Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Organic Fabrics: Bamboo or Cotton?

If you’re into the eco-friendly concept at all, then you have probably heard of, or bought something made of organic bamboo fabric. Bamboo is an abundant, renewable, cheap and well, great, source for textiles and many other applications. I love bamboo. It is one beautiful plant.

And who doesn’t want the word “organic” stamped on their purchase somewhere? I know I do.

But did you ever wonder where that wonderful organic bamboo fabric comes from, hmmm? I’ll give you three seconds to think about it.

Give up?

The answer is CHINA! Gee who woulda thunk it? Not only is China the sole supplier of organic bamboo textiles for the world, but the reason for this monopoly is because they slapped a patent on the process. So now no one else (ie. more earth-friendly and trust worthy) could take advantage of this miraculous resource. *sigh*

I learned this info quite by accident when I emailed a company featured on another Made in the USA web site. The online retail store which specialized in USA made products offered organic clothing for babies and kids. The company is called Shirts of Bamboo.

I went on the site to snoop around. I followed up with an email to their customer service department asking them where their fabric was manufactured. Here is my email and their response.

-----Original Message-----

From: Maxine Columbia []
Sent: Thursday, February 07, 2008 3:07 PM
To: Shirts Of Bamboo Customer Service
Subject: Contact from Shirts Of Bamboo: Other: Country/state of origin

Other: Country/state of origin

Where do your fabrics come from? What state or country? I need to know this information before I can purchase any goods from you.

-----Reply Message-----

RE: Contact from Shirts Of Bamboo: Other: Country/state of origin
1 message
Heather Brodesser Thu, Feb 7, 2008 at 3:23 PM
To: Maxine Columbia

Currently China holds the patent on bamboo textile manufacturing .That fabric is then imported and sent to our manufacturers in the U.S. The
manufacturing is done in non-sweat shop environment.
Please contact me if you have any other questions.

Thank you for your interest in bamboo the eco-friendly fiber.

Heather C. Brodesser
Wholesale Representative


True, their products are assembled here in the USA but they are not 100% made in the USA. Further, I would question their "eco-friendly" status as well. The main component of Shirts of Bamboo products --the fabric-- comes from China, a country not know for it's toxic-free environment or concern for worker safety.

So, if you are seeking organic bamboo fabric grown in the US or other (safer) countries than China, you are wasting your time.

On the other hand, you can find safe, 100% made in USA,
organic, cotton clothing. Texas has a struggling but determined group of farmers who grow organic cotton. I say struggling because they, like so many US producers, are fighting a losing battle against cheap imports and big agri-business.

One of these home grown organic cotton grower/sellers is SOS from Texas. They don’t have a wide selection of clothing but what they do have is good quality and at a good price. And best of all, they are completely made in the USA.

Last fall I bought some organic cotton t-shirts and baby items from SOS and was very happy with my purchase. I’m hoping they will expand their selection soon.

Another certified organic cotton company is Earth Wear out of Tennessee. I haven’t bought anything from them, but I plan to.

Other Links of Interest:

Organic Essentials

Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative

Though I have been offering ideas and information about buying American made clothing in this blog, I have a final thought and a heartfelt plea I want to make. Before you run out and buy any new clothes, please stop and read this article by Stan Cox of entitled “Dress for Excess: The Cost of Our Clothing Addiction.” It is an eye-opening and important article about how American clothing gluttony is harming our environment. This article really shook me up and made me think. After reading it I made a promise to myself:
If you don't need it, don't buy it. But if you do need it, buy it used or buy it USA.

On the positive side, this article also made me feel better about my love of thrift store shopping. Yeah!

Remember love your country but most of all, love your planet.


Harmony said...

Thanks for your post on bamboo. You may be interested to learn that the process of converting bamboo from a plant to a fiber is considered to be relatively toxic. I am surprise you are seeing "organic" bamboo... since the processing tends to keep it from qualifying as organic.

That said, I am a textile designer who is committed to expanding environmentally friendly options. I have used 2 different US printers in 3 years with varying success. The first US printer we used had horrible quality control. The fabrics we have printed in India are much better in quality. It isn't that I wanted to go overseas, I felt forced to in order to have a quality product. I am convinced that there must be an environmentally friendly printer in the US (or a plant willing to convert to such) and I haven't given up the quest, but if we want to keep manufacturing here we need manufactures that can compete on quality!

Also... one other little known fact is that when it comes to textiles the "made in" refers to where the fabric is woven, not grown. You can legally call an imported cotton that is woven/knitted in the US a Made in the USA product. Since this is obviously an important issue for you, you may want to start asking where is the cotton grown.

My goal for 2008 is to create a truly 100% made in the USA line of organic cotton printed fabrics. Wish me luck!

Made In USA Blogger said...

Thanks for the comment and info. Please stop by again.

And good luck with your quest.

ps. Contact the people at SOS from Texas...maybe they can supply you with some organic cotton fabric...or know someone who can.

It's all grown right here in TX!

Terri said...

This is a great post. I have also been finding out just how many companies claim made in the USA but when I email them I always ask if their product and ALL componants are made in the USA and manufactured here and you would be surprised how many are not 100%. Good job on your post.

Mo said...

Hey, this is Mo from Bamboosa and I'd like to comment on some of the issues that have been raised here.

Currently, all bamboo raw fiber is produced in China, as far as can be documented, and the company that produces the fiber there does hold a patent.

There is also a Japanese company that holds a patent in the US (US Patent No.7060211)and their patent covers several different manufacturing methods. To our knowledge, they are not in production as of this date.

There are two kinds of bamboo fiber; mechanically produced and chemically produced. The mechanically produced fiber is rarely seen and resembles linen. It is not the silky bamboo that everyone is marketing and selling.

The bamboo fiber that is processed using chemicals is not the horrific situation that many people seem to think it is. There are not workers in China bending over bubbling cauldrons of chemicals. The equipment used to process the bamboo fiber is modern and was designed for the specific purpose of bamboo production. While the system is not a 100% 'closed loop', it does recycle both chemicals and water.

The primary chemical used to break the plant down to cellulose is sodium hydroxide (NaOH), also known as caustic soda. Caustic soda is basically a strong baking soda and is used in thousands of applications including soap making, biodiesel production, production of chocolate, cocoa, soft drinks, ice cream and olives. Caustic soda is also used on pretty much all of the organic cotton fabric that is produced anywhere and it is also on the list of approved chemicals of the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). And, while it is a caustic and will burn if you get in on your skin or can cause respiratory damage if the fumes are directly inhaled, it is not an overly hazardous chemical when handled properly.

Even though there are chemicals used in producing the fiber, the fiber that is produced at the facility in China carries the Oeko Tex 100 certification. That certification stipulates that there are no chemicals present in the finished fiber that are harmful to human health. So, the fiber, after it is produced, is clean.

So,then what happens after the fiber is produced in China? In the case of Bamboosa, we import the fiber from China and manufacture yarn, knit fabric, dye fabric and sew apparel in South Carolina. Occasionally, we buy some yarn from China and begin our process in the US with the knitting. We do not buy any fabric from China at any time.

I would also like to mention at this point that the answer that was received from Shirts of Bamboo stating that their fabric is imported from China and sewn in the US is not totally accurate. I know this because we produce a lot of the fabric that goes into SoB's product and it is made in SC. Also, SoB also carries our baby line, BambooBaby, and that is the only baby product they carry so all of their baby products are made in the US.

Regarding labeling, and where things are made, or what part or percentage of something is made wherever, here are some facts you may not be aware of. First, if someone brings fabric in from China and sews the apparel in the US they are correct to label that product Made in the USA, according the the FTC rules on labeling. It is called 'substantial transformation'.

With the labeling of 'organic cotton', things are not necessarily what they seem there either. When a product is label 'organic cotton' the only inference is that the cotton was certified organically grown. It does not mean to say that the 'product', i.e., a 'shirt' is organic. In other words, 'organic cotton' only speaks to what happened in the 'field'. It does not speak to any downstream processes. That product could be soaked in formaldehyde and still be labeled organic cotton and be accurate. If you want assurance of some nature regarding what happened after the cotton left the field than you need to look for additional certification(s) such as GOTS or Oeko Tex 1000 or 100+, which certify processes, chemicals used, and facilities, in some degree or another.

Harmony posted a comment and noted that the 'made in' referred to where the fabric was woven. That is actually not accurate based on the FTC requirements for labeling. I won't go into the language of the requirements but as I mentioned previously, it comes down to 'substantial transformation'.

As far as bamboo, I would say this. Bamboo grows without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, rarely needs replanting, does not need irrigation, is a critical element in the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, helps with soil erosion, and is generally considered the most sustainable crop on the planet.

Yes, the process of converting the plant to fiber needs to be improved and that is happening. In the meantime, bamboo for textiles is admittedly not dark, dark green, but, it's pretty dark green when compared to any other fibers on the market, including organically grown cotton. Check on line for the water required to grow organic cotton. Also, only 7% of the world's organic cotton is grown in the US. Very few organic cotton garments are actually made in the US.

We all have to make our choices based on what matters most to the individual. If you are concerned about what is in your product, where your product was actually produced, who produced and how it was done, then buy from a company that can provide that transparency.



Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for the info on bamboo. I was just going to buy some towels made with bamboo but will go Organic Cotton made in USA instead.
Am looking for USA Organic cotton fabric I can buy wholesale for my small business. After surfing the Internet for a while am much more knowledgeable of how hard it is to find but won't settle for less. Want to use and encourage others to use USA made products. So true, Buy USA or buy used. Have been boycotting Chinese products in general and Walmart in particular for years.

Bamboo clothes said...

bamboo fabric is highly breathable in hot weather and also keeps you significantly warmer in the cold. Keeping you more comfortable in all temperatures - ‘Air conditioned clothing’

Cecilia said...

Thank you for your very informative post. I think one of the most important aspects in terms of importing from China is the greenhouse gasses that are released from shipping the bamboo textiles to the States even before it is manufactured, never mind the fact that China isn't the greenest of countries! For a product to be truly eco friendly it should have the smallest greenhouse gas footprint as possible and so therefor one should only buy from a country in which you reside if you want to be eco!

Jennifer Lawrence said...

Great article. And by the way if you are looking for jersey knit and non stretch fabric wholesale BHN international is the best option for you. Happy to help. said...

Have you accomplished making printed fabric solely made in the USA? I would be interested in buying it! I am attempting to have all organic USA grown cotton, produced fabrics, and USA made clothing completely 100 percent made in the USA!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your research into bamboo fabric and where it actually originates. I really favor bamboo fabric for its qualities- odor resistant, easy to clean, antibacterial, softness, wicking, lightness and breathability... for this reason, I really like to incorporate and prefer to use bamboo fabric in sewing baby and maternity items. However, as you mentioned in your post, the concern of treatment and production of the fabric in China is highly questionable. I wondered if any factories have since been started in the US at all, considering the demand for better and alternative organic fabric, or if you have been able to follow up or heard of other countries that produce bamboo fabric? If there are no bamboo producers in the US, what is the biggest reason?

LuLu said...

Hi Mo
So glad I found your reply. I have been purchasing towels and sheets from Coyuchi. But I recently bought bamboo towels from Brooklyn bamboo it says they are organic, when I researched it I freaked out knowing they were from China.
I sent them an email asking exactly what was from China and if they could tell me the way their products were produced from start to finish.
You seem to know more then the companies own customer service.
Do you know anything about Brooklyn Bamboo? Should I buy from somewhere else?
Thank you
Also how do you go about education to get a job like you have. I would love to have a job like yours.