How Green Is Bamboo-Based Clothing?

Bamboo is no longer just a delicacy for pandas or a collectible for sinophiles.

The environmental movement is embracing bamboo — it's actually a type of gigantic grass with hollow, jointed, woody stems — as a raw material source for organic clothing.

A number of manufacturers and retailers — Sprout Kids Clothing, New Balance, Sameunderneath and Lela Designs, among others — are offering underwear, T-shirts and other clothing made primarily of bamboo, targeting green-conscious consumers and advertising the products as all natural.

Established clothing purveyors such as JC Penney and H&M are also joining the movement, touting their eco-friendly offerings.

The market for organic clothing is expected to be worth at least $3 billion by the end of this year, according to research by Berkeley, Calif.-based Organic Exchange, an organic-cotton promotion group.

"Companies around the world are looking at their product lines using organic fibers to step more lightly on the planet," says executive director LaRhea Pepper, who runs an organic-cotton farm in Texas with her husband and father.

One might reasonably imagine bamboo-based clothing to be scratchy and uncomfortable, the modern-day version of a hair shirt, something one might don when making penance in a medieval monastery.

Fabric made from bamboo has a silky texture, environmentalists say. According to the National Geographic Green Guide, bamboo is an "a priori" eco-friendly material because it's naturally pest-resistant, requires little water, is amazingly regenerative and known to grow a foot a day.

Bamboo also has a much lighter environmental impact than pesticide-laden conventional cotton and petroleum-derived nylon and polyester synthetics.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), conventional cotton consumes more water than any other agricultural commodity.

Nitrogen-heavy fertilizer runoff from cotton fields feeds oceanic "dead zones" that deprive water of oxygen and kill fish. Seven of the top 15 pesticides used on U.S. cotton crops are deemed by the EPA to be potential or known human carcinogens.

Industrial production of synthetic fibers releases lung-damaging pollutants such as nitrogen and sulfur oxides, particulates, carbon monoxide and heavy metals into the air. Manufacturing of most fabrics also releases climate-warming carbon dioxide into the air.

Not so with bamboo.

The president and founder of Santa Monica, Calif.-based Sprout Kids Clothing — not to be confused with the online retailer Sprout Kids — describes the bamboo clothing as "comfortable" as well as eco-friendly.

"I wanted to create children's' clothing that was sustainable, but without sacrificing quality, or putting kids in burlap bags," says Maegan Harvey. "When I discovered bamboo — that was it."

The fabric used by Sprout Kids Clothing is made of 70 percent bamboo and 30 percent organic cotton, which is made without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. There's no polyester in the mix.

Additionally, bamboo contains a natural element called "bamboo kun" which serves as a natural antibiotic, protecting the wearer from nasty germs as well as body odor, which is caused by bacteria living in our armpits.

The clothing makers use non-industrial chemicals to dye the products, such as "low-impact, or vegetable dyes," says Daisy Hu, a spokeswoman for Under the Canopy, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based organic clothing developer.

Other designers and retailers tout additional environmental benefits for their clothing.

"I work with a wonderful eco-friendly women's line, Oxygen Required, and their line is made of bamboo, cotton," says Heather Wilbeck, a spokeswoman for the New York firm, whose lead designer is Vivian Fang. "The collection is breathable, biodegradable, anti-bacterial and eco-friendly."

Both bamboo and organic cotton are big selling points for green consumers, says Jennifer Pearson, a spokeswoman for the Vancouver, B.C. environmentally-friendly clothing maker Lela Designs.

Manufacturers of bamboo-based clothing are also trying to expand the infrastructure of organic farming around the globe and are working with suppliers in China, India, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, Britain and the U.S.

Bamboo may be the most popular "eco-friendly" material now, but others are emerging.

Much of Boston-based athletic shoemaker New Balance's apparel collection utilizes charcoal derived from coconut shells, which is said to provide better evaporation and odor resistance, as well as protection from UV rays, says spokeswoman Kaitlin Kerns.

The company also offers bamboo-based running jackets and T-shirts.

Some worry, however, that all of this green talk is just that — chatter.

The clothes that are being offered may well be organic, but there are concerns that the packaging that contains the clothes is made out of cardboard or materials whose use offsets the green-friendliness of the clothing.

"I love organic socks and bought quite a few sets online," says Michal Ann Strahilevitz, a marketing professor at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. "When they arrived, I saw that every single pair had a relatively substantial-sized cardboard tag pinned to the socks, discussing the organic nature of the socks.

"Why did they have to waste paper with those silly, huge tags?" she adds. "Any positive impact on the earth that came from wearing the cotton was probably more than cancelled out by all those silly, thick information tags that they attached to each pair."

Given such criticisms, are the bamboo-based and organic clothes really "green?"

We think so. The bamboo fiber serves as a natural antibiotic, and is biodegradable and comfortable. The fabric is silky smooth. And since it naturally "wicks" perspiration, it doesn't have to be washed as frequently as clothes made from polyester.

Overall, bamboo clothing is definitely sustainable — it's doing something better, rather than doing something less bad.