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Beyond befuddlement

March 29, 2012

Now that spring is upon us and we’re ready to don lightweight fabrics, I researched bamboo as an alternative to environmentally unfriendly cotton. What I discovered reinforced the fact that it’s often really, really befuddling to make sustainable choices.

Bamboo, technically a grass, grows quickly and abundantly without pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. Its substantial root system helps prevent run-off and soil erosion. It absorbs five times the amount of carbon dioxide and produces 35 percent more oxygen than an equivalent stand of trees. It’s 100% biodegradable and doesn’t produce pollutants like methane while it biodegrades. A truly organic fiber, right?

Wrong. While it’s ecologically kind to the planet as it grows, when humans try to transform the plant into a shirt, trouble starts. Bamboo can be processed mechanically, using enzymes to break down the wood into pulp, which is then spun into yarn. That process is more labor intensive and more expensive than chemical manufacturing, the preferred process which, unfortunately for us consumers and other living organisms, uses sodium hydroxide, also known as lye and the primary ingredient in Drano; and carbon disulfide, a chemical linked to serious health problems such as nerve damage. Visit for a full description of chemical manufacturing.

In 2009, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charged four companies with violating the Textile Act and Rules. The companies claimed that they used “environmentally friendly methods” to manufacture bamboo, while in truth the bamboo fabric was no different from rayon, “a man-made fiber created from the cellulose found in plants and trees and processed with a harsh chemical that releases hazardous air pollutants,” according to the FTC.

Once again we face a familiar conundrum in our attempts to make sustainable choices—weigh the various pros (the growing of bamboo) against the cons (chemical manufacturing) and then compare our findings to the environmental footprint of other fibers like organic cotton. Why does it have to be so hard?

I resist the urge to give up. There is a way to circumvent a system that offers few viable choices and reclaim a sustainable wardrobe.

1. Buy less. If you’re like me, you have more clothing in your closet(s) at this moment than your grandmother had in her entire lifetime. Do you really need another T-shirt?

2. Wear what’s already here. Support thrift shops or have a clothing swap with friends and family.