Bamboo has gained a desirable reputation in the world of socks but is it wholly justified? In this post we set out to explore the pros, cons, impact and alternatives when it comes to this notoriously soft, antibacterial fibre.
There are lots of great things to say about bamboo. For a start it’s vegan – a factor not to be taken lightly as interest in veganism increased seven-fold in the five years between 2014 and 2019. The plant itself is water efficient, thriving on 200 times less water than cotton and it regenerates rapidly, a whopping 4cm/hour.
As mentioned, it’s also naturally antimicrobial, up to a 99.8% antibacterial rate, meaning that like wool, it won’t smell.
Bamboo is carbon neutral; a plant that absorbs the same amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as it releases during harvesting. However, despite the plant itself having these unarguably fantastic qualities, it quickly becomes tainted when we get into the process and logistics of using the fibre in textiles.
The main country for bamboo fibre production is China. This means that for a UK manufacturer, such as Socko, you’re already having a negative impact by shipping (or more likely flying) your raw material around the world. It’s also more challenging to know the true origin of your fibre, to ensure that each hand involved in the process has been fairly treated.
When we delved into the science of how this hearty plant becomes a fabric, we found that most bamboo fabric is a bamboo rayon. This is a man-made fibre made from cellulose using the viscose process - purifying and bleaching before soaking in sodium hydroxide. It’s then treated with carbon disulphide and spun in a solution of sulphuric acid, sodium sulphate, zinc sulphate and glucose. This method of extraction has significant emissions to both air and water. Therefore, affecting our people as well as our planet.
© Fritz Hoffman, National Geographic
The lesson we’ve learnt is that bamboo is sustainable as a raw material but the chemical extraction process that transforms it into a fibre is where the concern really lies. We often turn to certifications for guidance and reassurance. However, Oeko-Tex certified yarn does not mean that no chemicals were used in the process, just that no chemicals are found in the end product. This then raises the question of how the chemicals (organic or otherwise) are disposed of - the protocols for each factory vary. All in all, it’s complicated to trace a transparent end-to-end journey from plant to sock.
In conclusion, bamboo is sustainable, the fibre is not.
There are many great benefits to bamboo and one of the key things we’ve learnt in starting a sustainable business that you can’t do everything perfectly. This is why we did our research, we weighed up the pros and cons and we decided that there is no shortage of bamboo socks available at a price point we simply wouldn’t be able to compete with.
A fibre that we’re really keen to experiment with as an alternative to bamboo is Tencel®. Unlike other extraction processes it’s non-toxic, creating a cellulose fibre derived from wood pulp in a unique closed loop system that recycles almost 100% of the solvent used in the process. We’ll continue to develop our socks and to experiment with their components. We’re so pleased to have you along for the ride.