How Sustainable Are Bamboo Viscose Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
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Hey fellow impactful ninja ?
You may have noticed that Impactful Ninja is all about providing helpful information to make a positive impact on the world and society. And that we love to link back to where we found all the information for each of our posts.
Most of these links are informational-based for you to check out their primary sources with one click.
But some of these links are so-called "affiliate links" to products that we recommend.
First and foremost, because we believe that they add value to you. For example, when we wrote a post about the environmental impact of long showers, we came across an EPA recommendation to use WaterSense showerheads. So we linked to where you can find them. Or, for many of our posts, we also link to our favorite books on that topic so that you can get a much more holistic overview than one single blog post could provide.
And when there is an affiliate program for these products, we sign up for it. For example, as Amazon Associates, we earn from qualifying purchases.
First, and most importantly, we still only recommend products that we believe add value for you.
When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission - but at no additional costs to you.
And when you buy something through a link that is not an affiliate link, we won’t receive any commission but we’ll still be happy to have helped you.
When we find products that we believe add value to you and the seller has an affiliate program, we sign up for it.
When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission (at no extra costs to you).
And at this point in time, all money is reinvested in sharing the most helpful content with you. This includes all operating costs for running this site and the content creation itself.
You may have noticed by the way Impactful Ninja is operated that money is not the driving factor behind it. It is a passion project of mine and I love to share helpful information with you to make a positive impact on the world and society. However, it's a project in that I invest a lot of time and also quite some money.
Eventually, my dream is to one day turn this passion project into my full-time job and provide even more helpful information. But that's still a long time to go.
Bamboo viscose fabrics are made in a chemical process using cellulose fibers from bamboo as raw materials. Its silk-like property is one of the many things that set bamboo viscose 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 viscose fabrics?
Bamboo viscose is generally not a very sustainable fabric. Though bamboo – the raw material for bamboo viscose – is a renewable resource, manufacturing this fabric is energy intensive. Also, the chemicals used to process bamboo fibers pose health and environmental risks.
In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of bamboo viscose 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 viscose fabrics.
Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Bamboo Viscose Fabrics
Bamboo viscose fabric is generally considered not a very sustainable material because of the energy and chemical-intensive manufacturing process. It has more adverse environmental effects than bamboo lyocell – another bamboo fabric in the bamboo rayon family.
However, bamboo viscose fibers can be made more sustainably by sourcing raw materials from sustainably managed plantations, utilizing renewable energy in manufacturing, and strictly controlling chemical usage and discharge.
“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 viscose is semi-synthetic fibers made in chemical manufacturing processes that break down natural cellulose fibers in bamboo and then regenerate fibers of desired properties.
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 viscose fibers).
In other words, bamboo viscose 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 viscose 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 viscose 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 viscose fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments.
|The life-cycle stages of bamboo viscose fabrics||Each stage’s sustainability|
|Sourcing of bamboo viscose fabrics||The 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. However, there are concerns over the association between sourcing raw materials for viscose fabrics (including bamboo variety) and deforestation in ancient and endangered forests.|
|Manufacturing of bamboo viscose fabrics||Manufacturing bamboo viscose is generally not sustainable because it involves harmful artificial chemicals. Also, manufacturing bamboo viscose fabric is energy-intensive. High energy usage could have a serious knock-on ecological impact if manufacturing relies heavily on fossil fuels.|
|Transporting of bamboo viscose fabrics||Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with bamboo viscose fabrics because of the distances and emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. Bamboo viscose 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 viscose fabrics||The usage of bamboo viscose fabrics is generally not very sustainable because bamboo viscose clothing has a relatively low durability.|
|End-of-life of bamboo viscose fabrics||The end-of-life stage for bamboo viscose fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable.|
Overall, we can say that bamboo viscose fabric is generally not a sustainable material. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, like a mattress cover, 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 viscose fabrics more sustainably.
How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Raw Materials for Bamboo Viscose 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 the association between sourcing raw materials for viscose fabrics (including bamboo variety) and deforestation in ancient and endangered forests.
What Raw Materials Are Used for Bamboo Viscose Fabrics
Bamboo cellulose fibers are the main material used for bamboo viscose fabrics.
(Synthetic chemicals are also used in making bamboo viscose fabrics, but we will discuss these agents in the manufacturing stage.)
How Do the Raw Materials Sourced for Bamboo Viscose Fabrics Impact the Environment
The main raw materials used in bamboo viscose 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 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.
Where Are the Raw Materials for Bamboo Viscose 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 viscose clothing.
Serious concerns have been raised about the origin of the cellulose fibers used in making viscose fabrics.
A report from Changing Markets pointed out the association between sourcing raw materials for rayon fibers and deforestation in ancient or endangered forests, which have huge ecological costs and environmental implications. Specifically, Canada, Indonesia, and Brazil — all countries with endangered and ancient forests — provided around two-thirds of China’s 2010 dissolving pulp imports for viscose, 75% of which was then manufactured into viscose fabrics
How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Bamboo Viscose Fabrics
Manufacturing bamboo viscose is generally not sustainable because it involves harmful artificial chemicals. Also, manufacturing bamboo viscose fabric is energy-intensive. High energy usage could have a serious knock-on ecological impact if manufacturing relies heavily on fossil fuels.
How Sustainably Is Bamboo Viscose Fabrics Generally Manufactured
The standard manufacturing process of bamboo viscose fabrics follows these five steps:
- Prepare the bamboo pulp (harvesting bamboo, cutting it into penny-sized pieces, and grinding 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 viscose solution
- Spin the solution in an acidic bath containing sulphuric acid, sodium sulfate, and zinc sulfate to regenerate the (bamboo viscose) cellulose in filament form
- Wash, beach, finish, dry, and weave the yarn into bamboo viscose fabric
Let’s now deep dive into a few key sustainable issues of this life-cycle stage:
Manufacturing Bamboo Viscose Fabrics Uses A Lot of Chemicals
The viscose manufacturing process requires a large amount of caustic soda: 0.5-0.8 kg per kg fiber. It also uses other chemicals, including:
- carbon disulfide
- sulphuric acid
- sodium sulfate
- zinc sulfate
Caustic soda, carbon disulfide, and sulphuric acid are all toxic chemicals that could potentially cause serious harm to the environment and workers.
- Caustic soda and sulphuric acid 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 viscose factories.
These toxic chemicals 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 factories is merely around 50%. It means half of these harmful chemicals go into the environment.
Manufacturing Bamboo Viscose Fabrics Is Energy-Intensive
The viscose manufacturing process is energy-intensive. Processing bamboo pulp and manufacturing viscose fibers require significant energy.
When the energy for manufacturing comes from fossil fuels, the carbon emission of this stage becomes relatively high.
Where Are Bamboo Viscose Fabrics Usually Manufactured
Dissolved pulp for viscose fibers (including the bamboo variety) is made worldwide. China accounts for the most dissolved pulp and viscose fiber (more than 60%). The top manufacturers in the viscose fabric supply chain are located in:
- The US
- South Africa
Energy Usage at Bamboo Viscose Manufacturing Locations Varies Based on Each Country
According to Our World in Data, Brazil has the highest percentage (46.22%) of renewable energy in all viscose-manufacturing countries.
Following are the renewable energy share in primary energy in viscose-producing countries:
- China: 14.95% renewable energy
- The US: 10.66% renewable energy
- Brazil: 46.22% renewable energy
- South Africa: 3.41% renewable energy
- Canada: 29.89% renewable energy
- Austria: 37.48% renewable energy
- India: 9.31% renewable energy
- Indonesia: 10.39% 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 viscose fabrics are made, not just where your clothes are sewn together.
Waste Treatment At Bamboo Viscose Manufacturing Locations
Because of the high usage of (toxic) chemicals during manufacturing, waste treatment at (bamboo) viscose 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 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 Viscose Fabrics
Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with bamboo viscose fabrics because of the distances and emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. Bamboo viscose 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 viscose clothes, transportation typical occurs as below:
- From forests where bamboo viscose raw materials are grown to the bamboo viscose fiber manufacturing locations
- From the bamboo viscose 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 Viscose 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 viscose 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 South Africa and consumer markets in America and Europe.
You can reduce the transporting carbon footprint by choosing bamboo viscose grown and made closer to home.
The Carbon Footprint of Transporting Bamboo Viscose Fabrics Depends Largely on the Vehicle of Transportation
During its life-cycle, a piece of bamboo viscose 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 viscose clothes to reduce the carbon footprint of your bamboo viscose items.
How Sustainable Is the Usage of Bamboo Viscose Fabrics
The usage of bamboo viscose fabrics is generally not very sustainable because bamboo viscose clothing has a relatively low durability.
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).
An environmentally favorable property of bamboo viscose 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.
How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Bamboo Viscose Fabrics
The end-of-life stage for bamboo viscose fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable.
Viscose 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:
It takes about six 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.
As bamboo viscose fabric breaks down, the chemicals used for its production are also released into the environment. That means that the compost will be contaminated.
How Circular Are Products Made of Bamboo Viscose 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
When it comes to viscose fabrics, there have been incentives toward closed-loop viscose manufacturing processes.
Since 2000, new technologies have emerged to produce bamboo viscose 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.
How Can You Buy Bamboo Viscose Fabrics More Sustainably
The key to sustainably buying bamboo viscose 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 Viscose Fabrics
As we have established throughout the life-cycle assessment, not all bamboo viscose clothes are made equally, with some of the traditionally made bamboo viscose fibers not being very sustainable.
Bamboo viscose clothes can only be truly sustainable when the raw materials come from sustainably managed forests and plantations. In addition, the sustainability of bamboo viscose fabrics depends on:
- Energy usages (volume and source) in manufacturing
- Using and disposing process chemicals
Consequently, you want to buy bamboo viscose 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):
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 viscose fabric is generally not a very sustainable material. The heavy use of harmful chemicals makes it less sustainable than, for example, bamboo fabrics made in the lyocell process. Also, manufacturing bamboo viscose is energy-intensive.
However, it is possible to find sustainably made bamboo viscose rayon, with the raw materials for the yarns coming from sustainably managed forests and plantations and processed in closed-loop manufacturing systems.
To make it even more sustainable, buy second-hand bamboo viscose 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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