The Great Bamboo Lie

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Bamboo_Forest_smlFour companies that use bamboo for clothing and other household fabrics were charged by the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for deceptive advertising techniques: claiming that the fabrics are made from “bamboo fiber”, are manufactured using an environmentally friendly process, are naturally antimicrobial, and will biodegrade. In point of fact, says the FTC, “bamboo fiber” is really rayon, the same fiber invented in the 1850s. Rayon is traditionally made from wood pulp, but it can be made from any pulpy substance, including bamboo, and the FTC had issues with these companies selling rayon under a misleading label that made it seem more eco-friendly than wood-based rayon. Furthermore, they add, both wood-based and bamboo-based rayon are manufactured using air-polluting caustic soda, or lye, which is not environmentally friendly and destroys any antimicrobial characteristics that may have existed in raw bamboo pulp. Regarding claims of biodegradation, the FTC says that bamboo will not biodegrade if tossed into a landfill, where most of our trash ends up.

The FTC is not the first to criticize bamboo-clothing manufacturers for advertising the fiber as eco-friendly when the process of converting the pulp into fiber employs such caustic chemicals. In a recent article for the Council of Fashion Designers of America, a representative from the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is currently working with textile mills to lessen their environmental impacts, recommended that any designer looking for more eco-friendly fabrics should avoid bamboo. And the GREEN (LIVING) REVIEW has, more than once, criticized the claims made about bamboo, and especially bamboo-clothing and I believe that the GREEN (LIVING) REVIEW was, in fact, one of the first to take an issue with the promotion of bamboo and especially bamboo-based textiles as greenwash.

Bamboo is always claimed to have an environmental upside in that grows quickly, replenishing itself in as little as 5 years after it has been harvested always compared with 15 to 20 years for trees, though no one seems to look at proper coppice rotation in this matter. It is said to require few pesticides and very little water. I have yet to see wood grown in most environments to require pesticide and for water, well Nature takes care of that with trees.

Bamboo clothing is not – really – natural and neither is it biodegradable or compostable. It is a viscose material and the same as Rayon with the only difference being that one is made from wood pulp the other is made from bamboo pulp. Same difference.

Someone from the green movement stated in response to the US FTC ruling with regards to bamboo clothing that no clothing, not even from natural fiber biodegrades. I would like to dispute that fact and suggest to that person to try to see what happens to a cotton T-shirt or a wool blanket after a year or two in the compost heap. They will have disintegrated. How do I know? I've done it!

Bamboo fiber bowls, cutlery, etc., are still being promoted in the UK, even and especially on green (trade) events as the be all in green but it is a lie plain and simple.

While traditional bamboo products, including furniture, made in countries where this grass grows are fine and good it is not good and sustainable to import them thousands of miles to Europe and the USA and then call them eco-friendly products. Such imports are, in the same way as bamboo clothing, flatware, etc., are not green nor sustainable.

It we want to be eco-conscious and sustainable then furniture should be from homegrown wood (or better still from reclaimed wood) and the same goes for flooring and treen ware. And as far as clothing is concerned this should be from real fiber or if man-made then it should be marked and marketed as such. Bamboo for clothing is Rayon, which is a viscose material and thus, regardless of the fact that it is either wood or bamboo pulp, man-made. Period!

When it comes to bamboo flooring we encounter the bamboo lie and that on a real heavy level. Bamboo flooring is but a laminate flooring type, like wood laminate flooring, and is not green and environmentally friendly at all regardless of the growth rate of bamboo. You cannot cut bamboo into planks or slabs as bamboo is hollow in the round and a lot of heat and other energy, plus powerful glues, are required to make this kind of flooring. It is also not as hard and hard wearing as normal hardwood flooring. It is greenwash in the extreme and it is time that the truth be told and broadcast far and wide.

If you want green flooring – aside from a “dirt” floor – then choose hardwood and ideally here reclaimed hardwood flooring. Now that is green and sustainable.

If you want sustainable clothing then go for real fiber or recycled fiber materials and, ideally, go pre-used from thrift stores. I have not bought new clothing, bar underwear and socks (I would never go as far as buying them pre-owned), for I do not know how long. And, when the clothes really come to the end of their lives then reuse them for cleaning rags and such like before condemning the material, finally, to the waste stream or, if made of truly natural materials, to the compost heap to return to the soil.

The greatest problem that we are facing as consumers who want to be environmentally conscious and do good to the Planet is the amount of greenwash that is about and whose misleading claims are not just misleading but outright lies, such as in the case of bamboo textiles and bamboo flooring, for example. We must, thus, arm ourselves with the knowledge and combat greenwash wherever we encounter it.

© 2014