As a college student, I worked in a beautiful boutique in Washington, D.C. And as a college student, I was rarely able to afford the beautiful things we sold, even with an employee discount. Each item I bought usually was preceded by longing stares for weeks with crossed fingers in hopes that a customer wouldn’t buy the last one before my next pay day.
This scarf dates back to my time spent in the shop. I was still in my early stages of finding my passion for environmental issues, and anything that was labeled “eco” was an instant point of obsession. Not only was this scarf promoted as a “green” product, since bamboo grows quickly with no fertilizers or pesticides, but it had the luxurious shine and feel of silk. So I bought it, and I loved it.
During the following year as I researched alternative textile fibers for my thesis, I found that it is true that bamboo does quickly replenish itself and grow without the need for chemicals. However, I also discovered that the process of converting bamboo into a textile fiber was filled with chemicals to make it into what we know as rayon or viscose (Note: Rayon/Viscose can be made from a number of wood-based fibers). Could the good outweigh the bad in this case?
Actually, no. According to Patagonia’s fantastic guide to bamboo, “The solvent used for this process is carbon disulfide, a toxic chemical that is a known human reproductive hazard. It can endanger factory workers and pollute the environment via air emissions and wastewater. The recovery of this solvent in most viscose factories is around 50%, which means that the other half goes into the environment.” My scarf might have been made all the way in Nepal, but I certainly don’t want the Nepalese drinking water contaminated with these chemicals.
It quickly became clear that my scarf and a lot of the bamboo textiles appearing on the market at the time were by-products of green-washing. Or, at my more optimistic moments, I perhaps attributed it to just a long chain of unintentional ignorance that made its way down the chain to me, the consumer. But mostly I just felt swindled. How could I have so blindly trusted this fabric that had seemed almost too good to be true? This scarf was an imposter.
Yet I continue to keep this scarf around. It serves as a reminder that I have to keep asking questions. It reminds me that there are a lot of things that we just don’t know yet – as businesses, scientists, shoppers and just plain human beings. Luckily, we’re getting better information all the time, especially when we pursue it. And if this scarf did go through all those scary chemicals to become the silky fabric that keeps me warm, I have a responsibility to keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t cause any more trouble than it already has.