Bamboo versus organic cotton

There’s a certified organic camisole next to a gorgeously soft and sheer bamboo one. You’re erring towards the bamboo because even though it’s not organic, the packaging is screaming ‘I’m green! I’m the most natural fibre on the planet’.

Is bamboo just as good as organic cotton?

If your instincts are telling you that the bamboo must have gone through some serious shit if it’s gone from a tree shoot or trunk to this lovely soft thing in front of you, you’re right.

Bamboo is a fantastic fibre. It makes for a great building material and all it really needs to grow is water. Cotton on the other hand is usually grown with some fertilisers (natural or synthetic) and bucket loads of water. As a crop it’s more labour and input intensive.

However there’s not a huge leap in states between the soft fluffy heads of cotton and your t-shirt, whereas bamboo has to be beaten into submission.

Bamboo melt down

After it’s cut, bamboo shoots are soaked in a sodium hydroxide/carbon disulfide solution. This melts it down into a viscose material.

Carbon disulfide is a very versatile chemical. According to the Australian Government’s National Pollutant Inventory its main industrial use is in regenerating cellulose rayon – which is what it’s doing for bamboo (as an aside it’s also been used as an insecticide and fungicide for transporting fruit).

This is why textiles made from bamboo can’t be certified organic.

The bamboo plantation can easily be grown to organic standards, but the process of turning the plant into textiles requires harsh chemicals and therefore the end product can’t carry a legitimate organic logo.

What’s GOTS got to say? 

The Global Organic Textile Standards, or GOTS, certifies the majority of the world’s organic textiles. It classifies bamboo textiles as synthetics – a far cry from how they’re marketed.

America’s Federal Trade Commission thinks along similar lines and points out that when shoppers buy bamboo clothes, they are potentially buying something called rayon, which bares no resemblance to bamboo. Some manufacturers call bamboo fibre viscose, not rayon; however they’re using the same intensive process.

Needless to say GOTS hasn’t certified bamboo clothes and doesn’t see it doing so anytime soon since it’s not aware of a process that doesn’t involve harsh chemicals.

What about hemp?

So where does this leave hemp which, after all, also comes from plant stalks but can be certified organic? A GOTS spokesperson says, “I know that in the production of hemp a lot of technology that was used traditionally is lost due to legal restrictions of hemp cultivation from the 1950s onwards.”

Nevertheless it lends itself to being turned into textiles through mechanisation much more easily than bamboo.

Hemp is made up of different stuff; its inner core is what’s used to make textiles and this inner core is a much softer, more malleable material that is separated from the outer husk and dyed.

Leave chemicals behind

Even though bamboo viscose is made by melting down fibre it doesn’t mean you have to wear the chemicals.

If you want bamboo look for a certification that verifies there’s no traces of harmful chemicals in the end product.

Australian company Boody makes bamboo underwear, leggings, t-shirts and baby wear. It has Oeko-Tex certification for their yarns – a Swiss-based international organisation that tests for chemicals in textiles.

Founder David Greenblo says Oeko-Tex “certifies that the finished fibre has been tested for any chemicals that may be harmful to a person’s health and has been found to contain no trace chemicals that pose any health threat.”

While they couldn’t certify the end product they’ve tried to make manufacture as ethical as possible by also sourcing bamboo from organic plantations and using factories with eco certification (ISO 14000). The Chinese factories that make the product have Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production certification, which promotes ethical manufacturing.

The verdict on bamboo versus organic cotton

Would this sustainable shopper choose the bamboo camisole over the certified organic one? No.

If there weren’t an organic cotton alternative would I buy it? Possibly, but I would be looking for ethical accreditations and not picturing a beautiful green bamboo plantation if I do.

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Kathy Cogo is the founder and editor of Sustainable Shopper. A journalist of 15 years, she's been a senior reporter with the ABC and has managed communications and media for a range of not for profit organisations including Australia's largest organic certifying group, Australian Certified Organic.

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