As well as being widely used in construction and, of course, the diet of giant pandas, bamboo is now making a name for itself in the worlds of textiles, clothing, and home products.
The star of the show is something called ‘bamboo viscose’. The market for bamboo viscose fabric has been growing year after year due to its affordability, availability, soft, silky texture, and, perhaps most importantly, its light environmental paw—I mean, foot—print.
The fact that bamboo viscose is now being used as an alternative fabric to traditional ones is not surprising. It’s durable, odor-resistant, comfortable, moisture-wicking—the list goes on.
A better question to ask is why has it taken this long?
Bamboo has been used in Asia for centuries to make everything from food to musical instruments to ornamental plants (the giant grass has over 1,500 documented uses).
However, it wasn’t until the early 2000s, when Bejing University developed the process of turning bamboo into bamboo viscose fabric, that it started to be used for clothing and other fabric-based products like bedding and towels.
Thankfully, today the fastest-growing plant on the planet and the favorite food of pandas is now becoming more and more popular as an eco-friendly alternative to a growing range of items and objects we use in our daily lives.
But before you get too excited (just me?), it’s not always the case that viscose bamboo is eco-friendly. It all depends on the type of production process and, of course, the sourcing and cultivation of the bamboo itself.
To understand what is bamboo viscose, what are its many advantages (and disadvantages), if bamboo viscose is toxic, and if bamboo viscose is biodegradable, we first need to learn a bit about the gooey viscous liquid that makes it all possible.
Table of Contents
What is Viscose?
Viscose is a plant-based fiber and the world’s third most commonly used textile fiber.
It’s a pulpy, viscous substance (hence the name) that’s derived from plants and vegetable matter and used in the manufacturing of products like clothes and paper.
Viscose is made up of a white stringy substance called cellulose. Cellulose is an important structural component that helps form the main part of plant cell walls and vegetable fibers.
To turn cellulose into viscose, plants and vegetable fibers are diluted in a chemical solution to produce the pulpy viscous substance. This viscous substance then goes through a process of various stages, including steeping, shredding, and filtering, before being spun into fibers that can be used as threads for clothes, paper, etc.
In terms of its eco-friendliness, viscose is considered biodegradable, meaning it won’t exist for thousands of years like polyester and other synthetic fabrics. However, this does not mean it degrades without harming the environment or that it’s fully sustainable.
Deforestation, habitat destruction, and chemical pollution are just a few of the issues. The process of making viscose from wood pulp is also highly water intensive, from the watering of trees to the water requirements during processing.
A product labeled viscose is not necessarily made from bamboo. Viscose fabrics are made from a variety of natural sources, some more sustainable than others, including hemp, wool, cotton, and eucalyptus.
Viscose Vs. Rayon: Which is Better?
You often see manufacturers labeling their products as being made from ‘viscose’, ‘rayon’, ‘viscose rayon’, and other similar terms.
This tends to lead to the questions, what is the difference between viscose and rayon, and is viscose better than rayon, or vice versa?
The reality is that today, the terms viscose and rayon are used interchangeably and describe exactly the same thing. Even The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) considers the terms to be the same.
The terms ‘bamboo viscose’ & ‘bamboo rayon’ describe the same bamboo-based substance made via a chemical, as opposed to mechanical, process.
The reason there are two terms is that originally, the term ‘rayon’ was used to describe the first type of material made from wood pulp (In France in 1889, industrial chemist Hilaire Bernigaud, often called the father of the rayon industry, created ”Chardonnet silk”, the first type of rayon and the first commercially produced man-made fiber).
In 1905, the British silk firm Samuel Courtauld & Company began producing this fiber. As what typically happens, they branded it by a different name: ‘viscose rayon’, or simply ‘viscose’). Several years later, in 1911, the American Viscose Corporation began producing the material in the US.
Although rayon and viscose essentially refer to the same thing, you may see manufacturers using the terms in different ways. If you’re trying to figure out if viscose or rayon is better, or what is bamboo rayon and bamboo viscose, the answer is they’re typically made the same way and it pretty much all depends on the crop they’re made from.
What is Bamboo Viscose?
Bamboo viscose is a pulpy, plant-based material that is derived from the bamboo plant and used to make many fabrics.
Just as ‘viscose’ describes the substance derived from the cellulose of plants and vegetables, ‘bamboo viscose’ describes the thick substance that is specifically made from the bamboo plant.
Also known as viscose from bamboo, bamboo viscose has exploded in popularity in recent years—especially in the bedding and ethical fashion industries—due to its soft, silky properties and its potential as a sustainable and environmentally-friendly alternative to fabrics such as cotton and polyester.
Bamboo viscose essentially describes the main way bamboo is processed and turned into a workable fabric. Other terms may be used to describe bamboo viscose, including ‘bamboo rayon’, ‘viscose bamboo’, and even ‘bamboo viscose rayon’, but they describe the same thing.
When understanding what is bamboo viscose, it’s important to know that not all products that say they’re made from bamboo viscose are 100% bamboo. Some bamboo viscose products are actually mixtures of other materials like cotton and microfiber polyester.
Many manufacturers now use the term ‘100% bamboo’ or ‘100% bamboo viscose’ or ‘100% panda-certified bamboo’ (just kidding) to assure customers the product is legit and not a sneaky mixture of other materials.
Bamboo viscose is a versatile fabric that’s used in many applications such as bamboo clothing, bamboo furniture, and bamboo bedding. It’s an eco-friendly alternative to traditional fabrics made from synthetic materials and offers many unique benefits.
How is Bamboo Viscose Made?
Bamboo viscose is made by extracting cellulose from a plant, in this case, bamboo, and putting it through a manufacturing process of various stages before it’s spun into fabric.
The bamboo stems are first broken down into tiny chunks. These chunks are then exposed to solvents such as sodium hydroxide—also known as caustic soda—to extract the cellulose from the bamboo chunks.
Next, the extracted cellulose is exposed to carbon disulfide—a chemical made by the reaction of carbon and sulfur—and turned into the viscous, pulpy substance from which viscose gets its name.
The pulpy substance is then pushed through the tiny holes of a spinneret to create strands. These strands are immersed in a chemical bath of sulfuric acid, sodium sulfate, and zinc sulfate (the safety and eco-friendliness of these chemicals are discussed further down) to create filaments.
Finally, these bamboo viscose filaments are spun into yarn and are ready to be woven into bamboo fabric: a soft fabric that has many of the same properties as silk.
As bamboo fabric has gained a stronger foothold in the textile industry, other, more sustainable manufacturing methods have been developed.
One of the most popular is the mechanical process. In this process, the bamboo is crushed and soaked in a natural enzyme solution to extract the bamboo cellulose. This more sustainable manufacturing method is often used to make bamboo linen and bamboo lyocell (discussed below).
What Are The Benefits of Bamboo Viscose?
The main benefits of bamboo viscose are that it’s an eco-friendly alternative to cotton & polyester, it’s silky soft, and it offers great ventilation & heat regulation.
Polyester is a kind of plastic made from petroleum (no need to explain more), and cotton, although a natural material, when produced on an industrial scale, is incredibly water-intensive, involves high amounts of artificial fertilizers (6% of the world’s pesticides and 16% of all insecticides), and is the cause of soil degradation and significant levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
Bamboo, on the other hand, requires much fewer resources and less energy to grow and turn into bamboo viscose fabric. Bamboo trees require only a third of the amount of water that cotton needs to grow, have little to no need for pesticides or fertilizers (due to having few natural pests), don’t require heavy machinery, and can help the soil, for instance, due to its long root systems that can protect steep banks from erosion.
Scientific American also reported that because bamboo has very deep root systems and is merely cut, not uprooted, and so it avoids the soil from being disturbed by machinery during harvesting.
Another main benefit of bamboo viscose and a reason it has shot to stardom is its silky smooth softness. The incredibly fine and soft texture of bamboo fabric makes it a popular choice for those with sensitive skin (always look for the OEKO-TEX Standard 100 label which ensures no trace harmful materials are left in the fabric), as well as for pajamas, bedding, and other soft fabrics that don’t cost the Earth like silk.
You’ll also find bamboo viscose in many sports products as it offers excellent ventilation. Bamboo viscose has the ability to regulate heat, so it feels cool in warm weather and warm in cool weather. This makes the fabric ideal for exercise, yoga, sports, hiking, gardening, and other outdoor and sweaty activities.
I’ve written a comprehensive article that dives into all the benefits of bamboo fabric and debunks the claims that simply aren’t true.
Is Viscose Bamboo Eco-Friendly?
The bamboo plant is a woody grass that grows tall and fast. Some of the largest bamboo can grow over 40m (130ft) tall, 25–30cm (10–12in) in diameter, and at a rate of up to 3ft per day.
This incredible natural ability of bamboo to grow big and fast makes it a highly efficient renewable resource. A large amount of bamboo can be grown in a small space and in a short amount of time, making it a popular alternative fabric in the ethical fashion industry.
Growing bamboo on an industrial scale also doesn’t need to involve a high amount of resources, both natural and artificial.
Unlike cotton, bamboo can grow without constant irrigation. In fact, bamboo uses only 12 gallons of water to produce one pound of fabric, while cotton requires over 200 times more. Thanks to the plant’s natural antibacterial bio-agent called ‘bamboo kun’, it’s also naturally pest resistant, meaning zero or very few pesticides and fungicides are needed in the growing process.
The bamboo plant also has another benefit for the environment: it naturally sequesters carbon (more than slower-growing trees and many other heavily farmed plants like cotton), and releases large amounts of oxygen into the atmosphere.
It’s even been proven that a mature grove of bamboo can generate 30%-35% more oxygen than an equal area of forest. As if those weren’t enough environmental benefits of bamboo, the plant is a self-generating member of the grass family—meaning cutting it does no greater damage to it than mowing does to a lawn and it doesn’t need to be replanted.
Bamboo grows by using the energy of the existing plant to expand the root structure and produce new plants. Plants or shoots rise up in spring/summer and grow over a period of around 60 days.
A bamboo colony takes about 3 years to establish itself. Once established, the new shoots that sprout become taller, thicker, and more numerous each year as the colony grows to reach maturity (around 10 years depending on the species).
The result is that bamboo is an environmentally-friendly alternative when it comes to cultivation. However, viscose bamboo or bamboo viscose is a material that involves taking bamboo through a manufacturing process. Although typically more eco-friendly than other conventional crops, this process is not 100% sustainable and can have an impact on the environment.
So is viscose bamboo eco-friendly? The answer is bamboo is a much more sustainable crop to cultivate than the likes of cotton. However, due to the chemicals involved in the manufacturing of viscose bamboo, it’s not as eco-friendly as other types of bamboo fabric, such as bamboo linen and bamboo lyocell (discussed below).
What is Bamboo Viscose Used to Make?
With a history of thousands of years of use in many different cultures around the world, bamboo can be made into pretty much anything you can think of.
Construction materials, medicines, paper, fencing… if we were to name them all, we would be here all day.
In terms of the more modern and popular applications that are taking the world of eco-friendly living by storm, here are a few:
- Bamboo bedding like these super soft bamboo sheets by TAFT
- Bamboo clothing including underwear, pajamas, nightwear, and swimwear
- Bamboo sportswear such as yoga leggings, running clothes, and workout gear
- Bamboo baby products including clothing, blankets, diapers, and pajamas
- Bamboo kitchenware and bathroom products such as bamboo toothbrushes
- Unique bamboo gifts, accessories, and items including sushi kits, hats, scarves, gloves, and decorations for the home
What Are The Disadvantages of Bamboo Viscose? Is Bamboo Viscose Toxic?
As mentioned above, during the process of making bamboo viscose, toxic chemicals such as sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide are typically used.
These chemicals are cheaper than other methods of production, such as mechanical production. However, they pose risks to workers and the environment if not used with proper chemical management and waste treatment policies and practices.
Thankfully, policies and practices are improving. For example, in the US, it is now against the law to use carbon disulfide in the process of making bamboo viscose. However, many brands source their material from factories in China, Indonesia, Pakistan, or India, where the regulations are different and may not be as strict.
Bamboo viscose is considered non-toxic and good for sensitive skin if it is OEKO-TEX certified. Based in Switzerland, OEKO-TEX is an international network of research and test institutes that have created a globally recognized standard to ensure textiles are safe to use.
Their certification process involves checking every single component of bamboo fabric, from button to thread, for known harmful and prohibited substances, including formaldehydes, asbestos, lead, cadmium, chlorinated phenols, and lindane.
A more sustainable and environmentally-friendly option to bamboo viscose is bamboo fabric that has been mechanically, not chemically, processed. This is known as bamboo linen or lyocell (discussed below).
Is Bamboo Viscose Biodegradable?
One of the few downsides of bamboo viscose is that, as it’s made using synthetic chemicals, it is believed that it does not fully ‘biodegrade’ in a way that is 100% safe for the environment.
According to a 2010 study by Marilyn Waite, author and acclaimed climate researcher who holds a Master’s degree in Engineering for Sustainable Development from the University of Cambridge, bamboo viscose could be eco-friendly if it didn’t involve harmful substances.
However, as it’s made using synthetic chemicals, bamboo viscose does not fully ‘biodegrade’ in a way that isn’t harmful to the environment.
Some types of bamboo fabric are biodegradable as they are entirely made of cellulosic material and their production process doesn’t involve any harmful substances.
But, the chemicals used in the production of bamboo viscose fabric—carbon disulfide and sodium hydroxide—are synthetic. So while bamboo viscose is bio-based, it’s still made with potentially harmful chemicals that may not be great for the Earth.
That being said, the impact of bamboo viscose on the environment can be decreased if no toxic dyes are added to the fabric and it contains no harmful substances, which can be assured by the OEKO-TEX Standard 100 certification.
The time it takes for bamboo viscose to fully degrade or decompose is up to a year. This isn’t as quick as some materials, however, it’s much quicker than traditional textiles, which can take around 200 years, and petroleum-based synthetic fabrics, which can take around 500 years to decompose.
The fact is, the two most commonly used textile fibres—cotton and polyester—both have serious environmental problems in their life cycle. Bamboo viscose has fewer problems, despite not typically being fully biodegradable.
What Are Bamboo Linen & Bamboo Lyocell?
There are several types of bamboo fabric that have different names due to the way they have been manufactured and processed.
Bamboo linen is, like bamboo viscose, made from bamboo cellulose. However, instead of being chemically processed, it is mechanically processed.
Mechanically processing bamboo is typically much more expensive and labor-intensive than its chemical counterpart. The end result is also much courser than bamboo viscose, so it’s not as popular in the fashion industry.
However, as the process doesn’t involve as many toxic chemicals as bamboo viscose, the fabric has an even lighter impact on the environment.
Bamboo lyocell is another, very similar type of bamboo fabric that is becoming more popular among the environmentally conscious. Lyocell is a trademarked name for a viscose-type material that is made using fewer toxic chemicals.
Lyocell is also processed in a closed-loop system, meaning the vast majority of the chemicals are captured and recycled to be used again instead of polluting the environment. The lyocell process is used to manufacture TENCEL®, a fabric used by Patagonia among other eco-conscious brands.
Closed-loop bamboo lyocell production doesn’t chemically alter the structure of the cellulose. Incredibly, the result is a fabric that is almost 100% organic, meaning it also retains its natural antibacterial properties (unlike bamboo viscose), and that can fully biodegrade in less than two weeks.
The only downside of bamboo lyocell is that, like bamboo linen, the fabric can be courser and so it’s typically not as soft and comfortable as bamboo viscose.
The Final Verdict on Bamboo Viscose
As an incredibly fast-growing plant that only gets better as it’s chopped and ages, bamboo is a miracle of the natural world.
Unfortunately, in the current day, the most affordable and viable way of turning this wonder plant into fabric for use in everyday life is through chemical processes.
That being said, despite the chemicals used in the making of bamboo viscose, this super soft fabric is still lightyears ahead of conventional, traditionally-used fabrics in terms of friendliness to the environment and softness for money.
This makes viscose bamboo one of the most eco-friendly (and most Panda-baby-soft) fabrics in the world. Just be sure to buy from manufacturers and brands that are transparent about their processes and who don’t spread false claims about the actual benefits of bamboo viscose products.
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