Bamboozled: Are You Having the Grass Pulled Over Your Eyes?

Bamboo and you: is this supposedly sustainable material all it’s claimed to be?

You care. You really care. That doesn’t mean you have the time to be an investigative carer. Green this, green that, and pretty soon, caring becomes a full time profession. Because green is also the color of money, and plenty of people are trying to cash in on your consciousness.

Take bamboo. Bamboo pajamas, bamboo underwear, bamboo towels, bamboo sheets, bamboo floors – we’re bamboozled. But ask any carer why it’s truly sustainable, and suddenly it’s hem and haw city. It’s, like, renewable or something? Right?

Right – sort of. We’re here to help you sort the grass from the greenwash.

Bamboozled on the Floor

Bamboo is amazing. First, it’s a fast-growing, carbon dioxide-eating grass that doesn’t need extra water, nor does it need fertilizer or pesticides to be commercially grown. Some species grow up to three feet in a day and can be harvested in just four years. Bamboo even self regenerates. As a feedstock for “wood” flooring, it’s hard to argue against this wonder grass; oak for comparison, can take a century or more to mature. The downsides of the product aren’t many; it’s mainly the source by which bamboo flooring is procured that can be murky. The domestic market for sourcing raw bamboo is fledgling at best. Most bamboo comes from China and it’s often difficult to determine where it’s coming from, really. With global demand for bamboo increasing, there are plenty of examples of important habitat being bulldozed for agriculture. That’s bad, obviously. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) does certify some bamboo flooring products which means it meets a strict criteria for sustainable harvesting and worker’s rights.

Bottom line: For wood substitute materials such as bamboo flooring, FSC is the way to go.

Bamboozled on Your Body

Now it gets tricky. Once we start talking textiles, bamboo’s green quotient starts to feel like third grade long division. Bamboo as a plant, even if sustainably harvested, might not be sustainably manufactured. There are two kinds of processes for making bamboo into fabric: mechanical and chemical. The mechanical option involves smashing the woody parts of the plant which secretes natural enzymes that break the plant down into mush. The mush can then be combed out and spun into yarn.  This is essentially the same process by which hemp is made into linen. Bamboo linen is rare, because the mechanical process is cost prohibitive and labor intensive.

Chemically-processed bamboo fiber is similar to rayon or modal, which makes it soft as a baby’s butt – it’s the new silk. This is the stuff you want on your skin. But here’s the problem: To achieve aforementioned baby-butt softness, bamboo leaves and shoots are ‘cooked’ in chemical solvents such as sodium hydroxide (lye) and carbon disulfide. The process is known as hydrolysis alkalization and multi-phase bleaching. Fact: Sodium hydroxide in its crystalline form is the active ingredient in Liquid Plumr. Acute exposure can case eye and skin irritation and breathing fumes can cause vomiting. That carbon disulfide in the bamboo bath is known to cause neural disorders. Where this becomes a big issue is if bamboo is being processed for fabric in places where worker safety conditions aren’t scrutinized (a particular issue right now in China).

Now, there are some good ways to process bamboo that are far more eco-friendly and involve less environmentally detrimental chemicals to break down the plant into stock for yarn. A company in Seattle, Washington called 5 Bamboo makes a proprietary product called Nomo, all produced in a closed loop system. Lyocell is the result, which is leaps and bounds better than hydrolysis alkalization and multi-phase bleaching.

Bottom line: look for bamboo products that are Lyocell or indicate mechanical, not chemical, processing.

Do We Want to Be Bamboozled, Do We Not Want to Be Bamboozled?

The skinny is this: If a bamboo product is produced in the USA, it’s probably being made from the more environmentally friendly process. If the bamboo is made abroad, it’s possibly bad news. There are some certifications that exist to help consumers make conscious choices but these too have issues. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is a global NGO that defines industrial and commercial standards, which works as a tool for companies to implement environmentally friendly practices. The ISO, however,  does not certify the manufacturing processes. In so many cases, the producer isn’t the manufacturer of the textile and though the product make be safe for the environment, the process by which it was made is not. Chain of custody gets weird in developing world supply chains.

Bottom line: You don’t need to make a career of it (I promise), but it’s up to you, the consumer, to do your homework. Bamboo may be the new silk, Pergo, cutting board and kitchen utensil, but you have to talk to the company that makes the product first. As always, it’s Caveat Emptor out there. Or maybe better: Viridus Caveat Emptor: green buyer beware.

Image: The Busy Brain, Lav & Kush, Joi