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Is bamboo fiber is as sustainable as marketers claim?

Which fibers and fabrics are more sustainable than others is always open for debate. Bamboo's eco-friendly positioning in the market has been centered on its properties as 1) a natural (that is, nonsynthetic) fiber, 2) a quick-growth plant (it's in the grass family) that sequesters greenhouse gases, and 3) a renewable plant that can grow back after its three to five year harvesting period. It largely doesn't need chemicals, pesticides, or fertilizers, but studies show that clearing land to grow it in monocultures can adversely affect the soil and habitat of an area.

The manufacturing of bamboo fiber is where the debate really heats up. The majority of bamboo on the market is processed as rayon, which means chemicals are used to break down the woody fibers, which are then extruded through heat and pressure to create filaments. Because of the rayon processing, we may never have a purely "organic" bamboo if we take into account the entire production process. Some early movers in the bamboo-fiber industry were also looking into pushing the it as a sustainable development tool, meaning rural communities could grow and harvest it as a cash crop to help alleviate poverty.

India, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea, and Malaysia have all been looking into bamboo-based economies for that reason. However, manufacturing and fair labor standards and practices remain largely undisclosed. Using bamboo as a sustainable development tool can work, in theory. It is a labor-intensive, multipurpose commodity, which can result in a wide-range of jobs. However, the vital method to channel the raw material to a finished product and into an end-user market is still absent. The most current reports show that a person extracting the plant only gets 20 percent of the cost; 19 percent is given to the trade commission, and 61 percent goes directly to transportation of materials. Additionally, most bamboo, at least in the case of India, is being extracted from at least 60 to 70 percent of protected forest lands.

I personally would like to see more designers working directly with manufacturers and being more transparent in their practices and processes. There are tools out there to do that. Historic Futures and Made-By are excellent examples of track-and-trace services developed to map the chain of custody through the entire lifecycle of the product, putting power in the hand of consumers. These services have been used and proven already in the organic cotton industry. I think bamboo, though a nascent industry, will fare well using tools such as those, especially now that the Federal Trade Commission is increasingly cracking down on green advertising claims. If you'd like to dive deeper into the bamboo debate, check out my first issue of S4: the sustainability in trends fashion newsletter.

Summer Rayne Oakes is Planet Green's fashion and beauty expert. Got a pressing question you'd like her to tackle in this column? Email asksummer@treehugger.com. Read her previous columns here.