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.