The XX Factor

Eco-Fashion or Greenwashing?

I’ve always regarded “eco-fashion” with a suspicious eye, telling myself that if somebody truly cared about the environment they would be good stewards or tinkerers and make use what was already around-not support the manufacturing of more and more ultimately disposable crap labeled with vague tags conveying the object’s wishy-washy “cleanly produced” narrative. Surely taking care of one’s possessions would have a more positive impact, environmentally speaking, than shopping for more stuff.

And so it was with tremendous self-satisfaction that I turned to today’s Wall Street Journal and read about the pitfalls of the “eco-textile” bamboo. Bamboo’s “eco” credibility rests foremost on the plant’s “renewable” and “pesticide-free” characteristics. To wit: “[L]ike hemp, the plant grows quickly without the irrigation, pesticides or fertilizer often used to grow cotton.”

But the process of turning the bamboo into yarn is a nasty one that transforms the plant fibers into what can be best described as semi-natural/semi-synthetic material:

The bamboo used in textiles has to be heavily manipulated to go from stem to store. To create fabric, it’s chopped up and dissolved in toxic solvents-the same process that recycles wood scraps into viscose or rayon. Indeed, bamboo fabric technically is rayon.

This is why the FTC , which monitors false advertising claims, went after four bamboo clothing companies last August, according to the article. The FTC argued that companies had to abstain from labeling bamboo as “natural.” Likewise, the labeling of bamboo fabric as “biodegradable” and “antimicrobial” was misleading: These are properties of the plant, not the processed fabric.

None of this surprises me. Anybody who has done elementary reading on eco-textiles knows that bamboo is a form of rayon-plant cellulose transformed into yarn-like material through chemistry. But here is something the article doesn’t get into. There are sound “eco” arguments to be made on behalf of synthetic or semi-synthetic fibers. Unlike natural fibers, synthetic fibers are cheap and are very durable. And the very properties that make the “eco” chic quiver-their ghastly “indestructibleness,” their foul “nonbiodegradability”-are, if you value re-use over shopping, positive attributes. Synthetic and semi-synthetic textiles also air-dry beautifully. Cotton doesn’t, but I digress.

So it’s doubly unfortunate that bamboo textiles, despite being semi-synthetic, are chintzy and fall apart. They are prone to stretching and fading, “unstable and likely to stretch out of shape in damp weather,” according to one FIT professor. After a few washes, the Wall Street Journal reporter’s new bamboo clothes had constellations of tiny holes. Greenwashing at its finest, ladies.