Think turning bamboo into bamboo underwear is like spinning straw into gold? While it is a potential goldmine, it’s definitely no fairy tale. More and more clothing manufacturers are using fiber made from the versatile grass in garments ranging from T-shirts and hats to — you guessed it — skivvies and knickers. Skeptics might think bamboo underwear sounds abrasive at best, but the cloth can be as soft as cotton and is even being used by some designers as an economical, vegan alternative to silk. So, is bamboo clothing green by default, and how on Earth do they turn those enormous, woody canes into comfortable undies?
Earlier this year, interior design magazine Core 77 explained what makes bamboo so awesome. High on the list is its resilience and sustainability: Unlike trees, bamboo can be harvested without damaging the original plant, plus it grows incredibly fast. Unlike thirsty, conventional cotton, bamboo doesn’t require much in the way of pesticides or water. This is all good news but as any amateur ecologist knows, nothing comes for free, and for every action there's an equal and opposite reaction. Because bamboo has experienced such a surge in popularity, certain farmers have begun growing it as a monocrop, and in some cases they’re even clearing trees to make room for bamboo plantations.
Furthermore, while the natural product offers a lot of reasons to celebrate, the way it’s processed is raising some eyebrows. As Azadeh Ensha recently noted on the New York Times' Green Inc. blog, "critics point to the excessive chemicals used in its production."
The most common process of turning bamboo into raw fiber is similar to that used to produce rayon, and involves two caustic chemicals — sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide — both of which have been shown to cause environmental damage and health problems. That said, National Geographic reported in its Green Guide that more Earth-friendly ways of creating bamboo fabrics are being tested, and a few alternatives are currently in use. Finally, a number of nonprofits are pushing for a third-party certification of bamboo, which would help consumers identify and choose sustainable bamboo products.
You don’t have to wait for third-party certification to feel good about your bamboo underwear, though. One thing you can do is look for certification from an independent and reliable certification company such as Oeko-Tex, the Soil Association, SKAL or KRAV. You can learn more about these organizations and what their certifications mean here.
What it comes down to is this: Nothing is perfect, so as consumers who don’t want to get bamboozled, we’re faced with the challenge of sorting the facts from the hype, and the pros from the cons. Despite its current challenges and shortcomings, bamboo arguably has a much lighter environmental impact than conventional cotton, which requires a huge amount of water and pesticides. The fiber is also preferable to nylon and polyester synthetics, seeing as how they’re derived from nonrenewable petroleum. The best thing we can do is stay up-to-date, share our knowledge and make informed purchases. For a thorough and extensive look at both the upside and downside of bamboo clothing, check out this post from Lotus Organics.
Ready to start shopping? Retailers such as Bamboosa, Shirts of Bamboo and Footprint Bamboo Ecowear offer clothing and underwear made from Oeko-Tex-certified organic bamboo, and they post their certifications on their websites. Then there are the fun-loving gals over at Greenknickers, who claim their bamboo fiber is processed using nontoxic agents, and even offer padded cycling knickers made from 70 percent bamboo to keep your bambooty comfortable when biking.