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Is bamboo sustainable or a greenwashing story?

Is bamboo sustainable or a greenwashing story?

What is greenwashing?

The world is on fire (literally and figuratively), so there's a growing demand for environmentally friendly products. While many companies are genuinely trying to offer sustainable alternatives, there are inevitably going to be some bad apples who try to take advantage (looking at you, Granny Smith).

Greenwashing is when a company exaggerates or fabricates claims about their environmental friendliness in an attempt to mislead customers.

Many producers and sellers of bamboo textiles are guilty of greenwashing.

bamboo shoots

"Shh, act natural." - Bamboo shoots pretending to be sustainable.

First, the good news

Bamboo grows really fast. In just four years, it can grow big enough to be harvested for its cellulose-rich fiber.

Like other plants, bamboo absorbs carbon dioxide and produces oxygen (which is good because breathing is the best).

Bamboo doesn't require a lot of water or pesticides to grow big and tall.

The end result, "bamboo" dresses, shirts, pants, and bedding, is soft, smooth, and comfortable. You'll notice bamboo is in quotes. More on that later.

There is no bamboo fiber

Later is now.

There is no such things as bamboo fiber. It's most likely rayon or viscose, (which are interchangeable terms) made from random wood sources (and occasionally bamboo). 

According to the Federal Trade Commission (aka the FTC),

most “bamboo” textile products, if not all, really are rayon, which typically is made using environmentally toxic chemicals in a process that emits hazardous pollutants into the air. While different plants, including bamboo, can be used as a source material to create rayon, there’s no trace of the original plant in the finished rayon product.

We've covered the environmentally toxic process they're referring to here in a previous blog post.

To sum up, the chemicals carbon disulfide and sodium hydroxide are combined with wood pulp to make viscose rayon fabric or "bamboo." Only 50% of the chemicals used are reused, which means the other 50% find their way into the air and water. Needless to say, the process is extremely destructive and hazardous to the environment and to the people who make it.

Most bamboo is unverified

In December 2015, the FTC fined Nordstrom, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Backcountry, and J.C. Penney $1.3 million for mislabeling viscose rayon products as "bamboo."

In their view, it's a little like calling grape juice "grape juice" when there's almost certainly no grapes in it. (Time to crack down on Big Grape Juice, FTC.)

Unfortunately, those companies aren't alone. Many companies that offer bamboo products don't, won't, or can't substantiate their claims or verify the sourcing. (To be fair, it is very difficult to obtain this kind of information. See the next section on China.)

In order to call something bamboo, companies need to provide scientific tests and analyses to prove that it's made of actual bamboo fiber. So if the website is vague or says things like, "it's totally bamboo, trust us..." don't trust them.

Most bamboo rayon is made in China

Fun fact: the viscose rayon process is so dangerous, the EPA's regulations caused the last U.S.-based factories to shut down over a decade ago. So, who makes the most viscose nowadays? 

You guessed it, if you read the sub-headline.

Most rayon is made in China (accounting for about 65% of the world output), a place infamous for having loose environmental standards and poor human rights records.

We know the viscose/rayon process is harmful, we just don't know the extent of the damage because these factories are like a black box. There's very little transparency, and the fibers for any given "bamboo" product are not traceable to any particular factory, so claims made cannot be substantiated. 

Harvesting bamboo threatens pandas

Speaking of China, the World Wildlife Fund blames the threat to pandas on illegal logging and agriculture for bamboo.

two pandas snuggling

"Why must you hurt us in this way?"

Canopy, the forest-preservation non-profit, echoes this, saying, "Historically, clearing of the giant pandas’ natural bamboo forest habitat and food source led to the now iconic species becoming endangered."

While lessons were learned, forests are still cleared to this day in order to grow bamboo farms. It should go without saying that clearing a natural or endangered forest just to plant bamboo isn't exactly environmentally friendly.

How can you know if it's genuine bamboo?

So, how can you know if the bamboo product you're buying is genuine?

In the majority of cases, products claiming to be made from bamboo are from random wood sources. Also, the percentage of bamboo input is not documented. Therefore it could be 10% bamboo and 90% wood and the company may still call it "bamboo."  This is, of course, illegal, but it's still practiced.

According to the FTC, genuine bamboo will say "mechanically processed bamboo" on the label or on the website. If it's not made directly from bamboo, it should say, "rayon from bamboo" or just "rayon."

Remember, regardless of the percentage of bamboo in a particular product, if it's made via the viscose method, it is chemically intensive and therefore environmentally destructive. Stay away.

Why our eucalyptus lyocell isn't an example of greenwashing

We're not like those other guys, we swear. Genuinely sustainable products, like Sheets & Giggles' bedding, back up their claims with facts and data.

Oh, hello. My name is eucalyptus lyocell and I'm sustainable. No, really.

So, here are some facts and data:

While there is no trace of eucalyptus in the end product because the pulp is broken down into cellulose (we're careful to include "lyocell" as a qualifier), the lyocell process is actually cleaner and greener. 

Our closed-loop process reuses 99.6% of water and solvents – it's cleaner than cotton and certainly cleaner than viscose/rayon. But don't take our word for it, google it. Or do take our word for it.

The claims we make about our eucalyptus bedding are backed up by 3rd party scientific review and analysis. Our manufacturers are transparent and document their sourcing and resources via responsible forestry groups like FSC, PEFC, and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.

Through our manufacturers, we employ a non-profit called Canopy to ensure we are protecting and conserving ancient and endangered forests.

And we use Roadmap to Zero to ensure there is no discharge of hazardous chemicals from the factory into the waterways, the soil, or into the air.

Overall, we try to be very transparent about our sustainability efforts in our messaging and on our website, but if there is something we didn't cover in this post or a question you have about our process, eucalyptus lyocell, or anything at all, please check our FAQs or reach out.


a man drinking a glass of wine, winking at the camera

Colin loves reading and responding to your emails.

1 comment on Is bamboo sustainable or a greenwashing story?

  • Marian Hanton
    Marian HantonNovember 23, 2022

    Thank you so much for opening my eyes on the bamboo process… now to buy your sheets so I can close them blissfully

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