The question of organic cotton vs bamboo is one that comes up often in the debate about sustainable fabrics. Which is better for the Earth, and which is better for you and your family?
Not knowing the answers to these questions may lead your purchasing decisions astray. Costing you more money and putting more chemicals into the environment and into your household.
But if you take a few minutes to educate yourself, you can make smart shopping decisions for yourself and for the planet.
Table of Contents
Cost & Availability Comparison
What about organic bamboo?
ChemicalsBamboo is a hearty plant that is naturally pest resistant. Bamboo can be easily grown without the aid of pesticides, or herbicides.Cotton is not naturally pest-resistant and is highly susceptible to weeds. Because of this, the cotton industry relies heavily on chemicals, such as fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides.In fact, it’s estimated that 25% of the pesticides used in the United States are used on cotton crops. These chemicals then make their way into the waterways and our ecosystem. That’s why it’s extremely important to look for organic cotton options.
Water ConsumptionNewly planted bamboo crops require a lot of water. But once the plants have matured and are being used for regrowth rather than new growth, they store water for use in the dry seasons.Cotton uses more water than bamboo and requires irrigation in the dry seasons.
Bamboo consumes about 154 pounds (977 liters) of water to produce a pound of bamboo. Cotton uses about 562 pounds (approximately 255 liters) of water for each pound of cotton plant material produced.
Bamboo has a strong, sturdy root network that reduces soil erosion. And its leaves will drop from the canopy, replenishing soil nutrients, and acting as a natural source of fertilizer.
Cotton is a delicate plant that is susceptible to wind and soil erosion. Because of this, farmers use conservation techniques — minimal tillage and leaving plant residue in place — to improve soil conditions.
Ultimately, neither crop has a major negative impact on soil conditions. The obvious exception here would be non-organic cotton because of all the chemicals leaching into the topsoil.
Standard cotton processing uses a lot of chemicals.As you can imagine, traditional cotton manufacturing processes use a lot of chemicals to treat the fibers for weaving, to bleach and soften them, and to make them wrinkle resistant.But we’re here to talk about organic cotton, not traditional cotton.
Organic Cotton can be processed with minimal chemicals.Cotton’s natural properties make it easy to spin into a strong thread. There is no need to apply chemicals to break it down first.Cotton offers a natural softness that bamboo does not. So, although manufacturers try to get that ultimate level of softness by adding unnecessary chemicals, organic cotton will provide a comfortable fabric without extra treatments.
Making fabric from bamboo uses a lot of chemicals.Bamboo is a hard, wood-like substance, additionally, bamboo fibers are very short and difficult to spin into thread or yarn.For these reasons, bamboo does not easily lend itself to use as a fabric. The manufacturing process for any bamboo fabric except bamboo linen requires harsh chemicals to break down the fibers.
After the fibers break down, they are made into synthetic materials: bamboo rayon, bamboo lyocell, bamboo TENCEL, bamboo modal, and bamboo viscose.
All these are considered either semi- or fully synthetic and are often blended with other synthetic fibers, like spandex.
As I mentioned, there is one exception: bamboo linen. Bamboo fibers are a good fit for the natural structure of linen, so the bamboo linen can be manufactured mechanically and without the aid of chemicals.
Beware the dye.
Regardless if you buy bamboo or cotton anything. Watch out for dye chemicals. Dye chemicals can be harmful to workers and the environment.
The dyeing and printing of conventional fabrics often use compounds of iron, tin, potassium, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and solvent-based inks containing heavy metals, benzene, and other nasty things that require a lot of water to rinse away residues.
The resulting wastewater is polluted by these chemicals and heavy metals. So, look for natural dyes or low-impact alternatives.
Cost & Availability
I wanted to see if organic cotton products cost more than bamboo. I expected they would after all the work that goes into growing the cotton. But I was surprised to find that, while they are generally comparable in price, bamboo is a little more expensive sometimes.
First, it’s important to know what my search method for these prices was. I’m sure it would vary store to store or maybe even region to region.