Anybody who has been shopping around recently for building materials will know that bamboo is a sustainable plant that is used for a range of products from blinds to flooring. Its use in the textile manufacturing industry is not as well known, so you might be surprised to discover how many companies are selling bamboo sheets for your bedroom!

As more and more people become sensitive to the pressing need for us to do everything we can to save Planet Earth from the harmful effects of pretty well everything humankind has done for centuries (from mining to all forms of pollution), sustainability has become the key word for survival. So it’s understandable that textile manufacturers are turning to sustainable plants with fibrous content that can be used for making their materials. These include both hemp and bamboo.

Benefits of Bamboo

In its natural state, bamboo is antimicrobial and so doesn’t need herbicides or pesticides for growth. It grows incredibly quickly, unlike trees that generally grow slowly.

While bamboo fiber is naturally biodegradable (if left in the earth), it is also a valuable, long-lasting material that can be used for making durable textiles and cellulose. Manufacturers of bamboo sheets for bedding, say that textiles made from bamboo retain its natural antibacterial qualities. They also maintain it is resistant to fungus, because it has a better absorption rate than other fabrics, including cotton.

Organically-made bamboo sheets are as soft as cotton – some say silk – but the thread count is less than cotton, usually 300 for bamboo, compared to 1,000 in a fine cotton-based sheet. The reason for this is that bamboo fibers (once they have been treated) are a lot finer and softer than those used for weaving cotton.

A much publicized benefit of bamboo sheets is that the “breathable” material can adjust to our body heat while we sleep. Even if you’re sweating and your partner is shivering, the material will adjust around you.

Another is that bamboo sheeting has the ability to repel body odor.

Environmental Issues

Generally, environmental issues that relate to any plants that are used for making textiles include:

  • genetic engineering, and
  • the use of toxic chemicals and pesticides.

Certainly neither of these issues applies to the growing of bamboo. But there is some argument about the processes used to make clean-growing bamboo into a form that it can be used for the production of bedding.

Where plant fibers are used to make textiles for clothing and soft furnishings, including sheeting, the fibers have to be softened before the fabric is woven. If the manufacturing process used is not environmentally friendly, it is said to negate the natural antimicrobial properties of the bamboo plant.

Nevertheless, according to research undertaken in China and Japan, “100% bamboo” fabric maintains its antibacterial properties. For example, in 2003 the China Industrial Testing Center (CTITC) experimented with bacteria which they left on bamboo fabric for 24 hours. Almost all of it had died when the material was examined later.

While you may not be able to check manufacturing procedures on packaging, bamboo fiber should be processed in what they call a “closed loop system” so that most of the sodium hydroxide and carbon disulphide can be recovered and recycled. Only chemicals that are Oek Tex certified or that meet Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) should be used.

Accusations of False Claims Made by Some Textile Manufacturers

With an increase in our need to be sustainable, it isn’t surprising if people jump on the band-wagon, even if their products are not sustainable and organic. This is exactly what seems to have happened in the textile industry as an increasing number of manufacturers turned their attention to “bamboo-based” textiles.

In a shocking revelation towards the end of 2009, the USA’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charged four companies selling clothing and textile products (including bamboo sheets) with violating the Textile Act and Rules by “falsely and deceptively labeling and advertising their clothing and textile products as bamboo, when they should have been labeled and advertised as rayon”. Three of the companies were also charged with not disclosing the country of manufacture. All the companies had labeled products as being 100% bamboo!

Rayon is, of course, a man-made fiber that is created from cellulose that is found in plants, including bamboo. The problem is that while bamboo might be the source of the cellulose, it requires a harsh toxic chemical process to make the rayon – and during this process, hazardous pollutants are released into the air. As the FTC found, because these so-called “bamboo” textiles were in fact made of rayon, they were not antimicrobial, made in an environmentally friendly way, or biodegradable.

The FTC has subsequently published information on how to label bamboo products truthfully and non-deceptively. This includes the statement “rayon made from bamboo”.

Canada’s Competition Bureau has also taken steps to ensure that textile dealers don’t use similarly misleading labels on textiles, having found that most so-called “bamboo” textiles on the shelves in Canada were in fact made from rayon derived from bamboo pulp and not 100% bamboo at all.

So if you see any mention of “rayon” or “viscose” (which is another word for rayon) on the packaging of sheets made from bamboo, you will know that they are in fact made from man-made rayon, and not eco-friendly bamboo. If you’re not sure, look for some sort of certification on the packaging, Oeke-Tex for example.

Certifications for Bamboo Products

The international Oeke-Tek 100 Standard has been in existence for nearly two decades, and it tests for harmful chemicals and pesticides during the manufacturing process. It doesn’t actually certify the manufacturing process or specify whether or not a product is organic. What it requires is that companies:

  • limit or avoid the use of harmful substances in the production of textiles,
  • follow stringent requirements in terms of waste water and polluting “exhaust” air,
  • optimize energy consumption during the manufacturing process,
  • minimize noise and dust pollution,
  • ensure health and safety requirements on site,
  • comply with statutory regulations and requirements,
  • NEVER use child labor!

Other certifications to look out for when you buy your bamboo sheets include the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) certification that the bamboo used is organic; the certification by the international Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) that the bamboo farm is organic; and that the fiber has a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)chain of custody certification.

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