What’s the deal with bamboo activewear, you ask? Just like with any material, there’s a lot of opinions out there about this grass (yep, bamboo is a grass!). Is it sustainable? Is it eco-friendly? Is it ethical? Well, let’s break it down a little more and look at some things you can look out for when shopping, to make sure you’re making the best choices for yourself and the planet.
What are the benefits of bamboo?
It’s a renewable fibre. Capable of growing up to three feet per day and requiring far less water than similar natural fibres such as cotton, bamboo is one of the more environmentally-friendly choices for garment manufacturing. Taking roughly three to four years to harvest from seed, bamboo doesn’t require replanting thanks to its humungous root network. It can grow in a variety of climates and is so fast-growing that it’s even been known to smother weeds. Bamboo can usually rely on rainfall to keep itself nourished, requiring minimal or no extra irrigation. On top of that, bamboo also improves soil quality and prevents erosion; due to its ability to grow via underground shoots, harvesting bamboo does not cause soil disturbance.
When it comes to air pollution, bamboo can absorb five times more carbon, and can produce 35% more oxygen, than most other grasses or trees. One hectare of bamboo absorbs 62 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, while one hectare of young forest, by comparison, absorbs roughly 15 tonnes.
If this is a big one for you, be sure to check potential purchases for the ISO 14001 certification, which tells you that a brand is being held accountable for, and continually working to reduce, their environmental impact.
It’s thermoregulating. This means that it will help to keep you warm in the winter, and cool during summer. Thanks to its moisture wicking properties, bamboo clothing can draw moisture away from your skin, and is 40% more absorbent than cotton.
It’s antibacterial. Bamboo contains a component called bamboo kun, which has natural antibacterial properties and makes fibres resistant to fungal growth. Not only will your clothing last longer without getting smelly, but it’ll help to repel any bacteria accumulated through sweating. The bamboo fabric used here at LETE is made from Tanboocel, which we carefully researched to ensure that this process is maintained during manufacturing.
It’s hypoallergenic. Whether you have sensitive skin, suffer from eczema, or just like to be mindful of what fibres touch your skin, bamboo has hypoallergenic properties that will keep it safe. This is largely due to the fact that bamboo doesn’t need chemical pesticides or potentially toxic fertilisers to help it grow, so there’s no hidden nasties that will cause harm to your skin. Keep an eye out for garments that have been certified by the OEKO-TEX Standard 100 – this means that there are zero harmful substances in every single piece of your garment, so your skin will remain irritation-free.
It’s biodegradable. Bamboo as a standalone material is completely biodegradable and compostable if dyed in natural, plant-based dyes. Depending on the garment, bamboo may be blended with other materials to give it stretch; activewear will usually contain some form of elastane to maintain its shape and give that compression feel.
At LETE, we use recycled elastane to avoid the production of new plastic-based fibres into the market. Unfortunately, this means that our garments are not currently completely biodegradable, but we’re always keeping abreast of the latest developments in sustainable fibres, and we aim to be plastic-free within the next several years.
It’s ethical, provided it’s correctly certified. Have you ever wondered whether harvesting bamboo for garments affects a panda’s food source? With the increase in demand for this fibre, there are concerns that more and more land is being cleared to grow bamboo crops for manufacturing purposes, depleting the natural habitats of some of our cuddliest friends. The good news is that pandas don’t generally eat the kind of bamboo that is produced for manufacturing, so their food sources aren’t facing competition with the fashion industry. The loss of habitat certainly is something to be aware of, though, so make sure to check for the Forest Stewardship Council certification, which guarantees responsibility forestry, as well as no loss or destruction of natural habitats.
What are the not-so-great things about bamboo clothing?
Because bamboo is a tough, durable fibre, the manufacturing process can use up a lot of energy and resources. All manufacturers are different, and some care about their environmental impact more than others. For the companies that aren’t sustainability-focused, the process of turning bamboo into a fibre can take a great toll on the environment. For those that are, they should carry the right certifications to prove it. To make sure you’re choosing the right kind of bamboo garments, look for the Forest Stewardship Council Certification on the tags or on the brand’s website. If a company cares about making their products sustainable, this information should be easy to access; if this information is not readily available and explanations seem vague, this could be a red flag.
It can also be handy to research whether a company uses the closed-loop manufacturing process, which means that there is a focus on ensuring that no harmful chemicals or toxins escape into the environment during manufacturing. Plant-based dyes will also lessen the potential for hazardous substances to be secretly living inside your clothes.
Lastly, there are different variations of bamboo fibres in the market, each with different environmental implications. Bamboo linen or bamboo rayon are quite different from each other and may have been produced very differently. Rayon generally requires a large amount of chemicals during production, and the quality against your skin isn’t as nice as its other forms.
Why isn’t more activewear made from sustainable fibres?
Short answer? Plastic is cheap. It’s accessible, not dependent on the weather, and in pretty endless supply. Polyester can make for a strong garment, too, so it can be easy to be tempted by these items for their low price point and seeming sturdiness. However, the benefits of buying polyester clothing pretty much end there. Aside from the microplastics that will be coming into contact with your skin and making their way back into our environment via your washing machine, polyester doesn’t make for a very breathable fabric. You know that top you have that, no matter how many times you wash it, you just can’t get that unpleasant odour of the armpits? Chances are it’s polyester. Polyester garments are more likely to hold onto bacteria, as well as trap heat and irritate your skin.
Most activewear contains at least some stretchy material (usually elastane or Spandex) to ensure maximum comfort and functionality. Unfortunately, there isn’t yet a completely sustainable fibre on the market that can replicate the effects of this stretchy material. Brands that prioritise the environment will generally use recycled polyester to minimise environmental impact.
The thing to bear in mind with most fibres in the fashion industry is that their sustainability and environmental impact will vary depending on how and where they’re harvested, processed, and manufactured. If you’re ever in doubt, do a little research on a brand before you buy from them: what are their certifications? Do they share which supplier their fabrics come from? Do their suppliers pay their workers appropriately? With a little digging, you can ensure that your money is put towards something good. So, take your fashion slowly, and make the decision that sits right with you.
Sources & Further Reading
You can read more about our certifications here.
You can read more about Tanboocel here.
Carter, Kate. The Guardian. (2008, August 13). Pandering to the Green Consumer. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2008/aug/13/bamboo.fabric