Is using bamboo bad for the environment?

A very green bamboo forest

The environmental impact of the things we do and the things we buy is a growing concern for most of us, and better raw materials are a big part of the conversation. One material that comes up a lot is bamboo - that quick-growing, highly adaptable grass that can provide the raw materials for a range of everyday products, from textiles to tissue paper.

But the processes used to convert bamboo into different types of products have very different impacts on the environment, and since we’re in the business of making tissue from bamboo we want to be clear about the difference.

So how is manufacturing cloth using bamboo a problem for the environment, and how is tissue different? 

Is bamboo really green?

Bamboo grows like a grass so you can harvest it over and over from the same stem without needing to replant it. And it also grows using less land and water than trees. Benefits like this make it a good raw material to use for making tissue as long as it’s being grown in a responsible way. 

At Naked Sprout our fantastic suppliers are certified with the FSC so there’s no deforestation and the natural biodiversity of the bamboo forests they operate is protected. 

But of course growing and harvesting bamboo is only part of the story. How do we get from tall green stalks to soft unbleached toilet rolls? The process is quite straightforward. Here’s how it works. 

Harvesting: After being cut, bamboo stalks are chipped, then soaked and crushed mechanically. This makes a rough bamboo pulp which is dried into flat boards, called pulp board bale. This pulp board bale is then sent to the tissue factory for manufacture. 

Forming and Drying: Once the bamboo is at the factory most manufacturers would bleach it in some way. We don’t do this, our bamboo boards are kept the same colour, they’re just boiled and cleaned using gentle ingredients to make a liquid pulp. Finally, the pulp is spread out into thin sheets and dried to make huge rolls of tissue, which we cut into smaller rolls! 

A parent roll of unbleached toilet paper

That’s all there is to it, there’s not a lot of chemicals involved, and at Naked Sprout we make sure the chemicals we do use to clean and de-chunk (technical term) our pulp are REACH certified, so they’re not damaging to the environment. 

Making textiles is a whole different story…

How bamboo textiles are made

When it comes to environmental impact, the clothing industry has a long way to go. The UN have stated that garment production accounts for 10% of the world’s CO2e emissions - that’s more than shipping and aviation combined. 

So anything that can help make clothing more sustainable is a welcome development. Could bamboo be the answer? 

When it comes to the impact of growing and harvesting, responsibly farmed bamboo should be less damaging than cotton. It doesn’t need a lot of water, it doesn’t require pesticides or fertilisers, and it grows very quickly without needing to be reseeded after harvest. . 

So far, so good. But now we have to make cloth out of it, and here’s where the big difference from tissue comes in. 

Green fabric

Most of the cloth we wear is made from a thread or yarn that has been woven into fabric. Making thread from cotton is relatively straightforward - the fibres of the plant are already fluffy and soft, and after cleaning they can be combed or “carded” to make a smooth mass of fibre ready to be spun into thread. 

But bamboo is a very different material, and if you want to make thread from it, it’s a much tougher nut to crack! There are some mechanical ways that you extract or create a spinnable thread from bamboo, but these are relatively labour intensive and costly, compared to the chemical method, also called the “viscose process”. 

It’s no surprise, then, that this cheaper viscose process is the one favoured by most fabric manufacturers. This is what it looks like.

Harvesting: First, bamboo is cut and chipped. This part is the same as making tissue, but here’s where things go in a very different direction.  

Pulping and gellifying: The bamboo chips are cooked with sodium hydroxide to break them down into a very soft pulp, the pulp is then treated with carbon disulfide, which “melts” it, turning it into a gooey viscose solution or gel.

Spinning: This gooey gel is pushed through nozzels into an acid bath, which solidifies the gel string into fibres. 

Drawing and cutting: These fibres are stretched, dried, and cut into lengths suitable for spinning into yarn.

A chemical factory

What with the sodium hydroxide, carbon disulphide, and acid baths, we’re seeing a much more chemically intensive process than making tissue. It's these chemicals that are the main environmental concern, particularly if they find their way into the water supply. Carbon disulphide in particular is hugely damaging to health. It’s classed as a neurotoxic, with possible consequences from ingestion ranging from dizziness to liver damage. 

The Changing Markets Foundation, who have published several reports on the environmental impact of viscose have found “rampant pollution” of carbon disulphide in the areas around factories where viscose is produced. They are campaigning for clothing manufacturers to move to a more responsible process where chemicals are re-used in a closed loop, lowering the risk of run-off and chemical pollution. While some progress is being made on this front, with more big clothing brands (especially in Europe) pledging to do better on viscose, there is still a long way to go..

Clothes on a rail in a shop

Comparing impact

When we lay out the two processes of how tissue is made from bamboo, and how fabric is made from bamboo, we see a big difference in environmental impact; particularly when it comes to chemical usage, waste management, and risks to water quality.

Of course, it is still possible to manufacture bamboo tissue in more and less sustainable ways. At Naked Sprout we don’t bleach our pulp in any way, and we also don’t use fossil fuels in our manufacturing. We only use REACH certified chemicals and we conduct regular tests of the river whose water we use to make our tissue to ensure our processes are clean and not damaging to the environment. 

While we’re on the topic of tissue products, we should also point out that it’s not just clothes that are using the chemically intensive viscose process. A lot of wet wipes, including some bamboo wipes, are made using viscose, so if you’re in the market for a wet wipe we’d recommend checking!

A stack of bamboo


When it comes to environmental impact, the basic credentials of bamboo in terms of land and water use are good. But what happens to it after it's harvested makes a big difference to its environmental footprint. Bamboo tissue production should be relatively simple, and you can further lower the environmental impact by not using bleach and manufacturing without fossil fuels, like we’ve done!

Making fabric from it using the viscose method, which is still the lowest cost and most popular option for fabric manufacturers today, is far more costly to the environment and to human health. 

So is bamboo good for the environment? It’s all a matter of what you do with it! 

Want to try our soft, unbleached bamboo tissue products for yourself?

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