You're doing that shopper's hustle—moving clothes across the dress rack, click, click, click—when your fingers discover something soft and silky. You look at the label and discover that the shimmery cami that got your attention is made of bamboo. The texture reminds you of the finest cashmere, but the salesperson tells you that it's almost as strong and durable as polyester, it's as absorbent as cotton, and it can wick moisture away from your body. It even has antibacterial properties and is UV resistant. What's more, it's "earth friendly," she says. Knowing you've hit upon something of a miracle fabric, you pass up the cotton-polyester camis on the rack and jump on the new eco-fashion train.
Bamboo is one of a new class of "renewable" fabrics grown and produced in ways that are gentler on the planet than traditional textiles, including conventional cotton. By choosing the bamboo cami instead of one made with a cotton-poly blend, you've spared nonrenewable resources such as petroleum (used in the manufacture of polyester), saved about a third of a pound of chemical fertilizers and pesticides (the amount used to grow the cotton needed to make a simple T-shirt), and reduced pollution of the soil, air, and water.
Care What You Wear
You may not have ever considered the toxic potential of your clothing, but what you wear can make a difference: The textile industry is the second largest in the world, next to only the food industry, and it consumes vast amounts of chemicals that have a profoundly detrimental impact on the environment—and perhaps on our health as well. Take, for instance, conventionally grown cotton. It gets a lot of attention among environmentalists because it accounts for 50 percent of the world's total fiber production and one-fourth of the world's pesticide use. According to the Sustainable Cotton Project, a California-based nonprofit, many ingredients in the pesticides used on agricultural crops like cotton can cause respiratory diseases and cancer. These pesticides can harm those who come into direct contact with them—cotton farmers and textile workers, for example. They can also pollute the air, leach into the soil, and run off into the water, potentially harming all of us. And then there are the chemicals used throughout the cotton-production process for cleaning and finishing, which often end up in our water supply.
Bamboo, by contrast, grows without pesticides or chemicals and, because it's a tropical plant, doesn't require irrigation. It grows to a usable size within two to three years and regenerates quickly; it's also completely biodegradable. Bamboo, of course, has long been valued as a strong, resilient building material, but the process of turning it into fiber is new. As it turns out, bamboo, hard as it is, can be turned into a pulp that's then spun into an incredibly versatile fiber. (See Don't Be Bamboozled.)
Earth-friendly fabrics fall into three categories: fabrics produced from "recycled" materials, like fleece that's made from discarded plastic bottles; traditional "natural" or "renewable" fabrics such as cotton, wool, linen, and silk that get an organic makeover to make them less toxic to the environment; and the new "renewable" fabrics like bamboo. Renewable means a fabric's sources can be regenerated quickly. Though all fibers, natural and synthetic, are made from natural resources, not all those resources are renewable. Those made from plants are. Fabrics like polyester, nylon, and spandex, on the other hand, are made from oil and petroleum—limited resources that take millions of years to replace.