The Fast Growing BS Behind Bamboo’s Green Claims

Note: This story appeared in Adventure Journal’s November Environment newsletter. You have to be a subscriber to view the newsletter (it’s free), but so many people wanted to link to this piece we’ve posted it here, too.

Though clothing and flooring companies would love you to believe that bamboo is environmentally friendly, it’s not. In fact, even the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is out to bust that myth: Earlier this year it sent letters to 78 retailers from Amazon.com to Sports Authority threatening penalties of up to $16,000 for calling bamboo green.

The quick-growing grass known as bamboo was at first exalted by greenies because it doesn’t require pesticides, herbicides, or irrigation, it can be used for many applications, it’s strong for its weight, and it grows up to four feet per day — no plantations required. But the “bamboo” in shirts and sheets, as well as socks and underwear? It’s actually rayon derived from bamboo. Why is that a big deal? Making rayon from bamboo requires toxic chemicals such as sodium hydroxide and often releases pollutants into the environment. And despite claims to the contrary, the FTC says bamboo rayon does not have any special antimicrobial or other properties of the original plant.

Perhaps you’re now thinking you shouldn’t buy bamboo clothing but that it’s still a green solution for your new kitchen floor. Wrong again. To convert bamboo to boards requires boiling the bamboo, drying it, boiling it again, pressure steaming to change the color, and then pressure laminating it into boards using carcinogenic chemicals such as urea-formaldehyde adhesive. Then the bamboo, most of which come from China, has to be shipped stateside, which requires oil to fuel the trip.

What’s the solution? For clothing, buy organic cotton, merino wool, recycled poly, or Tencel, a rayon that uses a closed loop system, which means no chemicals are released into the environment. As for flooring, go local. If you’re in a woodsy locale, use local hardwoods or softwoods that don’t have to travel and only need to be cut, dried, milled, and finished, not boiled and glued. Better yet, reclaim wood from disassembled buildings. Live in the Southwest? Go adobe. Wherever you reside, look for local solutions that use local materials and don’t need to be shipped from hundreds or thousands of miles away.

{ 11 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Scottie Ewing

    Bamboo clothes sound stupid and obviously is a total gimmick, just like the latest greatest berry juice marketed to do wonders for your health, like Acai or Noni juice. But bamboo flooring is great. It goes through a similar laminating process as any other hardwood floor and entire forests don’t need to be cut down in the USA (or elsewhere) to make the stuff. Bamboo grows FAST, REALLY FAST just as the author points out. Waaaaay faster than your local forest that takes decades to re-grow and looks like hell when it’s logged. Unbelievable that you are recommending to buy wood floors from US clear cutting loggers that rape the land and mess with ecosystems. Just because it’s local, doesn’t mean it’s green as you stated “As for flooring, go local…”

    Show me a pine tree that grows 4 feet per day like bamboo does and maybe I’ll get behind the idea of clear cutting to manufacture hardwood floors. We need wood for many things, but don’t blow smoke up our asses that logging right here in the good ‘ol USA or using “local” wood is better for the environment than bamboo. That’s extremely misleading and not entirely accurate.

  • Scott

    I generally enjoy getting the Adventure Journal emails. 
    I also realize caring for the environment is important. 
    Reading about environmental issues is not why I signed up. 
    It seems that a preponderance of stories lately have focused on
    the environment. Bamboo flooring in Adventure Journal?
    I would prefer a focus on Adventure sports and trips and
    allow me to get my environment info elsewhere. 
    Thanks for listening. 

    Scott

    Scott

  • Sally Rowe

    thanks for the article on bamboo. I missed a report on one the news programs and wanted to know more. I will not me mislead by the hype now and since I love wearing cotton , wool, and tensel, I will leave the bamboo on the rack.

  • Matt

    I have to agree. Stick to what you know… Adventure sports. At least do more research before trying to educate the readers.

  • eric

    sounds like quite a few poor sods on here bought the bamboo hype and can’t accept the fact that the FTC says that their yuppie bamboo yoga pants dont do diddly … lol

  • Walt

    You know, I have some 50% bamboo fiber socks, and I’ll be damned if they don’t make my feet stink a *lot* less. Plus, they’re super comfy. So FTC or no, I’m a believer. YMMV.

  • Ryan Cousineau

    Your example of a toxic chemical is sodium hydroxide? It’s not something you’d want to get in your eyes, but safe disposal of NaOH is trivial. Mix (carefully and correctly!) with hydrochloric acid, and the result is…salt water.

  • John-Paull Davidson

    Having done a lot of research on bamboo I know that there are many bamboo materials that are in point of fact green. We use it at my company, http://www.boothster.com to build trade show booths and various green displays. Having worked in design and display for 15 years bamboo is a welcome material. its way better than plastics, cotton and other weird wood composites. There are some bamboo plywoods that are FSC certified that can be purchased for a little more – just like one can purchase organic cotton at a higher price.

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  • Andi Benson

    Textiles and Flooring made with bamboo are a very small scale enterprises. The companies that use ‘Green’ as a marketing strategy should be more responsible in their compliance with standards, I agree and they too are in the business of misleading the public. Bamboo has an enormous capacity for carbon capture and in the field of construction , which for some reason you failed to mention, can provide alternative materials to wood that comes from forests.

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