How Sustainable Are Bamboo Lyocell Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

How Sustainable Are Bamboo Lyocell Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

By
Quynh Nguyen

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Bamboo lyocell fabrics are made in a chemical process using cellulose fibers from bamboo as raw materials. Bamboo lyocell is only one of several bamboo fabrics – a term that has been overhyped for being sustainable material from fast-growing plants. But we had to ask: How sustainable are bamboo lyocell fabrics?

Bamboo lyocell is generally a sustainable fabric. It is made with cellulose fibers from bamboo – a plant that grows rapidly, requiring no irrigation or fertilizer – and is durable as well as biodegradable. However, both manufacturing and transporting bamboo lyocell are relatively energy-intensive.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of bamboo lyocell 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 lyocell fabrics.

Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Bamboo Lyocell Fabrics

Bamboo lyocell fabric is generally considered a sustainable material mainly because this breathable fabric is durable and comes from renewable raw materials. It has lesser adverse environmental effects than other bamboo fabrics, such as bamboo viscose and bamboo modal, which are also made in a chemical process.

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

Bamboo lyocell are semi-synthetic fibers made in chemical manufacturing processes that break down natural cellulose fibers in bamboo and then regenerate fibers of desired properties. 

Bamboo lyocell is made in the lyocell process – the third generation of rayon technology. 

Lyocell: A cellulose fabric that is obtained by an organic solvent spinning process.”

Federal Trade Commission

There have been three rayon generations, driven by the changes in manufacturing technology. 

  • Viscose: 1st generation of rayon, which includes bamboo viscose 
  • Modal: 2nd generation of rayon, which includes bamboo modal
  • Lyocell: 3rd generation of rayon, which includes bamboo lyocell

All three generations (viscose, modal, and lyocell) are made with cellulosic fibers regenerated during manufacturing

Regenerated cellulose fibers are similar to cotton, hemp, or linen in the sense that all of these fabrics contain cellulosic fibers. Still, the fibers in cotton, hemp, or linen are natural (instead of manufactured as in the case of bamboo lyocell fibers). 

In other words, bamboo lyocell and bamboo linen fabrics are made with bamboo cellulose fibers, but the manufacturing processes diverge (chemical vs. mechanical). This diversion results in a difference in the sustainability of these two bamboo fabrics. 

To understand the sustainability of bamboo lyocell fabrics, we must assess their 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 lyocell 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 lyocell fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments

The life-cycle stages of bamboo lyocell fabricsEach stage’s sustainability
Sourcing of bamboo lyocell fabricsSourcing bamboo for making bamboo lyocell fabrics is generally sustainable because bamboo is a renewable material. Bamboo grows and regrows rapidly without needing fertilizer or irrigation like some other fiber crops. 
Manufacturing of bamboo lyocell fabricsManufacturing bamboo lyocell fabrics is energy-intensive, which could have serious knock-on ecological impacts if fossil fuels are the main energy sources at the manufacturing location. However, the dissolvent solution used in manufacturing can be recycled almost fully, with an inconsiderable percentage discharged as non-hazardous liquid waste. 
Transporting of bamboo lyocell fabricsTransporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with bamboo lyocell fabrics because of the emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. Bamboo lyocell fabrics typically travel from forests or plantations (where raw materials are grown) to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfill. 
Usage of bamboo lyocell fabricsThe usage of bamboo lyocell fabrics is sustainable because bamboo lyocell clothing tends to last a long time while requiring few washes and less ironing time during the lifespan. 
End-of-life of bamboo lyocell fabricsThe end-of-life stage for bamboo lyocell fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable. 

Overall, we can say that bamboo lyocell fabric is generally sustainable. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, like bamboo lyocell PJs, depends on more specific factors, including the sourcing of the wood, the type of energy used in manufacturing, and the distance and mode of transportation

Let’s dive deeper into each life-cycle stage and find out how you can buy bamboo lyocell fabrics more sustainably. 

How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Wood Fibers for Bamboo Lyocell Fabrics

Sourcing bamboo for making bamboo lyocell fabrics is generally sustainable because bamboo is a renewable material. Bamboo grows and regrows rapidly without needing fertilizer or irrigation like some other fiber crops. 

What Raw Materials Are Used for Bamboo lyocell Fabrics

Bamboo cellulose fibers are the main material used for bamboo lyocell fabrics. 

(An organic solvent is also used in making bamboo lyocell fabrics, but we will discuss this in the manufacturing stage.)

How Do the Raw Materials Sourced for Bamboo Lyocell Fabrics Impact the Environment

The main raw materials used in bamboo lyocell 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 grass 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 lyocell, 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 lyocell bamboo clothing. You want the ability to trace back to how the bamboo is grown.
Related: Are you interested to find out more about the sustainability of bamboo? Check it out in this article here: “How Sustainable Is Bamboo “Wood”? Here Are the Facts?

Where Are the Raw Materials for Bamboo Lyocell 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 lyocell clothing. 

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Bamboo Lyocell Fabrics

Manufacturing bamboo lyocell fabrics is energy-intensive, which could have serious knock-on ecological impacts if fossil fuels are the main energy sources at the manufacturing location. However, the dissolvent solution used in manufacturing can be recycled almost fully, with an inconsiderable percentage discharged as non-hazardous liquid waste. 

How Sustainably Is Bamboo Lyocell Fabrics Generally Manufactured

The typical bamboo lyocell manufacturing process follows these five steps: 

  1. Prepare the wood pulp (harvest wood, cut it into penny-sized pieces, and grind the pieces into a pulp)
  2. Dissolve wood pulp using an organic solvent (an amine oxide and water solution) 
  3. Filter the solution 
  4. Spin to create bamboo lyocell fibers 
  5. Wash, dry, and weave the yarn into bamboo lyocell fabric (pretreatment chemicals might be used to enhance dyeing capacities) 

Let’s now deep dive into a few key sustainable issues of this life-cycle stage: 

Bamboo Lyocell’s Closed-Loop Manufacturing Process Recycles Solvent

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. 

Manufacturing Bamboo Lyocell Fabrics Is Energy-Intensive 

The lyocell manufacturing process is energy-intensive. Processing bamboo pulp and manufacturing modal fibers require significant energy. 

When the energy for manufacturing comes from fossil fuels, the carbon emission of this stage becomes relatively high. 

Manufacturing Bamboo Lyocell Fabrics Uses Pretreatment Chemicals

The final step of bamboo lyocell manufacturing involves dying the fabric. Because lyocell fibers don’t take dye very well, pretreatment with chemicals is often necessary before finishing. 

If used, toxic chemicals can contribute to increased toxicity, hazards, pollution, and waste. Manufacturers can improve the sustainability of production by opting for eco-friendly or less harmful substances.

Where Are Bamboo lyocell Fabrics Usually Manufactured

Bamboo lyocell fabrics are made in several countries, including 

Energy Usage at Bamboo Lyocell Manufacturing Locations Varies Based on Each Country

Because manufacturing bamboo lyocell is energy-intensive, using renewable energy (solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass) significantly reduces carbon emissions at this stage. 

According to Our World in Data, the share of renewable energy in primary energy in Austria is 37.48% – the highest percentage in all countries where lyocell fabrics are made. 

Following are the renewable energy share in primary energy in lyocell-producing countries:

  • China: 14.95% renewable energy
  • Indonesia: 10.39% renewable energy
  • Austria: 37.48% renewable energy
  • The UK : 17.95% renewable energy
  • The US: 10.66% renewable energy

With these difference in energy usage base on each manufacturing location, it is important for you, as a consumer, to find out where the bamboo lyocell fabrics are made, not just where your clothes are sewn together.

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Bamboo Lyocell Fabrics

Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with bamboo lyocell fabrics because of the emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. Bamboo lyocell fabrics typically travel from forests or plantations (where raw materials are grown) to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfill. 

In the life-cycle of bamboo lyocell clothes, transportation typical occurs as below: 

  • From forests where bamboo lyocell raw materials are grown to the bamboo lyocell fiber manufacturing location
  • From the bamboo lyocell fabrics 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 Lyocell Fabrics Vary 

It is uncommon for cellulose-based fabrics to have raw materials grown, processed, sewn, and sold in one town, country, or even continent. 

Here are some scenarios of transporting bamboo lyocell fabrics: 

  • Manufacturers source bamboo grown in Latin America, process it into fabrics and clothing in a nearby factory, and then transport final products around the US to sell to consumers.
  • Others might ship bamboo from forests in Asia, to factories in Europe and consumer markets in the US.
  • Bamboo can be grown in China, transported to a factory in the immediate vicinity for dissolved pulp manufacturing, then to the UK for fiber manufacturing before being shipped worldwide to end users. 

You can reduce the transporting carbon footprint by opting for bamboo lyocell fabrics from some of the closer temperate and subtropical forests (providing that they have not first been sent to a manufacturing factory on the other side of the world). 

The Carbon Footprint of Transporting Bamboo Lyocell Fabrics Depends Largely on the Vehicle of Transportation 

During its life-cycle, a piece of bamboo lyocell clothing can be transported using various types of vehicles, including: 

  • Large container ships 
  • Planes 
  • Freight trains 
  • Long-distance trucks 
  • Short-distance delivering vans 

And these various types of transportation vehicles have different carbon footprint impacts: 

For example, you as a consumer can choose not to pick the fast delivery option when ordering bamboo lyocell clothes to reduce the carbon footprint of your bamboo lyocell items. 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Bamboo Lyocell Fabrics

The usage of bamboo lyocell fabrics is sustainable because bamboo lyocell clothing tends to last a long time while requiring few washes and less ironing time during their lifespan. 

What Is the Typical Lifespan of Products Made of Bamboo lyocell Fabrics

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). 

What Are Other Properties That Make Using Bamboo lyocell Fabrics Sustainable

An environmentally favorable property of bamboo lyocell fabric is its breathability. Clothes made with this fabric 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. 

Another pro-environmental point of bamboo lyocell fabric is that it doesn’t wrinkle easily. Less wrinkle, less ironing. Less ironing, lower energy consumption during the usage stage. 

How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Bamboo lyocell Fabrics

The end-of-life stage for bamboo lyocell fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable. 

Bamboo lyocell Fabric Is Biodegradable

Bamboo lyocell fabric is 100% cellulose, making it a biodegradable material. Thus, at the end of the fabric’s life, there are three available options: 

  • Composting
  • Incineration
  • Landfilling

It takes about eight weeks for bamboo lyocell products to decompose, contrary to plastic-based items that could take up space in the landfill for up to 100 years.

Bamboo Lyocell Fibers Can Be Recycled and Upcycled

Cellulose fibers have the potential for re-use and remanufacture. For example, 100% bamboo lyocell fabrics can re-enter a circular fashion model as a raw material for regenerated cellulose fiber production.

However, when bamboo lyocell fibers are blended with other materials, the end-of-life options are more limited. The end product is no longer biodegradable if other synthetic fibers are used in the blend.

How Circular Are Products Made of Bamboo Lyocell 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

As a whole, the textile industry is almost linear: 97% of the input is new resource.

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.

Lenzing AG and Birla Cellulose are two lyocell manufacturers with closed-loop manufacturing processes. 

How Can You Buy Bamboo lyocell Fabrics More Sustainably

The key to sustainably buying bamboo lyocell products is to check on relevant environmental and original certifications. 

  • 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 lyocell Fabrics 

As we have established throughout the life-cycle assessment, not all bamboo lyocell clothes are made equally, even though bamboo lyocell fabrics are generally sustainable. 

Bamboo lyocell clothes can only be truly sustainable when the raw materials come from sustainably managed forests and plantations. In addition, the sustainability of bamboo lyocell fabrics depends on: 

  • Energy usages (volume and source) in manufacturing 
  • Pretreatment chemical usages in manufacturing 

Consequently, you want to buy bamboo lyocell 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): 

You also want to beware of greenwashing in fashion. Bamboo lyocell is susceptible to greenwashing in the sense that some companies might use this material as a claim for their (overall) sustainability without the transparency about where and how the bamboo lyocell fabrics are made to back it up. 

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 forth 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 to 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.

Final Thoughts

Bamboo lyocell fabric is generally a sustainable material made with natural cellulose fibers. You can buy clothes made with bamboo lyocell fabrics as long as the raw materials for the yarns come from sustainably managed forests. Besides, you want to check if your chosen brands are committed to reducing energy and recycling fibers. To make it even more sustainable, buy second-hand bamboo lyocell clothes, use clothes for as long as possible, upcycle the material to extend its usage, and arrange for it to be recycled appropriately.

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