If you’re interested in sustainable fashion, you’ve probably heard bamboo isn’t always as green as advertised because of intensive fabric processing. Five Bamboo, a apparel company based in Seattle, has tackled the environmental challenges of bamboo and created a line of truly eco-friendly bamboo clothing. Founded by five siblings, Zahlen, Xtehn, Vehro, Rohre and Qxhna Titcomb, the company makes stylish tops for men and women, dresses, leggings and underwear. Five Bamboo spent more than two years researching bamboo fabric manufacture to find the best eco-friendly techniques.

We spoke with Rohre Titcomb about the company and sustainable apparel.

How did Five Bamboo begin? What first inspired you?

Zahlen, Xtehn, Vehro, Qxhna and I have always loved collaborating on things. As kids, it was tree houses and forts, then ski jumps, and now it’s companies. We’re a good team because we all have different skills and aren’t afraid to tell it like it is. The kind of openness and honesty we have with each other allows for extremely productive disagreements.

In 2005, we founded our first company, a sports apparel company called Five Ultimate. Along the way, we realized that business can be a great vehicle for change. Our society needs to find a way of living that will allow us to exist and thrive within the ecological limits of our planet. So, we decided to pair our knowledge of the apparel industry with our passion for the environment to create a bamboo clothing company deeply rooted in sustainability. We try to provide consumers with quality, affordable apparel that treads lightly on the planet. Our hope is that, even in a small way, we will shift the apparel industry in a more responsible direction, and educate our customers on the environmental impact of the clothes they wear on a daily basis.

Bamboo fabric has a bad reputation in the sustainability world because of the processing involved. Can you explain how your process is different?

Gladly! Unfortunately, the majority of the bamboo apparel currently available on the market today is produced via the viscose process, which is chemically intensive and produces harmful byproducts. However, we make our fiber using the closed-loop lyocell process. Throughout the lyocell process no harmful chemicals are used, no harmful gases are released, and virtually no waste is created. The water consumption in the viscose and lyocell processes is very similar, but doesn’t come near to the impact of growing cotton. Cultivating cotton is extremely impactful because of the water, fertilizers and pesticides required. Soil erosion and water depletion are severe problems in cotton-growing areas. In contrast, bamboo thrives without the aid of fertilizers or pesticides, and is self-propagating, which means no cultivation is required.

To make our bamboo fiber, we mix raw bamboo pulp with a nontoxic organic solvent solution. The organic compound NMMO isolates the cellulose, leaving us with a thick mixture, which is sent through a shower head-like fixture (a spinaret) and rendered into filament form. What comes out is our fiber, ready to be spun into thread and woven into fabric.

Of course, everything has an environmental impact. We’re just trying to make clothing in a way that has the least impact possible. Sustainability is a moving target.

Do you think the rest of the apparel industry will follow your example?

We certainly hope so! There’s much room for improvement, and this industry is finally starting to see that. The Eco Index and Higg Index are good indicators of this. Action and intention don’t always go hand in hand though.

Do you plan to use any other fabrics than bamboo?

We currently use some organic cotton in our t-shirts, and know that we may have to add other materials into our fabrics to broaden our product offerings. In the short-term though, we’re just focusing on offering high-quality bamboo lyocell clothing.

Part of your mission is to partner with customers, communities, nonprofits and others to engage in causes — can you share an example of a partnership, or something you plan to do?

Our most exciting partnership at the moment is with the Bumbershoot music festival, a three day festival over Labor Day weekend here in Seattle. We’re running the merchandise program at the festival this year. In years past, all of the apparel has been made from conventional cotton, so we’re excited to work with the organizers to reduce the environmental impact of their festival by making the apparel items out of bamboo lyocell instead of cotton.

What products do you offer, and how do you plan on expanding your product line?

We design casual lifestyle bamboo apparel. We currently offer dresses, t-shirts, light jackets, skirts, leggings and Bamboxers. Our products are versatile yet stylish, and incredibly comfortable. We plan to expand our offering to include a full range of lifestyle apparel all the way from dress shirts to jeans. We want to provide variety so that our customers can complete their wardrobes with our environmentally responsible apparel and can wear their environmental values on a daily basis.

What needs to happen now?

For consumers: Change the way you wash and dry your clothes. Approximately 60 percent of the life cycle impact of an item of clothing occurs in the use phase. Wash cold. Hang dry. Also, buy less.

Want to try it out?

We’re giving away some sustainable clothing from Five Bamboo. One lucky winner will be able to choose from one skirt or two pairs of Bamboxers/Bamboxer Briefs. To enter, simply answer the question “Which Five Bamboo articles of clothing are named after Titcomb siblings?” Please email your response to [email protected] by midnight EST on Thursday, Sept. 6. Winner will be chosen randomly from all applicable entries.

Disclaimer: Five Bamboo will supply complimentary clothing for the giveaway winner.

Photo credits: Five Bamboo