Rayon versus Tencel and the Great Bamboo Debate

For years humans have been making clothing fibers from wood cellulose.  Rayon was the first fabric that could start as wood and, through a series of chemical processes, end as cloth fiber.  Rayon is also considered the first of the synthetic fibers, having been developed in the 19th century as an alternative to silk.  Rayon can be created with any cellulose, not just wood, even cotton cellulose works.  While there is more than one way to make Rayon, the most commonly used method is called the viscose process.  Rayon is generally considered harmful to the environment because its processing employs several harsh chemicals, including carbon disulfide, and because the production process generates quite a bit of chemical waste.  Approximately 50% of the carbon disulfide ends up as waste product.

Tencel is a relatively new fiber on the scene, developed by the Austrian company Lenzing.  Tencel also begins as wood cellulose.  However, Tencel employs a closed-loop process that creates almost no waste by redirecting the waste products back into production.  It also uses fewer and less harmful chemicals.  Tencel has been awarded the European Union Eco-label certification and the Nordic Swan.  Tencel also starts with  Forest Stewardship Council certified wood products.

If you’ve had a chance to feel Tencel, you’ll find it has a lovely drape similar to Rayon and makes a great eco-alternative to Rayon.  Buyers should note that, like Rayon, Tencel doesn’t generally like the dryer.

The reason I’m bringing this up is to discuss the Great Bamboo Debate.  Is Bamboo an eco-fabric or not?  Let’s start at the beginning.  Bamboo itself is the fastest-growing woody plant in the world. (It’s actually a member of the grass family.)  Bamboo grows naturally without any pesticides or herbicides and is very hearty.  So as an input material, Bamboo is very eco-friendly.  From there, however, things get dicey.  It seems most Bamboo-based fabrics are created using the traditional Rayon viscose process, which is why the Federal Trade Commission is concerned.  However, there are some companies claiming to use a closed-loop processing method similar to Tencel.  So on processing, it’s not black and white.

Finishing must also be mentioned.  Companies creating products from Bamboo who don’t specifically have an eco-philosophy may use conventional chemical finishing agents and dyes.  So the fact that something is Bamboo doesn’t give it an automatic eco-pass.  All of the companies FaeriesDance.com works with are specifically focused on eco-production.  So none of our Bamboo fashions have harsh chemical finishes and they are all low-impact dyed, not conventionally dyed.

In truth, we have not followed the producer train back far enough to know which of our vendors are using viscose processing and which are using a closed-loop system.  We do know that several of our severely chemically sensitive clients have had very good luck with our bamboo products.  That may be due more to the lack of chemical finishes than anything else, but it’s something to consider.

In the end you as the consumer will have to decide if eco-friendly growing, finishing and dyeing are enough to warrant a green label if you’re uncertain of the processing step.  In the meantime, we’ll be following up with each of our manufacturers to determine how the Bamboo was processed.

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Written By Adrienne