Bamboo Viscose 101: Is it an Eco-Friendly & Sustainable Fabric?
When you think of bamboo, what's the first thing that pops into your mind? Besides cute little pandas munching on it in YouTube videos, of course.
Eco-friendly toothbrushes, shelves that look like they came straight out of an Asian forest, biodegradable straws, and maybe even indoor plants are available in most feng shui stores, but "clothing" probably isn't one of your top picks.
However, believe it or not, bamboo clothing has recently taken the sustainable fashion industry by storm, presenting bamboo viscose as the “fabric of choice for the environmentally-conscious”. But just how "eco" is it really? Does it deserve its rising popularity?
Those questions crossed my mind the very first time I read "bamboo viscose" on the label of a shirt, and as with all things that seem to be on top of the eco-textile world overnight, it's mandatory to double-check whether it is simply a greenwashed fabric or not. So without further ado, welcome to the post where you'll learn the basics of pandas' allegedly favorite fiber — bamboo viscose 101!
What is Bamboo Viscose?
In a nutshell, bamboo viscose is a fabric that is made from, you guessed it, bamboo.
Bamboo is a versatile tree, which is used not only to make decorative wooden items, kitchen utensils or eco-friendly tools, but also to accompany stews, salads, and stir-fries (yup, we can follow the diet of fluffy, black and white bears too!) and to, most recently, dress people.
The fact that this tree is now being used to make alternative fabrics to traditional ones such as cotton or silk is not all that surprising, as bamboo fibers are quite strong and the tree itself is a fast-growing crop. However, in order to fully understand bamboo viscose, we need to understand viscose first.
Essentially, the term "viscose" refers to a regenerated cellulose fiber obtained through the viscose process. Later on in this post, I'll talk about the viscose process, but for now, let's just say the cellulose fiber is derived from a plant, which could be eucalyptus, beech, pine, or, in this case, bamboo. This means that bamboo viscose is a fabric that is neither natural nor synthetic, but rather somewhere in the middle — a semi-synthetic fiber.
Is bamboo viscose toxic?
There is a lot of confusion surrounding bamboo viscose and whether it is toxic or not, but now it's time to set the record straight: the bamboo tree itself isn't toxic, but when it comes to the viscose fabric, the answer depends on your skin condition.
Your skin won't melt if you touch it, but if your body's largest organ is super sensitive and you're prone to developing skin allergies, it's best to avoid bamboo viscose. This is because, during the process of making bamboo viscose, chemicals such as sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide are often used, two components that while not actively present in the finished garments, may not get along with your skin. Better to be safe than sorry!
Is bamboo viscose breathable?
Good news: bamboo viscose is breathable! In fact, it has excellent moisture-wicking properties, releasing moisture and heat from the body while still providing a barrier from the outside environment. Without a doubt, this is one of its best features in addition to its high stretchability and silky texture. It's one of the main reasons why it's used in clothing like Athleisure Wear. And, who doesn't like to stay cool in hot weather conditions and warm in cold weather situations?
Bamboo viscose will definitely keep you fresh during summer days and cozy during winter days, but its breathability quality can be best seen if you tend to suffer from hot flashes at night. If you do and recently purchased a bamboo viscose bedsheet, then surely you've noticed how you don't wake up in a pit of sweat. When something has a remarkable quality, it should be mentioned!
How is Bamboo Viscose Made?
There are different ways bamboo viscose can be manufactured but the most common way starts with bamboo pulp which goes through several processes before being spun into yarns or fabrics.
The first process is the basis for making viscose, and it involves the extraction of cellulose from bamboo pulp. Bamboo is first broken down into tiny chunks, and it's then exposed to solvents such as sodium hydroxide — a.k.a caustic soda — to remove the cellulose from the bamboo chunks. As you can tell, the process is not starting off on the right foot, to say the least. With one toxic chemical already in the house, let's hope this gets a bit more green towards the end…
Well… Not really. Remember when I said earlier that sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide were two of the main chemicals used in the process of making bamboo viscose? Well, here's when carbon disulfide makes its guest appearance.
The next step in the process is to compress the extracted cellulose into sheets, expose it to carbon disulfide, and last but not least, dilute it with more sodium hydroxide. Who needs one toxic chemical when we can have two? Right?
Fun fact: Actually, this step is what turns the cellulose into the viscous syrup that results in its well-known name!
Then, the remaining syrupy cellulose is pushed through the tiny holes of a spinneret, which transforms the cellulose into strands that are immersed in a bath of sulfuric acid, sodium sulfate, and zinc sulfate to create filaments (more toxic chemicals?!). Finally, after a lengthy and kind of complex process, these filaments are spun into yarn and ready to be woven into fabric.
However, as more people became interested in fabrics made from bamboo and sustainable fashion gained a stronger foothold in the textile industry, other manufacturing methods entered the scene.
One of them is a mechanical process, which starts by crushing the leaves and the inner pith of the hard bamboo in order to extract the bamboo cellulose, then the mixture is soaked in a natural enzyme solution (no carbon disulfide, yay!), and finally, the fibers are washed and spun into yarn, ready to be woven into fabric. And you know what the best part is? That all of this is made with a closed-loop production method.
Although this more eco-friendly method was introduced as an upgrade to the classic method of making viscose, it isn't a popular one. It's mostly used in the manufacture of a specific type of bamboo fabric that is not viscose per se, but rather a cousin of it called Bamboo Lyocell. I don't want to give you spoilers, but I'll just say that I'll discuss this interesting fiber later on — so keep scrolling!
Is bamboo viscose eco-friendly?
While bamboo viscose is marketed as an absolutely eco-friendly fiber, I beg to differ.
I mean, right off the bat there are many issues when it comes to the manufacturing of bamboo viscose, and most of them have to do with the number of toxic chemicals involved.
The mixture of carbon disulfide, sodium hydroxide, and sulfuric acid makes a toxic soup of chemicals that when not used properly, can generate significant pollution and be detrimental to the environment. About 50% of that hazardous waste can’t be recaptured and reused, so you can already imagine the impact of it on our Mother Earth.
I can also mention an additional drawback of bamboo viscose: its lack of ethics thanks to, you guessed it, the number of chemicals involved in its manufacturing process. It has been known for decades now that carbon disulfide can cause cardiovascular and nervous-system damage to workers who constantly handle it, but that's not the only highly hazardous chemical for workers.
Sodium hydroxide is also one of the biggest enemies of workers in bamboo viscose factories, as it can cause corrosion and chemical burns to those who handle it frequently and without protection. Sadly, this popular fiber hasn't always been kind to the workers who manufacture it.
The good thing is that over the years, some bamboo viscose manufacturers have updated their practices. Chemical management and waste treatment have improved under closed-loop production methods but, as mentioned above, it's not popular due to the costs involved.
Another improvement is that, for example, carbon-disulfide-based viscose is no longer made within the United States. However, one must keep in mind that most brands that are interested in using this fabric source it from factories in China, Indonesia, Pakistan, or India, where few if any regulations exist.
While bamboo viscose can be eco-friendlier than other fibers such as polyester and nylon — because it's not plastic—, the main reason why I can’t say “yes, bamboo viscose is 100% eco-friendly” is because its manufacturing process involves many, many toxic chemicals that aren’t usually controlled in a closed-loop system and still, to this day, some factory workers get injured by those chemicals. The origin of this fabric may be "green" because it's made from cellulose, but its final form isn't.
Is Bamboo Viscose Sustainable?
Now that we know that bamboo viscose isn't that eco-friendly, where does it stand in the sustainability department?
Let me tell you, bamboo by itself is a good bet in the sustainable material race.
Bamboo crops require no pesticides, bactericides, or fertilizers, don't need lots of water to grow (I see you, cotton!), and can self-regenerate from their own roots — so they don't need to be re-planted when they are harvested!
But bamboo isn't only a highly renewable material, it's also one that actively helps the soil where it is planted thanks to its long root systems, which can protect steep banks from erosion.
Plus, thanks to bamboo's fast growth our lungs can enjoy some of the oxygen we inhale: this millenary tree sequesters more carbon than slower-growing trees! It's been proven that a mature grove of bamboo can even generate 30% - 35% more oxygen than an equal area of forest, so the cultivation of this tree definitely earns a stamp in the sustainability department.
But what about the fabric itself? Is bamboo viscose sustainable?
Well… Kind of.
While this fabric is the result of bamboo being processed through a chemical bath that is often then released into the air, soil, or nearby rivers if not treated properly (yikes!), I can't deny one major plus of bamboo viscose: its biodegradability.
As long as no toxic dyes are added, bamboo viscose is biodegradable, taking up to a year to fully decompose. While this is not a particularly short amount of time, it still gives it a slight advantage over petroleum-based synthetic fabrics, which never decompose.
Is There a Difference Between Bamboo Viscose and Bamboo Rayon?
The terms "bamboo viscose" and "bamboo rayon" are often used interchangeably, and for good reason: they're essentially the same thing.
There isn’t a substantial difference between bamboo rayon and bamboo viscose, since they are both manufactured from bamboo cellulose and undergo the same process.
The only "difference" between those two terms is that "rayon" is most widely used in the U.S., while "viscose" is the preferred term in the rest of the world. Besides that, both words act as synonyms for each other.
What about Bamboo Lyocell?
If you're looking for a fashion-forward fabric with a truly eco-conscious twist then read on, because when it comes to Bamboo Lyocell, things change — and for the better!
Just like bamboo viscose, bamboo lyocell is also made from bamboo cellulose, but here's where things get interesting: lyocell isn't manufactured the same way as viscose, rather it uses a wonderful method that I brought up earlier in the post — the closed-loop system.
Unlike the process used to manufacture traditional bamboo viscose, closed-loop bamboo lyocell production doesn't chemically alter the structure of the cellulose that is used, which results in a fabric almost 100% organic. That means that Bamboo Lyocell is also biodegradable, but is one step ahead of its viscose cousin. While chemical-soaked fabric takes up to a year to decompose, Lyocell takes only 8 days to do so. Yup, only eight days!
The best part of this closed-loop system is that if any solvents are used in the manufacturing of Lyocell (usually natural enzymes are used), they can be reused over and over again, which limits the environmental impact of the textile industry substantially.
Plus, it should be noted that most of the qualities people mention when referring to bamboo fabrics such as antibacterial properties, maximum durability, and superior softness are only found in bamboo that has been processed with natural enzymes (i.e., bamboo Lyocell) and isn't usually found in bamboo viscose. I know I've talked about Lyocell many, many times here at The Eco Hub, but I just can't get enough of it!
Is bamboo viscose better than cotton?
Everybody knows cotton — it's one of the staple fabrics in the closets of millions of people around the world! Right now you may be even wearing a cotton t-shirt, but the environmental damage caused by its manufacture is no longer a secret. In response to this, bamboo viscose may sound like a good alternative, but… Is it?
Environmentally wise, bamboo is a sustainable choice when compared to cotton. Bamboo trees require less time and energy in order to grow thanks to their ability to regenerate, which makes them more efficient than cotton crops.
Also, it only requires a third of the amount of water cotton needs to grow, meaning it isn't a thirsty crop, and it doesn't even need pesticides or herbicides to get rid of pests. Why? Simple: bamboo doesn't have many natural pests!
When it comes to their manufacturing processes… Both fabrics end up in a tie. While bamboo viscose pollutes the environment with the chemicals involved in its production, cotton pollutes the environment with the toxic fertilizers and pesticides used during its cultivation. It doesn't matter that both fibers are biodegradable, both are not very eco-friendly.
Now, in terms of the positive qualities of each fabric, who wins? Products made with bamboo viscose tend to be softer than those made with cotton (they have a silk-like texture!), and although cotton is highly breathable, so is its bamboo counterpart. It really depends on your personal preference!
The truth of it all? A product can truly be called 100% eco-friendly when it's not harmful to the environment, helps preserve natural sources, and avoids pollution. Unfortunately, some products that come with the claim of being eco-friendly don't have these attributes and are prone to greenwashing — that is the case with bamboo viscose.
Don’t get bamboozled, the best option when it comes to bamboo clothing is Bamboo Lyocell. It’s produced using natural materials and processes that don't release harmful chemicals into the air or water supply, so that's actually the fabric of choice for the environmentally conscious.
Yes, bamboo viscose is sustainable, a bit eco-friendlier than other fabrics and all but… The toll it takes on the environment during its manufacturing process isn’t worth it. I would only recommend bamboo viscose if the brand that makes the product you want to purchase ensures that they use a closed-loop system to make bamboo viscose, such as Cozy Earth. In the meantime, next time you're looking for a new shirt, coat bedsheet, or dress, don't forget bamboo lyocell!
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Many thanks, I appreciate the info, and despite the comments below, I will continue my efforts to be as sustainable as possible.
It seems Cosy Earth products are only available online; and I could not determine where they are based etc. (Presumably imported from US, so not local to me). I will not buy online for many reasons; I want to see colours/style etc, and try on clothing, I am 176 cm and many items are just too short – either sleeve or leg; my local area now has numerous delivery vehicles every day = pollution, congestion, noise etc; paying return postage is just an absurd cost if item is unsuitable. I will continue buying in person, and accept that it is not possible to find the most eco appropriate clothing locally.
Regards, from Melbourne, Australia.
PS. I found your article by following a trail from an article on ‘5 ways to sleep better’ by local organisation, bamboo sheets were mentioned, a google search included a link to your article.
thanks for your note.
Since you are in Aussie, I suggest taking a look at The Green Hub, they are an Australian-based company that offers brand recommendations.
Hi, Candice So great to reading this on theecohub. I had working in textile more than 28 years, honored as vendors for LNT, BB&B… when i was start working on organic cotton project, i feel so sad that ‘Industrial monster’ create the story about — eco-friendly bamboo fiber, later on more like soyfiber, milkfiber… But on the consumer market very very few people know about real organic (ecofriendly) at all. Hope to reposting your writing, let more people know this. Thanks
Thanks, David, can you please clarify what you mean by: “Hope to reposting your writing, let more people know this”.