When you encounter a new type of textile, it’s easy to question its sustainable qualities. Why would you want to purchase bamboo sheets if the textile industry is wreaking havoc on bamboo forests? You can rest assured when purchasing bamboo products: its natural properties make it nearly impossible to eradicate, which actually causes a lot of problems for certain regions. What many people don’t recognize is that bamboo has an insurmountable growth rate, and it grows so quickly with so little agricultural assistance that it is considered by several states to be an invasive species–it is dense and resistant to factors that usually threaten tree and plant population. And as access to organic and sustainable products grows, it’s always nice to hear that your money isn’t funding the destroying of the planet.
Bamboo as a material for bed sheets is rising in popularity, but is still largely overshadowed by cotton. Understanding the bamboo plant itself can help you see why bamboo actually contains features people like about cotton, especially softness. Bamboo is reported to be as soft as silk, but without the heat trapping effects. In fact, bamboo is so soft that it doesn’t even need to have as high of a thread count as cotton thread count isn’t always the most important element when it comes to bed sheet softness. More importantly, the cotton industry is an intricate network of political and technological decisions that contribute to and reinforce a toxic ecosystem. So while you might find cotton to lie in your safety zone, bamboo is a simple alternative to what you’re accustomed to.
Bamboo automatically takes us to China-inspired artifacts and history. Incorporating the plant–its material strengths and visual qualities–into interior design injects a room or venue with thousands of years worth of Chinese style and craft. Bamboo, which offers tree-like qualities but is actually a grass, is easy to manipulate by hand. It is boundless in quantity in the regions it grows. In dynasties reaching thousands of years back, the Chinese used bamboo for utilitarian and symbolic purposes. In terms of utility, bamboo is durable yet flexible, so the ancient Chinese are recognized for weaving baskets and producing agricultural tools from it. But the list is endless in terms of what has been made in addition to baskets and agricultural tools–bamboo can be used to build fences, paper, rugs, hats, lamp shades, houses, toys, planters, chopsticks and other utensils, flooring, shoes, boats, etc. You name it, you can probably produce it with bamboo. This is why bamboo experts wouldn’t be surprised to find that bamboo can be used as bed sheets, ones that outperform the leading textile in the industry!
Bamboo is also symbolically rich, and has been for a long time. Bamboo inspires tranquility, as it transports us to its peaceful green groves. It symbolizes noble qualities, and is referred to in ancient Chinese literature and poetry. It toes the line of density and emptiness, as the plant itself is hollow, but it grows in bulk, so it is at once delicate and impenetrable. In other words, the bamboo reminded ancient Chinese artists that balancing grace and hardiness renders the spirit well-rounded, self-sufficient, yet self-aware.
An Alternative to Industrial Agriculture’s Cotton Production
The cotton industry is a giant in the wonderful world of textiles. Clothes, furniture, paper, and even dollar bills are made using cotton and its derivatives. The industrial revolution completely changed the way farmers grew cotton, the way that manufacturers processed it, and the way that distributors transported it. This allowed people easier access to the material, which is incredibly useful, but as time has moved forward and technology has advanced exponentially, the production of cotton has come to wreak havoc on the environment–and there don’t seem to be many signs of a solution to the problems it has spawned.
Cotton production and distribution in the contemporary world relies on monoculture farming, which destroys soil to the extent that an entire industry has opened up around biotechnology, or the development of tools and chemicals designed to placate soil damage in intensely farmed land. Any farmer or gardener will tell you that it’s bad for soil to plant the same crop over and over again in the same plot. Healthy plants grow when relationships form between a crop and a given amount of soil. Crops release certain chemicals into the soil, and the soil reacts to those chemicals, usually by storing too much of the same chemical. Inversely, crops take up certain nutrients from the soil and its inhabitants. When a crop grows healthily, it strips soil of its biological components. But this isn’t so bad, as long as you account for this situation through crop management. The only way to retain biological features in soil is to cycle crops through, a process called crop rotation. For example, if a farmer grows wheat for a season or two on one of their fields, they’ll likely plant something like barley the next season. The deficits from the wheat can be made up by the barley, therefore replenishing the soil with the chemicals and elements the wheat drew out. This practice is followed by smaller-scale farms, but unfortunately there aren’t many of those remaining.
In fact, the agricultural industry itself has devastated smaller, family-owned farms, which has led to a reduction in the diversity and quantity of local food production. Large-scale, global production demands have completely reconstructed the way farms work. Additionally, monoculture farming is promoted and financially backed by government subsidies and incentives. Because economies depend on an expected (and often increasing) amount of a commodity, the systems designed to produce that commodity are reshaped to meet those needs. Cotton is one of these commodities. Due to the increasing demand for cotton in various industries, cotton is grown through monoculture farming. In short, vast amounts of arable land are devoted to cotton farms, the plots of which are not replenished by another crop the following season. This depletes the soil of various nutrients and life, leaving it vulnerable to what the agricultural world terms “disturbances.”
Disturbances range from a season of unexpectedly heavy rain to the occurrence of a fire. Infestation can also be seen as a disturbance, as can storms, heat waves, and contamination. When a plot is disturbed by one of these stressors, biological components of soil will work to return it to the state it was in prior to the disturbance. These small organisms include insects, bacteria, worms, and fungi. While of course there are destructive types of bacteria or fungi, and those can behave like disturbances, there are also health-promoting organisms required to keep a plot of land capable of producing healthy crops. Without a diversity of organic matter in soil, plots become susceptible to disease, hyponutrition, and infestation by pests. The agricultural field calls this diversity “soil biodiversity.”
But since cotton is so highly demanded, producing and distributing cotton is more important than growing crops as naturally and healthily as possible. In order to grow cotton that succeeds despite the poor nutrition available in the soil, farmers implement a variety of technologies. These technologies include fertilizers and pesticides, which lead to crops requiring genetic modification. The chemicals in these fertilizers and pesticides become so strong that they can damage the very crop they’re supposed to protect. To compete against the deadlier nature of fertilizers and pesticides, scientists have developed genetically modified forms of crops, more popularly known as GMOs, or genetically modified organisms.
The production of these chemicals are not only harmful to the environment, but their application has proven to be inefficient. Any part of these chemicals that are not taken up by the intended crop runs off into surface water and penetrates ground water. When these chemicals are introduced into water, they are indirectly consumed by people in that community or region. Chemicals applied by using a helicopter or sprayers fly off into the air, and make their way into the ecosystem. Then, environmental problems ensue.
Environmental detriment comes in many forms, and has extremely dangerous consequences. Applying pesticides to a crop year after year leads to harmful pests transforming, over time and generations, so that their bodies resist the pesticides standing in the way of their food. The same thing happens with fungi–on a genetic level, a fungus will change and modify itself to resist the chemical treatment of the crop. In turn, producers of agricultural chemicals (agrochemicals) create more intensive and harmful substances. The cycle repeats itself, and the agrochemicals industrial farmers use today is stronger and more harmful than ever. By definition and construction, tomorrow’s agrochemicals will have to be strong enough to eradicate pests modified to resist today’s agrochemicals.
Because these agrochemicals are so intense and basically poisonous, and because the soil that cotton grows in is depleted of natural nutrients, cotton is genetically modified to be able to handle the application of pesticides and fertilizers. Any cotton industrially farmed for textile production is genetically modified. There have been pockets of resistance from consumers and the fashion industry, but the cotton industry so heavily relies on resources and incentives from private and governmental institutions that an institutional rehaul would be required to truly change the way it is grown. The practices of monoculture are so ingrained, cemented, and rewarded that this change is unlikely.
And unfortunately, a pretty significant species doesn’t stand much of a chance in the face of agrochemicals: people. Humans, in a way, are also being modified–in the form of cancer. Approximately 40 percent of people today have been diagnosed with some form of cancer. Cancer is more prevalent in the past two decades than it has ever been, and a large amount of that is due to the production of industrial crops. It takes years, and lots of organization on the side of healthy farming advocates, for governmental policies to phase out chemicals proven to be toxic and even deadly. For example, methyl bromide was used widely as a pesticide. Methyl bromide is easily breathed in by humans, and it’s impossible to tell whether you’re ingesting it until your respiration system starts breaking down. The scientific community knew for a fact that methyl bromide had dangerous effects, but it took about ten years for the government to pass a policy disallowing pesticide manufacturers from making it. Media campaigns have made consumers feel like we are past the days of drinking toxic water due to a “Silent Spring” occurrence like that of the early 60s, but really, farming chemicals are only becoming more rampant and rewarded.
So we’ve discussed the harmful effects of monoculture farming and its use in growing cotton. It is clearly unsustainable, as most technological developments in the industry are used to bandage the problems the industry itself causes. What exactly are we talking about when we refer to sustainability? A sustainable farm manages the soil through tillage, crop rotation, and organic matter management. Organic matter management consists of ensuring crops are placed in ideal areas, making sure that the residues put out by crops are high-quality and not destructive, and a reduction of tillage, or plot cultivation. This practically defines bamboo farms. Bamboo farms don’t need a lot of water, they don’t require any application of pesticides or other harmful characters, they grow back quickly without help from machines or biotechnology, and they are consistently plentiful in regions where they are harvested. So if you’re looking for fabric in your bed sheets that sidestep the detrimental effects of industrial agricultural practices, you can confidently say you are a responsible consumer who is not feeding the beast that is the cotton industry.
The Plant Itself
Bamboo is one of the most easily renewable resources available for use in the textile industry. Although it behaves like a tree and reaches, or even surpasses, the height of other trees, it is actually classified as a perennial grass. The bamboo family is composed of over one thousand species, which makes for a variety of bamboo behavior and tendencies. But as a whole, bamboo serves as a powerhouse for intaking carbon dioxide and breaking it down into elements useful and necessary for human life. A bamboo forest fixes about 25 times as much carbon dioxide per year as other types of forests–it also releases far more oxygen back into the atmosphere than a typical forest. It’s astounding conversion of toxic elements into life-sustaining elements may concern us: if all this bamboo is doing such good for the world, why would we want to destroy it for manufacturing purposes?
The good news is that it would actually prove really difficult to eradicate bamboo. Bamboo doesn’t need any fuss to be made over it in order to grow swiftly and expansively–it requires very little water and its root systems make it easy for communities of bamboo to pop up aggressively. Even without agricultural irrigation, the plant can infest a region and stake its claim on wide areas of land. And while most plants used for use as fabrics, a bamboo will grow to be as tall as it will ever be in weeks–it approaches full maturity over the course of about three years. Home and garden experts caution homeowners against planting bamboo, because even though it can quickly wield a wall to shut out noise and sights from your neighbor’s yard, runner bamboo is virtually uncontrollable and can rapidly take over your entire yard and spread into surrounding areas. Since bamboo grows so densely, it chokes out other plants. It is also strangely left alone by pests of other plants, so bamboo growth doesn’t require the application of pesticides or growth-boosting products–if the need would arise to increase bamboo growth, it could be facilitated without the use of manmade chemicals and manipulation. Essentially, it’s a really strong weed that, when harvested, boasts a lot of utility. Several varieties of bamboo have actually made it into the Guinness World Records for growing approximately 3 feet in one day!
Cotton, on the other hand, requires the clearing out of land for massive farming, the application of unprecedented amounts of water, and the spraying of pesticides in order to ensure the crop is left uninfested by pests like worms, boll weevils, and aphids. We don’t always question the methods used to manufacture the cotton that we wear everyday, but the environmental consequences of cotton production are the central concern of many social justice and environmentalist groups. Leaders of the cotton industry, however, have secured ties with trade policy makers, and there doesn’t seem to be much chance that they will be pressured to manufacture cotton in new ways–particularly because the quantity of cotton production would be heavily reduced were the processes of farming and harvesting changed.
The bamboo industry hasn’t been on the scene for terribly long, so there is actually a lot of hope for developing as sustainable practices as possible. The most safe and natural process for turning the bamboo plant into a fabric is through mechanical manufacturing, spearheaded by the company Litrax based out of Sweden. Mechanical manufacturing uses a physical process for rendering the material soft and usable, and leaves the fabric with a luxurious sheen. The bamboo is processed as its contents are smashed and fibers expelled from its woody casing. This process foregoes the treatment of bamboo in harmful chemicals, and results in a more natural feel. This process is one of the most sustainable practices in the industry. Turning cotton into fabric requires tremendous amounts of water and energy. Besides that, the cotton industry began hundreds of years ago, and so it is largely established and advocates of sustainability find it difficult to challenge the institutions that promote its production. Bamboo production, on the other hand, is so young and new that its future is fairly malleable to the interests of those who would like to see a more sustainable textile industry.
The fashion industry has begun to incorporate political stances on the production of clothing lines. We’ve all heard of fast food–the fastest way to serve food to people is to churn out poor quality meals produced in poor working conditions and through the unethical handling of animals. McDonald’s is fast, but it also plays dirty. Forward-thinking designers of high and commercial fashion have begun to adopt this framework in a conversation about textile production. Sure, a company can use materials that have a quick turnaround, like cotton, but that quick turnaround comes at an environmental price. Most commercial clothing, or the clothing you can go to a mall and purchase, is produced through unethical and unsustainable methods. Proponents of “slow fashion” seek to establish a new relationship between the textile and the wearer: instead of burning through clothing that is poorly constructed to cut down on production costs, slow fashion designers advocate for consumer awareness of the process of clothing production. Bamboo as a textile is situated perfectly to be incorporated into this movement, as it grows freely without manipulation and it does not bear with it the more harmful aspects of industrial production.
The Search Begins
All in all, bamboo textiles outperform leaders in the textile industry. Its growth abilities and manipulable components are not matched by any other plant used for fabric. Enjoy navigating our site and finding the best bed sheets for your individual needs!
American Osteopathic Association, Mayo Clinic, Jennifer Kohler, World Wildlife Fund, Royal Bamboo, BBC, Fashionista, Miguel A. Altieri, Lijbert Brussaard, Peter C. de Ruiter, George G. Brown, Union of Concerned Scientists
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