Fabric made of bamboo is marketed as “green” by its vendors. But is it? We researched green clothing choices, including bamboo, while writing our last book "Going Green." Here's what we learned about bamboo clothing.
It's soft as cotton, with a silk-like sheen. It can handle dryers and ironing, will resist wrinkling if pulled from the dryer immediately. Bamboo fabric air-dries faster than cotton.
Most commercial bamboo is grown in China. It doesn’t get the volume of pesticides used in conventional cotton cultivation, for sure. It may not get any pesticides. The Chinese farmers who grow it can't afford pesticides, for one thing.
Bamboo is usually manufactured into clothing in China, too, which raises the question of sweatshop labor. Bamboo Textile in Los Angeles is one provider of bamboo clothing in the U.S. Their name keeps cropping up in short magazine pieces, notes about up-and-coming clothing trends. I called the number on their web site but was unable to reach anyone who could answer questions for me.
Since I did reach a couple of hemp providers who also have factories in China, I asked one of them for information about Chinese bamboo factories. Lawrence Serbin of Hemp Traders was willing to answer a question or two about bamboo. Of course, I expected he might have biased answers, since he sells competing hemp products. But what the heck. Lawrence said that bamboo is not a natural fiber like hemp or cotton because there is no usable fiber in the bamboo itself. Rather the bamboo is ground up and treated with chemicals that turn it into a liquid pulp. Then the liquid is shot out from something like a showerhead. The extruded streams of liquid harden into the fibers that are woven together to make bamboo fabric. Hmm. Didn't know that. That's not necessarily bad, unless the chemicals are bad.
I asked Lynda Grose, a sustainable textiles consultant, about the environmental aspects of bamboo. She told me that bamboo for hardwood floors is considered more sustainable than growing trees like oak or maple for flooring. (Bamboo is a grass, not a tree.) “However,” Lynda said, “rendering bamboo from a plant to a yarn is a chemical process, the same process for conventional rayon. It’s highly polluting, involving hydrogen disulfide emissions.Rayon and bamboo are ‘regenerated cellulose’ fibers and are man-made. Most marketing touts bamboo as a natural fiber. That’s true for bamboo hardwood floors but not for textiles."
But I still wanted to hear from a bamboo clothing vendor . Since I was unable to reach anyone at Bamboo Textile on the phone, I looked on their web site for answers. I looked up “Processing and Manufacturing” first, on the “Bamboo Textile” web site. I notice that, today, that section no longer exists on the website, or at least I can't find it. But at the time I first looked, in late 2007, it said, “Stalks of bamboo are essentially crushed and pulped to separate the natural fibers. The fibers are then mixed with the lowest impacted chemicals to convert the plant fiber into textile quality fiber. As with many textiles, the process to make bamboo into fiber uses caustic soda. There are, however, alternatives that are more environmentally friendly." The site didn't mention whether the company uses the more environmentally friendly alternatives. The information given didn’t seem to contradict Serbin’s comments.
Then I looked under “Waste from the Factory,” another category on Bamboo Textile's web site in 2007. Factories in developing nations such as China are notorious for dumping toxins, e.g. dye residues, into streams and rivers, or spewing unfiltered emissions into the air. So I was eager to find a denial of such practices. Unfortunately, I didn’t find one. Instead, the Bamboo Textile web site said, under Waste from the Factory, “We are currently researching the answer to this question. Please stay tuned.”
Okay, let’s move on to labor and sweatshop issues, my biggest concern for a Chinese factory. I couldn't find anything about labor practices on Bamboo Textiles' current web site today. But here’s what the web site said on that matter in 2007:
“Our factory has established labor practices that are based on SA8000 principles (Social Accountability International 8000) and plans are underway to receive full-fledged SA8000 certification." I went to the Social Accountability International 8000 web site to see the criteria for the certification that Bamboo Textile aspires to. Here they are:
1. Child Labor: No workers under the age of 15; minimum lowered to 14 for countries operating under the ILO Convention 138 developing-country exception; remediation of any child found to be working
2.Forced Labor: No forced labor, including prison or debt bondage labor; no lodging of deposits or identity papers by employers or outside recruiters
3. Health and Safety: Provide a safe and healthy work environment; take steps to prevent injuries; regular health and safety worker training; system to detect threats to health and safety; access to bathrooms and potable water
4. Freedom of Association and Right to Collective Bargaining: Respect the right to form and join trade unions and bargain collectively; where law prohibits these freedoms, facilitate parallel means of association and bargaining
5. Discrimination: No discrimination based on race, caste, origin, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation, union or political affiliation, or age; no sexual harassment
6. Discipline: No corporal punishment, mental or physical coercion or verbal abuse
7. Working Hours: Comply with the applicable law but, in any event, no more than 48 hours per week with at least one day off for every seven day period; voluntary overtime paid at a premium rate and not to exceed 12 hours per week on a regular basis; overtime may be mandatory if part of a collective bargaining agreement
8.Compensation: Wages paid for a standard work week must meet the legal and industry standards and be sufficient to meet the basic need of workers and their families; no disciplinary deductions.
9. Management Systems: Facilities seeking to gain and maintain certification must go beyond simple compliance to integrate the standard into their management systems and practices.
Okay, well, could be worse. But could be better too. According to these standards, it’s okay to hire 14 or 15-year-olds to work six days per week, up to 60 hours per week (including the permissible overtime); wages must equal industry standard. Not sure what the industry standard is for garment workers in China, but Worldwatch reports clothing-industry salaries of 15 cents per hour in Indonesia, 85 cents per hour in Mexico. The SA8000 standards are not that reassuring.
At any rate, these are the standards Bamboo Textile was working toward, at least in 2007. I think I know what the folks at Sweatshop Watch would have to say about that. They already said it: in order to be sure a garment factory is not a sweatshop, the factory should be unionized, or a worker-owned coop.
I looked for another well-established vendor of bamboo clothing to peruse, and settled on Shirts of Bamboo. They have a well-done, useful web site with lots of information. All of their bamboo is grown in China. Some of their shirts are “knitted, dyed, cut and assembled” in South Carolina. Some, in a factory in China. On the subject of “social accountability,” i.e., sweatshop labor, the “Shirts of Bamboo” web site says, "Our suppliers in China are certified as Socially Accountable using SA8000 Standards." Ah yes.The SA 8000 standards, same as Bamboo Textile.
Well, that’s nice. But I think I’m gonna skip the bamboo for now. Probably skip the hemp too, and anything else that’s made in China. If the above-average factories can still hire 14 or 15-yr-olds to work 60 hrs per week, then.....
That vintage clothing store in my home town is looking better and better.
By Sally Kneidel, PhD
Keywords:: bamboo bamboo clothing sweatshops SA8000 labor rights China