Debunking Bamboo + Eucalyptus as Natural Myth

Natural, organic fibers are at the heart of every Coyuchi piece — but organic is only the beginning. With exciting new “green” textiles touting bamboo and eucalyptus fibers hitting the market, why aren’t we seeing them on Coyuchi’s shelves? The truth is, not all “natural” fibers are created — or processed — equal, and the possibility of sustainable bamboo and eucalyptus bedding, more often than not, might just be too good to be true.







This isn’t to say that all bamboo and/or eucalyptus fabrics are bad — you just need to know where it came from and how it was made, which isn’t always the easiest information to track down. As a plant, bamboo is fast-growing and fantastically sustainable, improving soil quality, producing more wood per acre than most standard trees, storing four times more CO2, and releasing 35% more oxygen. As far as farming is concerned, bamboo checks all of the environmentally conscious boxes. But as a fabric, bamboo’s benefits can get a little murky.







While organic, sustainably made bamboo fiber does exist, much of the “green” labelling of these textiles does not take the processing into account. Dyes containing lead, mercury, or other heavy metals, mutagenic chemicals, and endocrine disruptors are commonly used in the manufacturing process — causing harm to not only the consumer, but the workers in these factories, and the waterways that receive the untreated effluent afterwards.







While the mechanical method for processing bamboo fiber resembles the flax-to-linen model, changes still need to be made before it can be considered universally sustainable. There is still no organic certification for bamboo. Mechanically processed bamboo fiber has a natural, textured feel — much like linen — but the most common method for the bamboo textiles on the market involves harsh chemicals that yield a silkier fabric, blurring the line between natural and synthetic. This chemical method (known as viscose) uses caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) and carbon disulfide to convert cellulose (the chief component in the walls of plants) into liquid, which is then forced through a spinerette and into a chemical bath — of sulfuric acid — that hardens it into fine strands. This process for making rayon yarn has been around since the early 1900s, but it has only been applied to bamboo since 2003. While sodium hydroxide is approved by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and commonly used in the processing of organic cotton, carbon disulfide is highly toxic to inhale, causing nervous system damage with chronic exposure, and has been linked to neural disorders among the workers in rayon factories.







As scary as they sound, these harsh chemicals do not leave a residue on the end product. Nearly all viscose can be Oeko Tex certified, which means that the finished fiber has been tested for any trace of chemicals which may be harmful to the health of humans. So while these fibers are certified to be safe for consumers, the danger posed to factory workers and the environment are where the real danger lies. While sodium hydroxide is not immediately harmful to humans, its disposal is destructive for the environment when it is dumped into waterways. And that goes alongside the more obvious danger posed by the carbon disulfide and sulfuric acid included in the untreated effluent. While a closed loop process is possible — capturing and reclaiming the manufacturing chemicals and keeping them out of our waterways — it is seldom done.







Alongside bamboo, eucalyptus and soy have recently joined the new class of so-called “green” fibers, which employ the same chemically-derived viscose process. It may sound natural and ecologically sustainable to create fabrics from these sources, but viscose processing also works with chicken feathers, milk, and bacteria — virtually any cellulose or protein can be used. But not all cellulose and proteins are marketed equally. Coyuchi’s own head of Sustainability and Production, Margot Lyons, fills us in on the details:







One thing we've started to hear from customers is what about eucalyptus sheets? Aren't they far more sustainable than cotton? More luxury for less impact?







Working in SF we are surrounded by eucalyptus trees, which can grow in areas with low rainfall and are arguably efficient water users. They provide a fresh smelling oil and beautiful leaves for sun prints and seeds for natural dye. Love or hate them in your backyard or your neighborhood, they present the same challenges as bamboo for textiles. If you missed the FTC's response to bamboo textiles about ten years ago, here's a bit of a refresh -







In order to convert the cellulose into yarn, eucalyptus like bamboo must go through the viscose process, which is a chemically dependent method that includes pulp production and fiber production. There are significant air, water, and worker issues in both stages (WFN, 2017). Unless the processing is in a closed loop system like that followed by Lenzing for Tencel, those chemicals may be released into the environment via untreated effluent.







The effect these chemicals can have on air, water, and ecosystems is just part of the issue with wood pulp like eucalyptus and bamboo. Other areas of risk are largely tied to the wood sourcing, impacting ecosystems, climate change, workers and their communities and water. It is estimated that about 120 million trees are cut down every year for viscose production (canopyplanet.org), many of which come from old growth forest where there is a higher carbon store. Logging these trees releases co2 into the air, soil erosion from transport degrades water quality and changes hydrological patterns, and local communities must adjust to changes to land use and access to land.







This isn't to say all viscose is all bad. There are ways to source and produce it more sustainably. Things to look out for? Lenzing trademarks for closed loop processing, and Canopy, FSC or PEFC for 3rd party certified forest management. If you don't see a brand or retailer with this info, reach out and ask.



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