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Bamboo is all the rage for being Eco-friendly, and in some ways it is, but in other ways it is not. It may surprise you that bamboo is not as Eco-friendly as you may think. In this article we will discuss bamboo vs cotton sheets for your bedroom. We will talk about bamboo vs conventional cotton and bamboo vs organic cotton. In our comparison we will look at:
- How environmentally friendly each is
- What the resulting fabric is like
First let’s talk about the different fabric types and how they are produced. We will look at bamboo, conventional cotton and organic cotton. We will then compare the pros and cons of each fabric and decide which is the best.
Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants on the planet. It sucks up carbon dioxide from the air at an astounding rate. It is naturally pest-resistant, meaning that pesticides are not needed for a good harvest. It grows without the need for fertilizers, and without the need for very much water.
Bamboo does not need to be replanted as it’s extensive root system allows it to grow back after it is cut, this root system also helps prevent soil erosion. In many ways, bamboo is a very green crop to grow but it is not so green in the way it is produced.
While there is a more Eco-friendly manufacturing process using natural enzymes to make bamboo fabric, it is rarely used because it is highly labor intensive and costly. This process involves crushing the bamboo plant and using natural enzymes to break it down. The fibers are then mechanically combed out and spun into yarn. This process is essentially the same as the process used to create linen from flax or hemp, with the resulting fabric often being called bamboo linen.
Because it is cheap and easy, bamboo fabric is more often than not made the same way that rayon fabrics are made with other plant materials such as wood and cotton waste byproducts. This fabric is referred to as bamboo rayon and is manufactured by soaking the bamboo fibers in solvents such as sodium hydroxide (also known as caustic soda or lye) and carbon disulfide. This “cooks” the woody fiber of bamboo and breaks it down into cellulose, which is then woven into a fabric. These chemical solvents are known to have health hazards and can harm aquatic life if released into the water supply.
Some argue that the production of bamboo rayon is too harsh and taxing on the environment to call bamboo an Eco-friendly fabric. Sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide are toxic solvents that can have a negative impact on the people working with them. However, many companies selling bamboo fabrics ensure us that they are working very hard at finding greener ways to produce their bamboo fabric. They argue that if chemical solvents are used responsibly, they have little negative impact.
Growing cotton is one of the dirtiest industries on our planet. Conventional cotton uses 10% of all agricultural chemicals and 25% of the world’s insecticides. Cotton requires vast irrigation and extensive watering to grow optimally and needs to be replanted after every harvest . Pesticides used on cotton seep into the ground water, kill beneficial insects and harm the farmers working the cotton fields.
Conventional cotton is often grown from genetically modified seeds that have been treated with fungicides and pesticides to increase germination. The plants are sprayed with herbicides to control weeds and pesticides to control pests. Chemical fertilizers are used to provide nutrition to malnourished soil. Instead of waiting for a natural freeze, chemical defoliants are used to remove the plant’s leaves come harvest time.
Cotton has a long history with the human race, with fragments of cotton fabric being found to date back to 5000 BC. World production is currently estimated at 25 millions tonnes a year.
Cotton is either machine harvested or hand harvested. The leaves must be separated out from the fiber and this is either done by hand or by using chemical defoliants. The cotton is cleaned and de-seeded and then compressed into bales for transportation.
Conventional cotton fabric is chlorine bleached for whitening and dyed with chemical dyes. These dyes are often made from solvent-based inks containing heavy metals, iron, tin, benzene, VOC’s (volatile organic compounds), and organochlorides. These chemical dyes require large quantities of water to wash out their residues. The resulting products often contains trace residues of these toxic dyes, as well as chemical solvent residues, flame retardants, and pesticide and formaldehyde residues.
The production of cotton textiles is often done by cheap, foreign textile companies using slave labor. Women and children are often employed at very low wages and forced to work long hours in decrepit buildings.
Organic cotton is cotton that has been grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, or chemical defoliants. Instead, organic fertilizers are used, such as compost and manure. Seeds are not treated with fungicides, nor are they genetically modified. Crop rotation is implemented, weeds are manually or mechanically removed, defoliation is done by nature or water control methods. This results in a clean cotton plant and better soil health. The cotton farmers are not being exposed to toxic chemicals everyday and polluted run-off water is minimized.
The organic cotton industry has exploded over the last decade, with demand surpassing production. When you choose to buy organic cotton, you are helping to change an extremely toxic industry to one that is more in balance with nature.
Organic cotton is not dyed with toxic dyes, only natural, non-toxic dyes are used. The manufacturing does not include toxic solvents or chemical bleaches. The resulting fabric is free of toxic residues that can lead to skin irritations and breathing problems.
Not all organic cotton products are guaranteed to be produced in a fair -trade environment without sweat-shop labor. Because the demand for organic cotton is increasing, large corporations are jumping on the bandwagon and producing their own organic cotton products. I don’t trust this type of organic cotton. I want to be sure that my bedding is being produced by someone being paid a fair wage and treated with respect.
The only downfall of organic cotton is the price. It is a costly commodity. This is because of the lack of producers as well as the higher cost of growing organic cotton. More manual labor is required to grow organic cotton, which also raises the price. The more people get involved in growing organic cotton, the faster the price will go down.
Now we will look at the pros and cons of each of the resulting fabrics:
Pros and Cons of Each Fabric
- Eco-friendly o grow
- resulting fabric is very soft
- fabric is moisture-wicking
- strong fabric with a silky feel
- less pilling than cheap cotton
- dyes very easily so harsh dyes are not needed
- manufacturing process is not Eco-friendly
- may be produced in a sweat-shop
- despite claims that bamboo is biodegradable, bamboo rayon is not
- the resulting rayon fabric has none of the plants original properties intact
- soft and breathable
- commonly available
- very toxic industry, from growing, to manufacturing, to producing.
- pollutes the water in all stages
- bad for farmers, harvesters and textile workers
- fabric often contains trace residues of toxic chemicals
- dyed with toxic dyes
- very soft fabric
- breathable and lightweight
- supports a change to a more healthy textile industry
- fabric has not been treated with flame retardants or anti-wrinkle chemicals
- fabric does not contain toxic residues
- often dyed with non-toxic dyes
- not guaranteed to be sweat-shop free
- harder to find
So which is better? Bamboo or Cotton?
When we are comparing bamboo to conventional cotton, bamboo is definitely the winner. It is much more Eco-friendly than conventional cotton and results in a nice silky fabric that will keep you cool in the summer and warm in the winter. But remember, that bamboo fabric is almost considered a synthetic. Yes it is made from a plant, but the chemical process strips it of all it’s natural qualities.
When comparing bamboo to organic cotton, the winner is not so obvious. They both have their strengths and weaknesses. Organic cotton requires more water and input to grow than bamboo, but organic cotton does not require a chemically intensive manufacturing process. Bamboo fabric cannot even be certified by the Soil Association because they do not see bamboo fabric as being natural.
Buying organic cotton helps to change an industry that desperately needs to change. When buying either fabric, you need to be diligent in checking on the company’s manufacturing practices, are they using slave labor or toxic dyes? Do they have certification?
I want choose the greenest and most environmentally friendly fabric, So I choose organic cotton over bamboo.
There is too much false advertising when it comes to bamboo and until the manufacturing process becomes truly environmentally friendly, I don’t want to buy into these false claims. When I choose to buy organic cotton I know that my dollar is making a difference in the world.
If You Do Decide to Buy Bamboo Sheets, Look For:
- Certification from a reliable third-party certification company such as Oeko-Tex, SKAL, or KRAV.
- Bamboo fabrics that have been produced with lower-eco-impact methods such as stringent water purification steps
- Twill-woven as it produces the strongest fabric
- Pre-shrunk sheets
Or go straight to Amazon to purchase
Have you tried bamboo sheets? Do you think organic cotton is worth it’s high price tag? Share your experiences or any questions you may have in the comments below 🙂
This post was originally published on February 1, 2016.