Both bamboo and cotton have been labeled as environmentally friendlier than other fabrics. But, when it comes to the production and manufacturing processes, which one has the edge? Find out!
Traditionally manufactured cotton is hard on both the agricultural workers and the land at every step in the process. From the pesticides and over use of water in the fields, the chemicals used to treat and dye the fabric to the polluted water runoff – cotton farming and textile production are taking their toll on the planet and on the workers’ health.
Cotton’s Overuse of Water
The fashion industry has a large water footprint, due mainly to its dependence on cotton. Cotton plants are amazingly thirsty. On average it takes about 2,720 liters of water to produce one single T-shirt. In India, the water consumed to grow cotton exports would be enough to supply 85% of the country’s 1.24 billion people with 26 gallons of water every day for a year. Meanwhile, more than 100 million people in India do not have access to safe water.
Cotton’s Chemical Addiction
The pesticide most commonly used on cotton in the U.S. is glyphosate, a chemical that was recently deemed likely to cause cancer. “Conventional cotton production soaks up 16-25% of the total pesticides produced worldwide, even though the crop itself only covers about 2.5% of the world’s total agricultural land,” according to a report by the Environmental Justice Foundation. In fact, more chemicals are used for cotton than for any other crop.
Cotton accounts for nearly 1/4th of all pesticide use.
Synthetic fertilizers are harmful to the environment. They cause runoff which affects freshwater habitats and wells. In 2015, almost 973 million pounds of fertilizer were used in the U.S. Fertilizers that are nitrogen-based make up more than half of all U.S. cotton fertilizer and are a major source for increased nitrous oxide emissions. These emissions are over 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.
In addition, conventional cotton farming practices deplete the soil, robbing it of nitrogen and potassium. Pesticide runoff negatively impacts the soil in cotton farming. Once in the soil, these pesticides stay in the soil and contaminate groundwater. Additionally, genetically modified cotton (used to deter pests) damages the soil’s enzymes and microorganisms.
Cotton’s Dirty Secret
Manufacturing cotton into textiles produces a massive amount of pollution. These pollutants are doing unimaginable harm to the environment that the fashion industry needs to address.
WATER – An estimated 8,000 chemicals are used to bleach, treat and brighten our clothes during the manufacturing process. Chlorine bleach is used to lighten fabric. Benzidine and toluidine are used to dye fabric and as a flame retardant. Even formaldehyde is used for crease resistance. Throughout the manufacturing process, fabric is washed and re-washed, causing these toxic chemicals to be released as untreated wastewater that pollutes waterways and groundwater.
AIR – The textile manufacturing process contaminates the air with numerous dangerous chemicals. From boilers to factory sizing processes, bleaching operations and fabric printing and finishing, there are many steps in the manufacturing process that cause air pollution. In the U.S., the EPA regulates these processes, but in other developing countries, this is not the case. Workers and those who live nearby are often exposed to nitrous oxides and sulfur dioxides, carbon monoxide, chorline dioxide and sometimes even formaldehyde. “Chinese textile factories alone produce about three billion tons of soot every year by burning coal for energy,” according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
It’s easy to see why the Organic Trade Association considers cotton to be “the world’s dirtiest crop.”
On the other hand, bamboo farming and production are a much cleaner process.
Bamboo is pesticide/insecticide free. That’s right. Bamboo is naturally pest resistant, so farmers do not have to use harsh pesticide chemicals like cotton farmers do.
Bamboo uses less irrigation. Bamboo is typically grown in tropical climates where the rainfall is suitable for growing. It does not require vast amounts of additional irrigation the way that cotton does. This means it is better for the environment and the local water tables.
Bamboo requires no fertilizers. Because bamboo grows so quickly, it does not require the use of fertilizers. It can also self-generate from its own roots.
Bamboo prevents soil erosion. Bamboo’s roots are never disturbed during the harvesting process. This means that a canopy is always in place to prevent soil erosion.
Bamboo improves air quality. Bamboo is one of the best plants for taking in carbon dioxide and putting out oxygen during photosynthesis.
Not all bamboo fabric is created equal. The manufacturing process for bamboo fabric is not always a “green” as one would like, so as a consumer you really have to do your research.
One company that we like is Royal Apparel. They are an American clothing manufacturer, located in Hauppauge, New York, offering an environmentally-friendly blend of organic viscose bamboo and organic cotton for your line of ecologically-conscious clothing. As part of their line of environmentally responsible fabric options, they offer 100% certified organic cotton and RPET, which is a fabric comprised of recycled polyester and plastic fibers.
As you can see, bamboo is a superior choice. If you’ve been a cotton guy or gal for most of your life, perhaps you haven’t given much thought to bamboo. If you need more convincing, check our our blog 7 Reasons to add Bamboo to Your Wardrobe, and tell us what you think. Will you be giving bamboo a try?