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

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

By
Quynh Nguyen

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Bamboo modal fabrics are made in a chemical process using cellulose fibers from bamboo as raw materials. Its ultra-soft property is one of the many things that set bamboo modal apart from, for example, the rougher-feeling bamboo linen. Yet, bamboo fabric as a group has been overhyped for being sustainable. So we had to ask: How sustainable are bamboo modal fabrics?

Bamboo modal fabric is generally sustainable as it is a durable material that is made with cellulose fibers from bamboo – a rapidly and sustainably growing plant that requires neither irrigation nor fertilizer. However, manufacturing bamboo modal fabrics is relatively chemical and energy-intensive.

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

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

Bamboo modal fabric is considered sustainable, mainly because this breathable fabric is durable and comes from renewable raw materials.

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

Bamboo modal is made in a modified viscose process – the second generation of rayon technology. Manufacturing bamboo modal follows the same energy-intensive process as bamboo viscose but is less chemical-intensive.

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

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 as 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 modal fibers). 

In other words, bamboo modal 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 modal 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 modal 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 modal fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments

The life-cycle stages of bamboo modal fabricsEach stage’s sustainability
Sourcing of bamboo modal fabricsThe sourcing stage is generally sustainable as bamboo is a renewable material. Bamboo grows and regrows rapidly without needing fertilizer or irrigation like some other fiber crops. 
Manufacturing of bamboo modal fabricsManufacturing bamboo modal is generally not sustainable because it’s chemical and energy-intensive. High energy usage could have a serious knock-on ecological impact if manufacturing relies heavily on fossil fuels. 
Transporting of bamboo modal fabricsTransporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with bamboo modal fabrics because of the distances and emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. Bamboo modal 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 modal fabricsThe usage of bamboo modal fabrics is generally sustainable because modal clothing tends to last a long time while requiring few washes.
End-of-life of bamboo modal fabricsThe end-of-life stage for bamboo modal fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable. 

Overall, we can say that bamboo modal fabric is generally a sustainable material. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product depends on more specific factors, including the sourcing of the bamboo, 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 modal fabrics more sustainably.

How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Raw Materials for Bamboo Modal 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. 

What Raw Materials Are Used for Bamboo Modal Fabrics

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

(Synthetic chemicals are also used in making bamboo modal fabrics, but we will discuss these agents in the manufacturing stage.)

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

The main raw materials used in bamboo modal 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 modal, 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 Modal 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 modal clothing. 

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Bamboo Modal Fabrics

Manufacturing bamboo modal is generally not sustainable because it’s chemical and energy-intensive. High energy usage could have a serious knock-on ecological impact if manufacturing relies heavily on fossil fuels. 

How Sustainably Are Bamboo Modal Fabrics Generally Manufactured

The typical modal manufacturing process follows these five steps: 

  1. Prepare the bamboo pulp (harvesting bamboo, cutting it into penny-sized pieces, and grinding the pieces into a pulp)
  2. 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
  3. Filter, degas, and age the bamboo modal solution 
  4. Spin the solution in an acidic bath containing sulphuric acid, sodium sulfate, and zinc sulfate to regenerate the (bamboo modal) cellulose in filament form 
  5. Wash, beach, finish, dry, and weave the yarn into bamboo modal fabric 

The modal manufacturing process is a modified version of the viscose process (the first generation of rayon). Following are the two modifications that make modal fabric more sustainable than viscose fabric: 

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

Manufacturing Bamboo Modal Fabrics Uses Artificial Chemicals

The modal manufacturing process requires a few different artificial chemicals, including: 

  • Caustic soda (or sodium hydroxide) and sulphuric acid: both can damage the skin and eyes
  • Carbon disulfide: has been linked to higher levels of coronary heart disease, birth defects, skin conditions, and cancer, not in textile workers and residents in the vicinity of bamboo modal factories

These toxic chemicals could cause serious harm to the environment and workers. They can endanger factory workers and pollute the environment via air emissions and wastewater. 

Unlike the lyocell process, which recovers around 99% of the solvent, the chemical recovery in most viscose and modal factories is merely around 50%. It means half of these harmful chemicals often end up in our environment. 

Manufacturing Bamboo Modal Fabrics Is Energy-Intensive 

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

And when the energy for manufacturing comes from fossil fuels, the carbon emission of this stage becomes comparatively high. 

Where Are Bamboo Modal Fabrics Usually Manufactured

The top manufacturers in the modal fabric supply chain are located in: 

  • China
  • Pakistan
  • India 
  • Indonesia 
  • Japan 
  • Germany 
  • Austria 
  • The UK 
  • The US
Energy Usage at Bamboo Modal Manufacturing Locations Varies Based on Each Country

Because manufacturing bamboo modal 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, Astria has the highest percentage (37.49%) of renewable energy in all modal-manufacturing countries

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

  • China: 14.95% renewable energy
  • Pakistan: 10.62% renewable energy
  • India: 9.31% renewable energy
  • Indonesia: 10.39% renewable energy
  • Japan: 11.43% renewable energy
  • Germany: 19.46% renewable energy
  • Austria: 37.48% renewable energy 
  • The UK: 17.95% renewable energy
  • The US: 10.66% renewable energy

Considering the difference in energy usage in each manufacturing location/country, it is important for you, as a consumer, to find out where the bamboo modal fabrics are made, not just where your clothes are sewn together.

Waste Treatment At Bamboo Modal Manufacturing Locations

Because of the high usage of (toxic) chemicals during manufacturing, waste treatment at (bamboo) modal and viscose facilities is a matter of concern, especially when factories in some countries lack transparency and regulations. (The manufacturing of modal is similar to viscose production, and, thus, these two types of cellulose fibers are often produced on the same property.) 

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 modal and viscose factories in China, India, and Indonesia. The organization raised concerns about the devastating impact of wood pulp production on forests, people, and vulnerable animal populations.

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Bamboo Modal Fabrics

Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with bamboo modal fabrics because of the distances and emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. Bamboo modal 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 modal clothes, transportation typical occurs as below: 

  • From forests where bamboo modal raw materials are grown to the bamboo modal fiber manufacturing locations
  • From the bamboo modal 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 Modal 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 modal 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 Germany, and then transport final products worldwide to sell to consumers.
  • Others might ship bamboo from forests in Indonesia to factories in South Africa and consumer markets in America and Europe.

You can reduce the transporting carbon footprint by choosing bamboo modal grown and made closer to home. 

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

During its life-cycle, a piece of bamboo modal 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, as a consumer, you can choose not to pick the fast delivery option when ordering bamboo modal clothes to reduce the carbon footprint of your bamboo modal items. 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Bamboo Modal Fabrics

The usage of bamboo modal fabrics is generally sustainable because modal clothing tends to last a long time while requiring few washes. 

Modal fabrics are soft and comfortable yet durable. Clothes made with this fabric will last years of wearing. Specifically, modal clothes can withstand more washes and dry cycles than cotton

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). 

Another environmentally favorable property of modal fabric (including the bamboo variety) is its breathability: it generally doesn’t start smelling too quickly. 

Meaning that bamboo modal clothes can be washed less frequently, saving water and energy. 

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

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

Modal fabric (including bamboo variety) 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 six weeks for bamboo modal products to decompose, contrary to plastic-based items that could take up space in the landfill for up to 100 years.

How Circular Are Products Made of Bamboo Modal 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 are new resource.

When it comes to modal fabrics, there have been incentives toward closed-loop modal manufacturing processes. 

Since 2000, new technologies have emerged to produce rayon fibers (viscose, modal, lyocell) 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.

How Can You Buy Bamboo Modal Fabrics More Sustainably

The key to sustainably buying bamboo modal 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 Modal Fabrics 

As we have established throughout the life-cycle assessment, not all bamboo modal clothes are made equally sustainable. 

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

  • Energy usages (volume and source) in manufacturing 
  • Using and disposing process chemicals

Consequently, you want to buy bamboo modal 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) that carry bamboo rayon fabrics (including bamboo viscose, bamboo modal, bamboo lyocell, and bamboo blends)

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 laborers 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 modal fabric is generally a sustainable material. It is made with natural cellulose fibers and is fully biodegradable at the end of its life-cycle. Its modified manufacturing process is less energy and chemical-intensive than the first generation of rayon (viscose), making it a more sustainable option. 

Still, the usage of fossil-based chemicals makes it less sustainable than, for example, lyocell – the third generation of rayon, which uses organic substances. 

It is possible to find sustainable clothes made of bamboo modal fabrics: the raw materials come from sustainably managed forests/plantations and are processed in closed-loop manufacturing systems. Besides, you want to check if your chosen brands are committed to reducing fossil-based energy and recycling fibers. 

To make it even more sustainable, buy second-hand bamboo modal 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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