For some time now, I’ve been gradually transitioning my family’s life to a greener existence. First, I started with food. Then, I incorporated body/beauty care products and household cleaners. Then, I started tackling some more expensive items like clothes. When I became pregnant, I decided that the only thing I want touching my baby’s skin will be organic clothes — at least, to the extent that is realistically possible. Finally, I’m starting to address household items such as towels, rugs, bedding, etc., which of course can get quite pricey. One way I addressed the cost was by asking for these items during the holidays — they weren’t just on my wish list, they were my list — and from this, I received organic cotton kitchen and bath towels (yay!). Another time I asked for organic cotton sheets and received them for my birthday.
In the past, I have bought some organic sheets for our bed that I had found for cheap prices at places like Overstock.com. But I can’t help but wonder… are these really eco-friendly? In the U.S., the law requires that any producer wanting to label and sell a product as “organic” must meet the standards established by the Organic Food Production Act of 1990. That’s terrific and all, but — call me paranoid — if lead paint can show up in toys, I don’t put all of my faith in regulations to assure that a company has the same values that I do. There is a reason the term “green washing” was created after all. Therefore, I want to know more about a company’s culture and attitude about organics and sustainability. I want to know just how eco-driven they are, if that makes sense. For example, sometimes there are descriptions about a company and they make a point to describe the materials they use, proudly boasting an explanation as to their suppliers, materials used, and going above and beyond to assure buyers that the products are totally eco-friendly. But with other companies, sometimes it’s very vague and I can’t help but wonder if they’re just throwing around buzz words as an afterthought. I want to buy from a manufacturer or merchant that takes it as seriously as I do.
Anyway, I decided to buy a set of sheets and towels, and this time I did more research. There are basically three eco-friendly options: Bamboo, Hemp, and Organic Cotton. I decided to pursue bamboo or organic cotton for now. I have a big heart for hemp, but every time I shop for hemp items, they’re really really expensive. I figured I’d start with bamboo and organic cotton and see where it led me. If I didn’t find anything I liked, then I’d pursue hemp.
The first place I looked was Amazon.com, as I buy a lot of stuff there and the discounts are usually awesome, but I was unhappy with the options. So I moved on to search Google, where I found a couple of sites that looked very promising. After checking the price differences with their bamboo vs organic cotton options, I decided to experiment with bamboo.
Now, you might be thinking, “clothing made from bamboo? Seriously?” Yes, really! (I had to convince my husband that bamboo clothing doesn’t look like this.) Through various processes, bamboo fibers are converted into something very much like cotton.
Through my research, I learned that although bamboo is naturally sustainable and eco-friendly in the way it’s grown, there can be concerns with the manufacturing. Bamboo basically grows without the need to use pesticides or herbicides (whoot!). It thrives in its natural environment, requiring no irrigation (natural rainfall is enough), which is also cool. It’s an abundant and renewable resource that removes CO2 from our atmosphere while producing plenty of oxygen. Go bamboo!
That said, bamboo is not perfect when it comes to clothing, bedding, and towels. There are two main things to consider when purchasing bamboo for these items.
- The reputation and mission of the place from which you’re buying: I always try to do some research into the company and make sure they make sustainability a main point of their corporate mission. This helps ensure that the company selling the items, the manufacturers, and the suppliers are on the same ideological page as you. I have no problem peppering a company with hard questions in order to make sure I’m making enlightened decisions. You’ll know when you’re talking to the real deal, because they’ll be happy you asked and quick to talk about how seriously they take it. Companies that are faking it become immediately apparent, such as by having no idea what you’re talking about.
- To get that silky soft experience from bamboo fabrics, the manufacturing process most likely included the use of chemicals, more specifically, sodium hydroxide. From what I’ve read, this chemical isn’t as harmful as you might think if used responsibly (which brings me back to point #1 above). I’m told that sodium hydroxide doesn’t remain as a residue on bamboo clothing, sheets, and towels because it washes away easily and can be neutralized to harmless. Despite this, it’s not ideal in my opinion. The good news is that some companies are really trying to make improvements in the chemical manufacturing of bamboo. For example, according to OrganicClothing.blogs.com,
Newer manufacturing facilities have begun using other technologies to chemically manufacture bamboo fiber that are more benign and eco-friendly. The chemical manufacturing process used to produce lyocell from wood cellulose can be modified to use bamboo cellulose. The lyocell process, also used to manufacture TENCEL®, uses N-methylmorpholine-N-oxide to dissolve the bamboo cellulose into a viscose solution. N-methylmorpholine-N-oxide is a member of the amine oxide family. Amine oxides are weak alkalines that act as surfactants and help break down the cellulose structure. Hydrogen peroxide is added as a stabilizer and the solution is forced through spinnerets into a hardening bath which causes the thin streams of viscose bamboo solution to harden into bamboo cellulose fiber threads. The hardening bath is usually a solution of water and methanol, ethanol or a similar alcohol. The regenerated bamboo fiber threads can be spun into bamboo yarn for weaving into fabric. This lyocell processing is substantially healthier and more eco-friendly because N-methylmorpholine-N-oxide is supposedly non-toxic to humans and the chemical manufacturing processes are closed-loop so 99.5% of the chemicals used during the processing are captured and recycled to be used again. Only trace amounts escape into the atmosphere or into waste waters and waste products.
Other chemical manufacturing processes for bamboo fabric are appearing such as using acetic anhydride and acetic acid with sulfuric acid as a catalyst to form acetate fiber which is then spun into a yarn.
New nano-technologies are also being introduced into the bamboo clothing industry. GreenYarn, a new startup located in Boston, is developing a bamboo clothing line made from nano-particles of bamboo charcoal. GreenYarn’s “Eco-fabric” is manufactured from 4 to 5 year old Taiwanese-grown bamboo that has been dried and burned in 800 degree C ovens until it is reduced to charcoal. The bamboo is processed – we don’t know how – into fine nano particles which are then embedded into cotton, polyester or nylon fibers. This conventional fiber yarn that contains trapped bamboo charcoal nano particles is then woven into fabrics … mostly socks and blankets now.
After much research, I decided to buy some bamboo sheets and towels. Now, I won’t be bamboo-dependent for everything; I just thought I’d dip my toe into some of the other eco-friendly alternatives for our home by trying bamboo. Next, I plan on trying some organic cotton items — from an eco-driven source! And, long term? I want an organic mattress! (But that’s another story.)
Update! I received my sheets and we slept on them for the first time. Oh my goodness gracious! They are so SOFT!!!!! Why did I wait so long to buy these??? (Haven’t used the towels yet.)