Bamboo Business: A Sustainable Route to Fashion

By Garisha Herath

Fashion and agriculture, although seemingly distant, are closely related and interdependent. This is because the raw materials sourced for fabric manufacturing must come directly from agricultural production. Although the fashion industry is saturated with diverse designers of all price points and experiences, one factor the entire industry depends on is fabric. Be it organically or inorganically sourced fabrics, at the end of the day, tonnes of raw materials are harvested daily to bring daring designs to life. 

Today, sustainability plays a crucial role when designing a fashion collection, since a large portion of the world’s waste originates from textile waste and fast fashion. Globally, we produce 13 million tonnes of textile waste per year, 95% of which can be easily recycled, reused, or upcycled.

Ethically sourced sustainable fabrics

Due to the increased awareness of global warming, pollution, and other environmental issues, there is already a massive demand for ethically sourced fabrics. As a result, many mass-manufacturing companies, emerging designers, independent designers, and high-fashion designers seek a more sustainable method to produce their collections. 

Presently, apart from reducing, reusing, recycling, upcycling, and increasing the longevity of a garment, there are many more approaches designers take to ensure there is minimum waste. Some sustainable fabrics presently available in the market include, but are not limited to, cotton, linen, peace silk (sourced without harming or killing silkworms), lotus fiber, bamboo yarn, organic hemp yarn, or Tencel (made from sustainable wood pulp). 

Apart from using eco-friendly raw materials, another aspect of ethical sourcing is ensuring all participants in the manufacturing process are treated equally and fairly. This includes paying wages on time, upholding their rights, and creating a safe working environment. Ethical sourcing also applies when harvesting crops and raw materials. The point is not to harm people or the environment while harvesting.

Benefits of bamboo cultivation.

Bamboo is an evergreen plant with over 1600 documented species. Primarily grown in warmer climates, it can adapt to any environment, which is why it is scattered throughout the world. Bamboo plant cultivation has extensive benefits for the environment, and if appropriately sourced, can assist in community development by creating new job opportunities. Bamboo plants are known to reduce up to 35% of atmospheric carbon dioxide while producing oxygen. As a result, bamboo plants are named “carbon sinks.” Bamboo roots mitigate soil erosion as they create a water barrier. Bamboo plants are also known for restoring degraded land, replenishing the soil by trapping moisture in the ground, and rejuvenating lands destroyed by fires.

Bamboo vs. Cotton

Apart from the many ways bamboo plants aid the environment, they are one of the most effortless crops to grow with minimum expense and environmental damage. Indeed, some bamboo plant varieties grow at an alarming rate, making it a very profitable crop for investors. Bamboo plants have a unique rhizome-dependent system (rhizome are roots that run underground to store nutrients, proteins, and absorb water) which assist the bamboo plant in growing 91 centimeters within 24 hours, at a rate of almost 40 millimeters an hour, which is unusual in the plant kingdom.

Bamboo plants don’t need any insecticides or pesticides to keep them safe from insects, nor do they require fertilizer, since bamboo roots create a water barrier retaining moisture and nutrients, allowing other plants to thrive. This leaves the soil replenished even after extensive bamboo cultivation. Comparatively, cotton cultivation absorbs all the moisture from the environment, making the soil infertile. This requires farmers to constantly add fertilizers to keep the crops alive, ultimately making the land barren while hurting biodiversity. 

Bamboo yarn & fabrics

One of the many ways bamboo is a great sustainable alternative is due to certain Asian bamboo varieties being able to harvest fibers without harming or destroying the plant. Bamboo yarn has also become increasingly popular among sustainable fashion designers, artisans, and knitters since the bamboo yarn is extremely soft to the touch and has myriad benefits to the wearer.

Bamboo fibers are strong, durable, and incredibly soft. They are even softer than silk, making them the most comfortable fabric to wear. They are also anti-bacterial, wrinkle-resistant, and hypoallergenic. These factors, along with breathability, contribute to bamboo fibers being well suited for tropical, humid, and warm climates as they do not irritate the skin and help absorb sweat better. 

The thermoregulatory properties of bamboo fabric also help keep your body warm in cooler weather, trapping the warmth inside and making it ideal for all climates.  Bamboo fabric’s moisture absorption rate and ultra-soft feel also make it an ideal material for sportswear and intimate wear. It is more breathable than cotton and dries twice as fast as cotton fabrics. 

Bamboo fabrics also have natural UV protection that filters up to 90% or more UV rays. THey are easy to maintain and ideal for those with a busy schedule since bamboo fabrics prevent wrinkles, cutting time spent on ironing and making it last longer.

Challenges of bamboo cultivation

Bamboo cultivation sounds like the perfect solution to combat global warming and soil erosion. But at the same time, we need to answer a series of questions before cultivating bamboo crops everywhere. Most importantly, would a new crop imbalance the natural ecosystem and biodiversity of that location? 

When introducing new crops that aren’t a part of that ecosystem, it can start a domino effect of negative impacts that will rapidly make the environment evolve to adapt to the new crops. This includes the extinction of existing insects, animals, plants, vegetation, and micro-organisms and the birth of a unique ecosystem that can thrive alongside the newly introduced crop. 

The lack of plant variation, too, could play a detrimental role in changing the ecosystem of that specific region. In the long term, this is very harmful as it will create an imbalance in nature. Bamboo plants are considered invasive, meaning once they start growing, it would be tough to control their spreading in regions. Therefore, introduction of bamboo species to a new environment must be done after careful and methodical research, weighing the pros and cons.

Bamboo fabrics in Sri Lanka

One of the pioneers and most prominent bamboo fabric designers and exporters in Sri Lanka is Kandygs Handlooms. Their “Thirasara” collection is a sustainable collection that curates fashion and lifestyle products using bamboo yarn and fabrics. 

Although the production of bamboo yarn and fabrics could be highly beneficial for Sri Lanka to generate income and employment, many investors back down from investing in large-scale cultivation of bamboo as it takes a long time for the plants to mature. Therefore, many bamboo fabric stores, alongside Kandygs Handlooms, import bamboo fabrics and yarn.

Countries such as China and Indonesia entered the bamboo industry decades ago and have established a thriving and sustainable income source, dominating the market presently. This allows them to sell many bamboo products, including fabrics, at a very affordable price. However, given the environmental and economic benefits of bamboo cultivation, it is still not too late for Sri Lanka to enter this market to add value to its fashion and apparel sector

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