked to serious health problems.
Breathing low levels of carbon disulfide can cause drowsiness, headaches and nerve damage.
Carbon disulfide has been shown to cause neural disorders in workers at rayon manufacturers.
Low levels of exposure to sodium hydroxide can cause irritation of the skin and eyes.
The bottom line on labour and bamboo: If the manufacturing facility lacks adequate pollution control systems, which is all too common in developing countries where regulations and enforcement are nearly non-existent, then workers will be poisoned.
And there can be no doubt that bamboo sweatshops are in full swing.
Bamboo clothing everywhere is riding the wave of a saintly reputation, which probably very few companies actually deserve.
Beware of bamboo. Don’t get spun.
Juliann Fraser is a writer living in Whitehorse.