Bamboo: Fashion's Sustainability Superhero?

Versatile, comfortable, and renewable: bamboo isn't only for plastic-free alternatives such as toothbrushes. This plant-based material can also be a great choice for creating fashion that will last beyond the seasons.

By Sascha Camilli writer, speaker, activist, and vegan fashion expert. 

Sometimes labelled “the world's most renewable material”, bamboo is the fastest-growing woody plant in the world – it can sometimes grow up to four feet in one single day. The bamboo plant takes only 1-5 years to reach full maturity, depending on the variety of plant – and there are quite a few to choose from. There are over 1200 different species of bamboo in the world, growing in Southeast Asia, South America and certain regions of North America. Among other uses, it's grown for food: bamboo shoots are a frequent part of many local Asian dishes. Bamboo is also commonly used in construction: it can function as scaffolding as well as a building block for huts and houses.

Bamboo's superhero properties mainly lie in its abilities to absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. It absorbs five times more carbon dioxide and produces 35% more oxygen than an equivalent group of trees, which adds to its eco-boosting credentials. Another advantage is that it's renewable: after the bamboo is harvested, it regrows from the roots and doesn't need re-planting. As the harvest doesn't involve touching the roots, the soil is left intact, which is beneficial to its health.

According to Scientific American, "bamboo can be cultivated with little to no fertilizer, pesticides, heavy harvesting machinery or irrigation, and bamboo root systems can protect steep banks from erosion." In fact, this fibre doesn't require any pesticides or herbicides, which are highly damaging to both the environment and human health. These harsh chemicals contaminate soil and water, and have adverse effects on plants' well-being. In humans, long-term exposure to them has been linked to Parkinson's disease, ADHD, and some cancers. But just because pesticides aren't required to make bamboo fabric, this doesn't mean that they were not used anyway, for maximum results. Intensive farming is however considered very bad practice in the industry.

Once harvested, bamboo can be turned into a variety of fabrics. It can be made to look like linen, with a light and breathable feel. It can also be transformed into rayon or viscose, which are two of its most frequent uses. The transformation process has its issues – it requires intensive practices and uses substances that harm the health of workers and contribute to emissions. However, recent improvements in waste treatment and management of chemicals have made this process more sustainable.

Bamboo is a significant improvement to using polyester and other petroleum-based synthetics, and it's also more sustainable than conventional (non-organic) cotton. This versatile material lends itself well to a variety of designs, such as basics, activewear and socks, but also baby essentials – all of which are offered by bamboo-focused sustainable fashion brand Boody. The lightness and comfort of bamboo lends these items their softness.

But bamboo can also be used in unexpected ways – for example, fashion brand Stelar creates hand-woven bags and accessories made from this eco-friendly material. Stelar uses bamboo from Indonesia, which is grown organically and harvested by local communities and dried in the sun, before artisans transform it into fashion accessories. As a result, Stelar's collections stand out for their unique design.

"Bamboo is naturally regenerative and is highly durable, which makes it a great material for a conscious brand to work with," says Lorna Watson, founder of Stelar. "The bamboo we use is grown organically and harvested by our artisan communities, which allows us to create high-quality contemporary designs whilst minimising our environmental impact. Using time-honoured skills and created to last for years to come, our bamboo bags reflect our dedication to fine craftsmanship and slow fashion."

Other brands also value bamboo for its comfort. "We design everyday essentials to last. That means we only invest in quality fabrics and we only design with simplicity and function in mind," says Boody brand and marketing manager Stephanie Audino. "Organically grown bamboo is highly breathable, comfy and soft; making it perfect for garments that sit close to the skin like underwear, socks and everyday basics."

Like many other natural materials, bamboo is kinder to the environment than synthetic counterparts and animal-derived fibres. The practices involved in its production aren't ideal for the planet, but there is hope as they are already improving. The future is certain to bring even further innovation, elevating this fabric to true superhero status.

By Sascha Camilli

About Sascha

Sascha Camilli is a vegan fashion writer, speaker and activist. Her book Vegan Style is out now on Murdoch Books. For more about Sascha, you can read our interview with her. You can also follow her on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn

Cover image by Boody. Second and third photo by Stelar.

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