How Sustainable Are Bamboo Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
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Bamboo fabrics are touted for being sustainable, but many have legitimate concerns. Though the fast-growing, easy-to-regenerate bamboo plants have great potential for sustainability, greenwashing practices can mislead consumers in their choice of bamboo clothes. So we had to ask: How sustainable are bamboo fabrics?
The sustainability of bamboo depends on the specific type of fabric and ranges from unsustainable to sustainable. For example, bamboo linen and bamboo lyocell are the more sustainable bamboo fabric varieties, while bamboo viscose is generally unsustainable due to the usage of toxic chemicals.
In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of bamboo fabrics used for clothes and bedding. Then, we evaluate its sustainability, potential, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable products made with bamboo fabrics.
Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Bamboo Fabrics
Bamboo fabrics could be a sustainable choice when durable, breathable fabrics are made with sustainably-cultivated bamboo in either a closed-loop chemical process or an all-natural mechanical process. However, some bamboo fabrics are unsustainable because of unnecessarily damaging bamboo cultivation practices and toxic chemicals used in manufacturing.
“Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”Oxford Dictionary
Though all bamboo fabrics are made with cellulose fibers from bamboo plants, the manufacturing methods vary significantly.
When the fibers are processed mechanically, we get a material resembling linen made with flax or hemp. The fabric is thus referred to as bamboo linen.
When chemicals are used in manufacturing, we have several varieties of bamboo fabrics, depending on the processing technology.
Here are the four varieties of bamboo fabrics
- Bamboo linen: mechanically made with a lower dependence on chemicals
- Bamboo viscose: chemically produced with heavy usage of chemicals
- Bamboo modal: made in the same chemical process as viscose but with a relatively lower chemic concentration
- Bamboo lyocell: chemically produced using organic solvent and in a closed-loop process that recycles inputs (water, chemicals, and energy)
We will discuss the manufacturing processes in detail later, but here they are in a nutshell:
- With bamboo linen fabrics, natural bamboo fibers are extracted from the bamboo plant and woven into yarn in a (mostly) mechanical process.
- With bamboo viscose, bamboo modal, and bamboo lyocell, natural bamboo fibers are first chemically broken down and then regenerated. These are rayon fabrics and fall in the regenerated cellulose fibers group. (Two other regenerated cellulose fibers are acetate and cupro.)
The diversion in manufacturing results in differences in the sustainability between the two groups of bamboo fabrics and within the group of regenerated cellulose fibers made with bamboo.
To understand the sustainability of bamboo fabrics, we must assess its life-cycle and each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of products and materials. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. So, let’s have a look at the LCA of bamboo fabrics!
In this article, we’ll use the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA, examining the five stages of the life-cycle of clothes and bedding made with bamboo fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments.
|The life-cycle stages of bamboo fabrics||Each stage’s sustainability|
|Sourcing of bamboo fabrics||The sourcing stage is generally sustainable because bamboo is a renewable material. Bamboo grows and regrows rapidly without needing fertilizer or irrigation like some other fiber crops. However, there are concerns over some unnecessarily unsustainable bamboo cultivation practices and its supply chain transparency.|
|Manufacturing of bamboo fabrics||The sustainability of manufacturing bamboo depends on the type of fabric and can be energy, chemical, and labor-intensive. High usage of fossil-based energy and chemicals could have serious knock-on ecological impacts. At the same time, dependency on heavy labor comes with a high price tag and/or worker treatment concerns. Mainly, not all bamboo fabrics are made equally sustainable, so it is important that you, as a consumer, know the differences.|
|Transporting of bamboo fabrics||Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with bamboo fabrics because of the emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. Bamboo fabrics typically travel from forests and plantations, where raw materials for bamboo fabrics are grown, to processing factories and then to sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfills.|
|Usage of bamboo fabrics||The usage of bamboo fabrics is relatively sustainable because these breathable fabrics require relatively fewer washes. Also, modal, lyocell, and linen are all durable fabrics.|
|End-of-life of bamboo fabrics||The end-of-life stage for bamboo fabrics is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable.|
Overall, we can say that bamboo fabrics are on a spectrum from reasonably sustainable to not very sustainable. The actual environmental impact of a particular product, like sportswear, depends on more specific factors, including the sourcing of the bamboo raw materials, manufacturing processes, and the distance and mode of transportation.
Let’s dive deeper into each life-cycle stage and find out how you can buy bamboo fabrics more sustainably.
How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Raw Materials for Bamboo Fabrics
The sourcing stage is generally sustainable because bamboo is a renewable material. Bamboo grows and regrows rapidly without needing fertilizer or irrigation like some other fiber crops. However, there are concerns over some unnecessarily unsustainable bamboo cultivation practices and its supply chain transparency.
What Raw Materials Are Used for Bamboo Fabrics
Bamboo cellulose fibers are the main material used for bamboo fabrics.
(Synthetic chemicals are also used in making some bamboo fabrics, but we will discuss these agents in the manufacturing stage.)
How Do the Raw Materials Sourced for Bamboo Fabrics Impact the Environment
The main raw materials used in bamboo fabrics come from bamboo plants – a renewable resource. Sourcing bamboo is generally sustainable thanks to the plant’s carbon sequestration potential and renewability.
- Carbon sequestration: As bamboo plants grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink, taking greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere and helping to mitigate the climate crisis.
One acre of bamboo can absorb around 10,000 lbs of carbon dioxide annually.
If bamboo is planted on 350 million ha (around 865 thousand acres) of degraded land by 2030, such new forests will capture ten times worldwide annual CO2 emissions.
Also, bamboo produces 35% more oxygen than a tree with an equivalent mass. (Bamboo is more closely related to grasses than to trees).
- Bamboo Replenishes Fast and Is Easy to Grow:
Bamboo Plants Grow Rapidly
Thanks to bamboo’s rapid growth rate, this material is ready for harvesting within three to five years. In comparison, eucalyptus wood, another common raw material for some varieties of regenerated cellulose fibers, takes a decade. Most other softwood and hardwood trees require several decades of growing beforehand.
Bamboo Plants Require Relatively Less Resources To Grow
Bamboo is a self-sufficient plant. It requires no irrigation but relies solely on rainfall to grow. Water-wise, bamboo is a much more sustainable fiber crop compared to, for example, water-thirsty cotton.
Because of the lax management in major bamboo-growing countries (like China), traceability is a good indicator of the sustainability of bamboo fabrics. You want the ability to trace back to how the bamboo is grown.
Where Are the Raw Materials for Bamboo Fabrics Usually Sourced From
Bamboo can grow in many places, from hot regions in Southeast Asia, Africa, Australia, Latin America, and southern areas of the US to colder places in the US and the UK. Two giant bamboo species with huge application potentials are ‘Moso’ bamboo, which grows mainly in China, and ‘Guadua’ bamboo, native to countries in Latin America.
Though growing bamboo is largely sustainable, large-scale bamboo plantations sometimes have environmental and ecological problems when proper forestry management is not in place.
- Tropical forests – the bio hotspots – are cleared for the profitable monocropping bamboo plantations that often lack biodiversity. One consequence is the replacement of endangered species, such as African mountain gorillas and giant pandas.
- The unnecessary use of artificial fertilizer increases the carbon emission of bamboo fabrics.
How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Bamboo Fabrics
The sustainability of manufacturing bamboo depends on the type of fabric and can be energy, chemical, and labor-intensive. High usage of fossil-based energy and chemicals could have serious knock-on ecological impacts. At the same time, dependency on heavy labor comes with a high price tag and/or worker treatment concerns. Mainly, not all bamboo fabrics are made equally sustainable, so it is important that you, as a consumer, know the differences.
How Sustainably Is Bamboo Fabrics Generally Manufactured
As the sustainability of manufacturing bamboo depends on the type of fabric, we’ll next dive deep into the process of making four main varieties of bamboo fabrics.
Manufacturing Bamboo Linen is Labor-Intensive
The typical manufacturing process of bamboo linen includes these steps:
- Extract fibers from bamboo: the retting process can be made chemically or mechanically (using water from sources such as stagnant pond water or dew water).
- Process fibers into yarns: a mostly mechanical process.
- Finish the yarn: further process the threads, including bleach, dye, wash, dry, and weave.
Regarding sustainability, the retting process of linen is the most problematic manufacturing step.
- Chemical retting speeds up the process and guarantees the uniformity of fibers. However, harmful chemicals can cause further damage to the waterway if waste is disposed of without proper treatment.
- Mechanical retting sometimes uses a high volume of water. The water also needs to be heated, which uses energy.
- Dew retting is the most sustainable extracting method. It doesn’t require finding a water source and producing extra energy and chemicals. Also, dew retting allows nutrients to return to the soil through natural decomposition.
- When done mechanically, the retting process is labor-intensive. It leads to bamboo linen being expensive in price and small in trade quantity. Also, there is the question of ensuring good, fair, and safe labor practices.
Manufacturing Bamboo Viscose Uses a Lot of Chemicals
The standard manufacturing process of viscose fabrics, the bamboo variety, follows these five steps:
- Prepare the bamboo pulp (harvest bamboo, cut it into penny-sized pieces, and grind the pieces into a pulp)
- Bamboo pulp is first dissolved in caustic soda, then depolymerized and reacted with carbon disulfide to form cellulose xanthate, which is dissolved in once more time caustic soda
- Filter, degas, and age the bamboo solution
- Spin the solution in an acidic bath containing sulphuric acid, sodium sulfate, and zinc sulfate to regenerate the (bamboo) cellulose in filament form
- Wash, beach, finish, dry, and weave the yarn into bamboo fabric
The main problem with the viscose process is the heavy use of toxic chemicals, including carbon disulfide, sulphuric acid, and caustic soda. These substances could potentially cause serious harm to the environment and workers.
Manufacturing Bamboo Modal Uses a Relatively Low Concentration of Chemicals
The manufacturing process of modal fibers (the bamboo variety included) follows the same five steps of the viscose process. However, it has some modifications (that make modal fabrics more sustainable than viscose fabrics):
- A higher degree of polymerization, which leads to a strong, easy-to-way fabric with higher wet strength at the end.
- A lower concentration of artificial chemicals (caustic soda), which means lower energy requirements and less toxic waste.
Manufacturing Bamboo Lyocell Uses a Closed-Loop Process and Recycles Solvent
The typical manufacturing process of lyocell fabrics, the bamboo variety follows these five steps:
- Prepare the wood pulp (harvest wood, cut it into penny-sized pieces, and grind the pieces into a pulp)
- Dissolve wood pulp using an organic solvent (an amine oxide and water solution)
- Filter the solution
- Spin to create bamboo lyocell fibers
- Wash, dry, and weave the yarn into bamboo lyocell fabric (pretreatment chemicals might be used to enhance dyeing capacities)
In the second step of bamboo lyocell manufacturing, an organic solvent is used to dissolve bamboo pulp. This solution contains half water and half amine oxide.
99% of the solvent can be recycled to use again and again in a closed-loop process. The small percentage released into the environment is considered non-hazardous waste that doesn’t pose an environmental concern.
Where Are Bamboo Fabrics Usually Manufactured
For thousands of years, bamboo fabrics have been traditionally produced in East Asia, such as in China and India. Bamboo fabric manufacturing also happens in many other countries outside those countries, mainly because bamboo species can adapt to a wide variety of climates.
China is the single largest producer of bamboo fabrics. Other significant producers are India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and the US.
Energy Usage at Bamboo Fabrics Manufacturing Locations Varies Based on Each Country
Following are the renewable energy share in primary energy in main bamboo fabric producers:
- China: 14.95% renewable energy
- India: 9.31% renewable energy
- Pakistan: 10.62% renewable energy
- Indonesia: 10.39% renewable energy
- The US: 10.66% renewable energy
Waste Treatment At Some Bamboo Fabrics Manufacturing Locations
Some bamboo fabric manufacturers use (toxic) chemicals heavily. Thus, waste treatment at fiber facilities is a matter of concern, especially when factories in some countries lack transparency and regulations.
For example, the Changing Markets Foundation reported in 2017 about fashion brands such as Zara, H&M, and Marks & Spencer and their links to highly polluting factories in China, India, and Indonesia, where they make viscose and modal fibers (including the bamboo varieties). (Because modal manufacturing is similar to viscose production, these two cellulose fibers are often produced on the same property.)
The organization raised concerns about the devastating impact of pulp production on forests, people, and vulnerable animal populations.
How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Bamboo Fabrics
Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with bamboo fabrics because of the emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. Bamboo fabrics typically travel from forests and plantations, where raw materials for bamboo fabrics are grown, to processing factories and then to sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfills.
In the life-cycle of bamboo clothes, transportation typical occurs as below:
- From forests and plantations where bamboo raw materials are grown to the bamboo fiber manufacturing locations
- From the bamboo fiber manufacturing location to the clothing manufacturing location
- From the clothing manufacturing location to sorting centers/physical shops
- From sorting centers/physical shops to the consumer’s house
- From the consumer’s house to the centers for recycling/ disposing
Traveling Distances of Bamboo Fabrics Vary Depending on Country of Origin
It is uncommon for bamboo fabrics to have raw materials grown, processed, sewn, and sold in one town, country, or even continent.
Here are some scenarios of transporting bamboo fabrics:
- Bamboo can be grown in China, transported to a factory in the immediate vicinity for dissolved pulp manufacturing, then to the US for fiber manufacturing before being sold to US consumers.
- Manufacturers source bamboo grown in Latin America, process it into fabrics and clothing in Canada, and then transport final products worldwide to sell to consumers.
- Others might ship bamboo from forests in Indonesia to factories in Norway and consumer markets in America and Europe.
You can reduce the transporting carbon footprint by choosing bamboo fabrics that travel a shorter distance from the forests and are made closer to your home.
The Carbon Footprint of Transporting Bamboo Fabrics Depends Largely on the Vehicle of Transportation
During its life-cycle, a piece of bamboo clothing can be transported using various types of vehicles, including:
- Large container ships
- Freight trains
- Long-distance trucks
- Short-distance delivering vans
And these various types of transportation vehicles have different carbon footprint impacts:
- Large container ships are generally the most carbon-efficient option for international transportation of goods, while planes are the heaviest carbon emitter.
Large container ships emit, per unit of weight and distance, half as much carbon dioxide as a train and one-fifth and one-fiftieth as much as a truck and a plane (respectively).
- Deliveries made by planes – for example, to fulfill fast shipping options for clothing – are the mode of transportation with the highest carbon footprint.
For example, as a consumer, you can choose not to pick the fast delivery option when ordering bamboo clothes to reduce the carbon footprint of your bamboo items.
How Sustainable Is the Usage of Bamboo Fabrics
The usage of bamboo fabrics is relatively sustainable because these breathable fabrics require relatively fewer washes. Also, modal, lyocell, and linen are all durable fabrics.
An environmentally favorable property of bamboo fabrics is their breathability. Clothes made with bamboo fabrics don’t start smelling too quickly, meaning fewer washes are needed. Because washing during the usage phase is one of the main sources of energy consumption in the life cycle of clothing, breathable fabrics tend to be more sustainable.
Also, modal, lyocell, and linen fabrics (including the bamboo varieties) are durable.
For example, clothes made with bamboo lyocell fabrics can last for years and years because the material is very strong (strong enough even for conveyor belts).
Long-lasting clothing is generally more sustainable because you don’t need to replace it too frequently (thus, no need for more resources to make the new one).
How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Bamboo Fabrics
The end-of-life stage for bamboo fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable.
Bamboo fabrics are 100% cellulose, making them a biodegradable material. Thus, at the end of the fabric’s life, there are three available options:
It takes about six to eight weeks for regenerated cellulose fibers like bamboo viscose, bamboo modal and bamboo lyocell to decompose, contrary to plastic-based items that could take up space in the landfill for up to 100 years. Cotton typically takes 11 weeks to decompose.
How Circular Are Products Made of Bamboo Fabrics
In the textile industry, a circular economy is designed to keep products and materials in use for as long as possible, especially through reusing and recycling. It also covers regenerating natural systems that support the industry and reducing polluted waste released into such systems.
“The circular economy is a systems solution framework that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution.”Ellen MacArthur Foundation
Regarding regenerated cellulose fabrics, there have been incentives for recycling materials and energy in closed-loop manufacturing processes.
Since 2000, new technologies have emerged to produce cellulose fibers to keep harmful toxins from being released into the environment. Such closed-loop systems have excellent control to minimize the emission of gases to the environment and recover the solvent carbon disulfide up to 90-95%. Later technologies also improve the recovery of other resources (water and energy) used in manufacturing.
Monocel® is an example of bamboo fabric made in lyocell’s closed-loop manufacturing process.
How Can You Buy Bamboo Fabrics More Sustainably
The key to sustainably buying bamboo products is to check on relevant environmental and original certifications.
- Forest Stewardship Council: An FSC certification ensures that the wood (or wood-like material) comes from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits.
There are two types of FSC Certification:
- FSC Forest Management Certification, with a focus on the original of the wood – the forest
- FSC Chain of Custody Certification, which focuses on the path from the forest to the customer’s home.
- Program for Endorsement of Forest Certification: PEFC’s approaches to sustainable forest management are in line with protecting the forests globally and locally and making the certificate work for everyone. Getting a PEFC certification is strict enough to ensure the sustainable management of a forest is socially just, ecologically sound, and economically viable but attainable not only by big but small forest owners.
- USDA Certified Biobased Product: The USDA BioPreferred® Certification is a voluntary certification offered by the United States Department of Agriculture. The certification identify products made from plants or other renewable materials.
- STeP by OEKO-TEX®: STeP by OEKO-TEX® is an independent certification system for brands, retailers, and manufacturers from the textile and leather industry. It communicates organizational environmental measures, including reducing carbon footprint and water usage.
- Ecolabel: Ecolabel is the official European Union voluntary label recognized worldwide for certified products with a guaranteed, independently-verified low environmental impact. The label requires high environmental standards throughout the entire life-cycle: from raw material extraction through production and distribution to disposal. It also encourages companies to develop innovative, durable, easy-to-repair, and recyclable products.
Some certifications are signaling brands’ efforts toward lowered environmental impacts and a circular economy are:
- B Corp Certification: The label B Corp is a certification reserved for for-profit companies. Certified holders are assessed on their social and environmental impacts.
- Cradle2Cradle certification: Cradle2Cradle provides a standardized approach to material circularity. It assesses whether products have been suitably designed and made with the circular economy in mind covering five critical categories: material health, material reuse, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.
Where to Buy Sustainable Bamboo Fabrics
As we have established throughout the life-cycle assessment, not all bamboo fabrics are made equally sustainably. Bamboo linen and bamboo lyocell tend to be more sustainable than bamboo modal and bamboo viscose.
However, even with bamboo linen, some are less sustainable than others. For example, nonorganic, chemically-colored, and chemically-retted bamboo linen has higher environmental impacts than organic, naturally colored, dew-retted bamboo linen.
The rule of thumb for buying bamboo fabrics is to opt for bamboo linen and bamboo lyocell whenever possible. You also want to check the following:
- Origin of bamboo
- Energy usage (volume and source) in manufacturing
- Using and disposing of process chemicals
Consequently, you want to buy bamboo clothes from brands that are transparent about their raw materials and committed to reducing energy usage and emissions. Here are some of such sustainable brands (in alphabetic order):
- BAM- BAMBOO CLOTHING
- Free Fly
- Spun Bamboo
- tasc Performance
Why Is It Important to Buy Products Made of More Sustainable Fabrics
It is important to buy products made of more sustainable fabrics because a sustainable textile industry has a lower carbon footprint, helps save natural resources, and is better for forests, animals, and humans.
Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Your Carbon Footprint
The production of clothing and footwear is estimated to contribute 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions – more than all international flights and shipping combined. If the fashion industry were a country, it would be the fourth largest emitter of carbon dioxide.
One way to reduce the carbon footprint of the clothes you buy is to opt for sustainable fabrics. Sustainable fabrics, which are often made with natural or recycled fibers, have relatively low carbon footprints compared to petroleum-based fabrics. For example, organic cotton made in the US has a carbon footprint of 2.35 kg CO2 (per ton of spun fiber) – a quarter of polyester’s carbon footprint.
Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Demand For Natural Resources and Waste Management
The textile industry uses water and land to grow cotton and other fibers. It is estimated that 79 billion cubic meters of water were used for the sector worldwide in 2015. For example, producing a single cotton t-shirt requires as much water as one person drinks for 2.5 years (2,700 liters of fresh water).
Worse yet, the textile economy is vastly more linear than circular: the largest amount of resources used in clothes ended up in landfill (instead of being recycled to remake clothes). According to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation,
- Less than 3% of materials used in the textile economy in 2015 came from recycled sources.
- In other words, more than 97% of resources used in making clothes are extracted new.
When clothing items are disposed of within a short period of time – under a year in the case of half of the fast fashion clothes – the natural systems that provide raw materials for fabrics don’t have enough time to recover and regenerate, which could lead to ecological breakdown.
Sustainable fabrics are made with less water and emissions while lasting longer:
- Because they are durable, you don’t need to buy new clothes too often.
- Thus, you help reduce the pressure to extract more resources for making new items.
Similarly, making and consuming sustainable fabrics made with recycled materials reduces the demand for virgin materials while helping tackle waste management.
Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Sustainable Management of Forests
Sustainable plant-based fabrics are made with raw materials from forests and plantations that are sustainably managed, such as complying with FSC standards.
When you buy sustainable plant-based fabrics, you discourage unsustainable forestry practices like illegal logging. You can help reduce deforestation, biodiversity loss, and the effect of climate change.
Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Animals
The fashion industry is rife with animal mistreatment when it comes to making animal-based fabrics like cashmere or leather. Every year, billions of animals suffer and die for clothing and accessories.
Buying sustainable vegan alternatives can help to reduce the pressure on raising more and more animals to meet the demand for animal-based fabrics while sacrificing their well-being and lives.
Suppose you have to buy fabrics made with, for example, leather or wool; make sure you only choose brands committed to cruelty-free products. In that case, you help advocate better treatments for animals raised within the textile industry.
Using Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Textile Workers
Recent statistics from UNICEF estimated as many as 170 million child labors worldwide, many of whom were engaged in some form of work in the textile industry. They don’t get paid minimum wages and often work long hours.
When you buy sustainable fabrics from brands transparent about the working conditions at their factories, you discourage the use of child labor and help promote better working conditions for textile workers.
Bamboo fabrics are on a spectrum from reasonably sustainable, such as the case of bamboo linen and bamboo lyocell, to not very sustainable, like bamboo viscose.
To find sustainable bamboo fabrics, you want the ability to trace the fibers back to forests and plantations with sustainable cultivation practices. Also, manufacturing processes matter. Always check if your chosen brands are committed to reducing fossil-based energy and recycling inputs (especially if artificial chemicals are used)
To make it even more sustainable, buy second-hand bamboo clothes, use clothes for as long as possible, upcycle the material to extend its usage, and arrange for it to be recycled.
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- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Is Bamboo Modal Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
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- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Is Rayon Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
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