The FTC has recently laid down the law on numerous bamboo fabric manufacturers for “greenwashing” their product. Bamboo is touted by many to be the ultimate “green” fabric. It is sustainable, meaning that bamboo grows like a grass, very quickly. It is absorbent, soft, is biodegradable, and it is supposed to be anti-microbial. While some of these factors mean nothing for your t-shirt, bamboo has taken over the cloth diaper world. The very properties of bamboo that are so attractive to diaper manufacturers and consumers alike my not even be true! Because bamboo has to be processed in order for it to be a fabric it now has to be called either “rayon” or “rayon from bamboo.”
Lets break down the claims and examine what is true, what is false, and what matters.
First? What makes bamboo “rayon”? Rayon is defined by the process by which it is made, not the material to make it. Rayon can be made by wood pulp, cotton, and bamboo. Rayon is in fact a “natural” fabric since it does not use man made materials. The process to make rayon, however, can have harmful environmental effects. Many consumers of bamboo buy products made with it because they feel it is organic, natural, and chemical free. The process of making bamboo into fabric has many critics wondering if that negates everything. If you are truly interested, I have found a very scientific explanation of how rayon in manufactured, including the equation. I had flashbacks from my balancing equations in chemistry. Visit Mindfully.org for more on this.
Closed Loop and Open Loop are terms used the for how bamboo is manufactured. A Closed loop process would continually recycle the water and by products of the manufacturing process which in theory means a greener production. An open loop process means those chemicals are released in some form. With either process, because the bamboo is turned into a pulp and then treated with chemicals, do any of the natural properties of bamboo remain?
The Fashion Incubator has broken down the claims about bamboo and what remains after processing.
Examples of questionable claims:
Claim: Organic bamboo fiber clothing is naturally anti-microbial… It …prevents bacteria from cultivating on it.
Fact: Rayon, regardless of input (wood pulp or bamboo) and whether organic or not, doesn’t mildew as easily as some other natural fabrics. If “anti-microbial” is intended to convey the characteristic of preventing bacteria growth (mildew resistance), then this would be true -of all rayons, not just bamboo.
Claim: Bamboo apparel is thermal regulating, anti-fungal, anti-static and will keep you cooler, drier, warmer and odor free.
Fact: This is characteristic of rayon, regardless of whether made by wood or bamboo.
Claim: Bamboo is grown without pesticides.
Fact: Trees used to make rayon are also grown organically without pesticides. The only trees sprayed with pesticides are fruit and nut trees and this wood is not likely to be used in rayon production because the lumber harvested at the end of the tree’s life cycle is highly coveted. Fruit and nut lumbers are used in expensive furniture, veneers and consumer products. Furthermore, it is not possible for residual pesticides to remain in the fiber at the end of the rayon process.
Claim: Bamboo is hypoallergenic, breathable, and absorbent.
Fact: Again, true of all rayons.
Claim: Growing bamboo improves soil quality and helps rebuild eroded soil. The extensive root system of bamboo holds soil together, prevents soil erosion, and retains water in the watershed.
Fact: This is also true of trees used to make rayon.
Claim: Bamboo grows naturally without the need for agricultural tending and large diesel exhaust-spewing tractors to plant seeds and cultivate the soil.
Fact: Also true of trees used to make rayon.
Claim: Bamboo fabrics and clothing can be manufactured and produced without any chemical additives
Fact: This is wildly untrue of any rayon regardless of the material used for the cellulose base.
Claim: Bamboo grows rapidly and naturally without any pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers.
Fact: On the face of it, this is all true. As a practical matter, the rise of bamboo’s popularity has led to the hazards common to commercialization. For example, clearing vast tracts for bamboo production has contributed to deforestation, rendering a mono-culture at the expense of biodiversity. Similarly, acreage formerly used for food production has given way to bamboo cultivation. What’s more, herbicides are increasingly used to reduce competing foliage.
I am personally shocked about how bamboo is marketed versus the truth. As this excerpt states, any Rayon has many of the same properties.
So, what does this mean for Bamboo in cloth diapers? First, since the FTC has changed the definition of Bamboo, diapers will now have to be labeled as Rayon or, if they can substantiate it, Rayon from Bamboo. They will still be able to call Organic Bamboo Velour just that, but from an ingredients standpoint the tag will have to read rayon. Take a cotton t shirt, it is labeled “cotton” but if you read the label it will most likely read “95% cotton 5% spandex”. In this case they can probably say “Organic Bamboo Velour” but the label will read “90% Rayon from Bamboo 10% cotton.”
I am still of the opinion that bamboo diapers are great. They work well because they are very absorbent, they are made from a sustainable resource but just happened to be processed. All of us knew somewhere that bamboo has to be processed. Like you, I never thought twice about how. You cannot weave bamboo stalks into a squishy soft diaper.
Here is what some of the leading makers of bamboo diapers have said about the situation:
Goodmama, makers of organic bamboo velour diapers-
1. Most of this concern in the industry is related to people that use bamboo fabrics which are chemically treated in a way that is environmentally harsh and would therefore lend itself to be harsh on the consumer. I would point out that there are two ways of chemically treating bamboo cellulose – one way with this harsh hydrolysis with alkalization and multiple stages of bleaching — the other way with a solvent is non-toxic and completely recycled during the manufacturing process. This is what we use.
2. I can tell you that we personally have our bamboo velour processed, milled, woven, and sheared here in the United States. Suzanne has personally toured this facility. I am in constant contact with them regarding the 6-week process of turning bamboo fibers into our gorgeous velour. I know the status of both our bamboo velour and our bamboo fleece, and I know what stage of the process each of our fabrics is in.
Having this facility make it for us here in the U.S. is a huge part of why I love working for goodmama in production. We are one of a very, very, very small list of companies who uses only U.S. made bamboo velour. Just because a diaper is made in the United States does not mean that the fabrics are made there — but with goodmama, you can know that your bamboo velour was not part of a coop velour order from China but that it was milled, woven, sheared, and laundered all right here! I’m so proud of that!!!
I have been reading, however, that the FTC wants people to use the term “rayon” rather than bamboo velour, as it is a fiber that does not occur in fiber form unless processed. I’m continuing to read and gather all my data. Although bamboo is classified as rayon by the FTC because it is made from cellulose, it is actually a subset of rayon that uses a separate process from viscose to convert the bamboo cellulose to a spinnable form. I’ll continue reading from the FTC to be sure that we label accordingly
In rebuttal to the process by which their bamboo is manufactured:
No, when it comes to chemically creating a bamboo product — there are two different processes — the problem is that the FTC is not differentiating these two. They are only saying that if the wood pulp is being changed into a different state in ANY way, it is considered rayon:
1) “cooking” the bamboo leaves and woody shoots in strong chemical solvents such as sodium hydroxide (NaOH – also known as caustic soda or lye) and carbon disulfide in a process also known as hydrolysis alkalization combined with multi-phase bleaching.
We do NOT use this process.
2) The second way is more benign and eco-friendly. The same chemical manufacturing process used to produce lyocell from wood cellulose can be modified to use bamboo cellulose. N-methylmorpholine-N-oxide to dissolve the bamboo cellulose into a viscose solution. N-methylmorpholine-N-oxide is a member of the amine oxide family. Amine oxides are weak alkalines that act as surfactants and help break down the cellulose structure. It is certified safe for consumers, as they are agents found in nature.
This IS the process that we use.
Simply put, bamboo cannot be used as a fabric unless it is changed structurally.
Kim from GadBaby.com of the bamboo they use:
The material used for GAD’s was awarded the OCIA International Organic Certification, which is done by an independent third party. That being said, this issue is being discussed with the supplier, and if need be the labels will be changed to reflect the new verbiage.
Bagshot Row Bamboo is in the process of placing information about their bamboo on their website.
I also wanted to direct you to another article written in defense of bamboo. This article maintains that bamboo does have the proported proerties that the FTC is stripping from it. Green Earth News examines why the FTC believes bamboo is not biodegradeable and counters that.
I want to hear what you think. Does the new classification change your decision to buy bamboo diapers (or other bamboo goods)?