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Bamboo Boom: Is This Material for You?

It's not just for tiki torches anymore, but does this wood substitute really make for greener floors, clothing and other products?

Although the process that creates fabric is certainly not perfect, bamboo, soy and wood-based rayons are promising alternatives to petroleum-derived fabrics such as polyester, says Rebecca Calahan Klein of Organic Exchange, a nonprofit organization in O’Donnell, Tex., dedicated to greening textiles. “We have a huge chunk of textiles that are nonrenewable. So does a material like bamboo start to move us in the right direction? Yes.”

The Green Standard
It’s not easy for a busy, green-leaning consumer to penetrate this thicket of unknowns and trade-offs. Are bamboo-polyester blend diapers—advertised as “silky soft”—environmentally superior to those made with plain organic cotton? A bamboo skateboard may have eco-chic, but is it more sustainable than one made from maple or fiberglass? Many experts say manufacturers still have some convincing to do. “I think for us to have confidence that bamboo is a sustainable material, the industry needs to step up and support its case that it’s a well-managed green product,” says Nadav Malin, editorial director of BuildingGreen and a member of the Materials and Resources Technical Advisory Group for the LEED rating system.

Despite the difficulties of distance, several companies that sell bamboo products have long-standing relationships with their bamboo growers and tout the responsible practices they have observed on the ground. Companies are beginning to back up those claims with farm and forest certifications. Last year the Organic Crop Improvement Association in Lincoln, Neb., certified that some Chinese bamboo, including that used by Hebei Jigao, meets the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic standards. Also last year Smith & Fong obtained a stamp of approval from the Forest Stewardship Council—an organization whose certifiers audit sustainable forestry practices around the world—for 3,000 of the 10,000 acres of bamboo farms that supply its factory.

Certification doesn’t come easy or cheap. Smith negotiated with the council for many years before the organization agreed to consider bamboo. He also paid $35,000 in fees for surveys and other certification process requirements, and he continues to foot the bill for annual inspections and improvements. Because Chinese bamboo is generally farmed in small parcels, certification means manufacturers or importers must hire extra staff to coordinate the activities of hundreds of farmers.

The certification of farms is just one stop on the road to environmental credibility, of course, and consumers must often choose among imperfect alternatives. Alex Wilson of BuildingGreen cautions that in regions where hardwood trees are plentiful, such as the northeastern U.S., wood from well-managed local woodlots, certified or not, would likely be a greener flooring choice than certified bamboo, in part because of the carbon costs of shipping and trucking products from China. Wilson has proposed that the LEED “rapidly renewable” credit that bamboo receives be replaced by a broader credit that includes trees and other “bio-based” materials, given that timber—which in some cases requires no fertilizer or herbicides—may be environmentally preferable to fertilizer- or pesticide-intensive agricultural crops.

Meanwhile questions persist about the environmental and human health effects of bamboo product manufacturing. Companies such as Smith & Fong, which owns a stake in its Chinese manufacturing plant, can exercise more control over processing; Smith & Fong and various other manufacturers and importers, including Teragren on Bainbridge Island in Washington State, now offer bamboo flooring and plywood made with formaldehyde-free glue. Hebei Jigao and other bamboo fiber companies have acquired the international Oeko-Tex certification, which attests that final products are free of harmful chemicals—although it does not fully address how factory chemicals are used and disposed of or how much water and energy are required during manufacturing.

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