Bamboo vs Organic Cotton: Which is More Environmentally Friendly?
The search for environmentally friendly fabrics and clothing often comes down to bamboo vs. organic cotton. While both are unquestionably more eco-friendly than man-made materials and traditional cotton, bamboo and organic cotton are not quite equals when it comes to environmental impact.
Bamboo: Sustainable Growth But At A Cost
Bamboo is often championed as an eco-friendly fabric option because it comes from a fast-growing, renewable resource. Technically a grass, bamboo can grow as much as 35 inches in a day, making it the fastest growing plant on Earth. The fact that it's a grass means it can be harvested again and again without destroying the plant or requiring replanting. Bamboo is untroubled by pests and disease, eliminating the need for pesticides and fungicides, which plague traditionally grown cotton.
The trouble with bamboo as an environmentally-friendly clothing option comes down to the process of transforming bamboo fibers into soft fabric. Because bamboo is so fibrous, strong toxic chemicals, such as lye or sodium hydroxide, sulfuric acid, and carbon disulfide are needed to soften the plant's cellulose fibers enough to become a workable and comfortable fabric. Eventually all that chemical waste gets dumped into the ecosystem. Further along in the process, even more chemicals are used - and dumped - to create threads and fabric to the point that the materials used in the actual construction of the clothing are a mix of natural and synthetic fibers and look nothing like an organic, environmentally-friendly product. In fact, they look more like rayon than anything else.
Due to the heavy, invasive processing methods required to make bamboo clothing, standards groups like the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and the Soil Association will not even certify bamboo clothing products. Coupled with the fact that most bamboo is grown in China where farming standards and environmental protections are lacking, there's no telling the true environmental impact of farming, harvesting, and producing bamboo clothing.
Organic Cotton: Eco-Friendly Production and Processing
Organic cotton is the closest competitor to bamboo in terms of low-impact and sustainable farming practices. Unlike traditional cotton, which requires heavy use of water, fertilizers, and harmful pesticides, organic cotton does not use synthetic fertilizers or chemicals that damage the soil, waterways, or workers and it requires far less water. Organic cotton production focuses on sustainable and natural farming methods including crop rotation, soil fertility management, and organic methods of crop nutrition such as composting, mulching, and manures to boost production. Pest management focuses on prevention and the use of trap crops and natural pesticides only when needed.
The processing techniques for organic cotton are far more environmentally friendly than those required for bamboo. The raw organic cotton fibers are already soft, free of pesticides and chemicals, and ready for gentle cleaning and processing. There is no need to soften or chemically alter their composition to make them suitable for clothing production as there is with bamboo. Since the cotton does not require chemical processing, the fibers also remain soft and strong, making organic cotton much more durable and longer-lasting than traditional cotton. Natural organic cotton has a subtle beige color; avoid organic cotton that has been bleached or dyed for the most eco-friendly products.
For confidence in buying organic cotton, look for the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) label. Many consumers look for USDA Organic labels on cotton, but USDA standards cover food products, not fabrics, which is why you'll never see a USDA Organic label on organic cotton fabric products. GOTS, on the other hand, is just as stringent as the USDA organic standard for food but was created specifically to support the textile industry and provide standards for organic cotton producers. It is the only third-party certification available to organic fabric producers who adhere to organic production standards, which includes raw material production and harvest, chemical finishing or processing, and labor standards.
Cotton Wins In A Bamboo Vs. Organic Cotton Match-Up
When comparing bamboo vs. organic cotton, we prefer organic cotton as the more eco-friendly choice. It's sustainable, durable, has a low environmental impact, and requires little in terms of chemical processing. While we love the low-impact farming methods of bamboo and the renewable nature of the plant, it is better suited for use in flooring, furniture, and hard materials than clothing due to the extensive processing required to turn it into fabric.
Learn more about organic cotton and socially-responsible textile production by visiting the Global Organic Textile Standard website.