Monday, April 19, 2010

choose certified organic bamboo

Why feel bad about bamboo?

Finally, the FTC says it’s going to start regulating green marketing claims. The agency is publishing a series of Green Guides on the topic. But why the across-the-boad crackdown on fabric labeled bamboo? FTC says it carries the false implication that the product is green, when in reality the processing is highly polluting. The resulting rayon fabric, FTC says, contains no trace of bamboo, so the label is doubly misleading.

True, green labels continue to proliferate to a dizzying degree as companies large and small in every sector jump on the natural products bandwagon. Greenwashing companies charge green premium prices without having to pay for third-party-certified ingredients or production methods. To date there’s been little oversight of these claims beyond USDA certified organic food, fiber and plant-based cosmetics, the EPA’s Energy Star, Water Sense and Design for the Environment (DfE) labels, and stringent private non-profit certifications such as Forest Stewardship Council and Rainforest Alliance.

As almost everyone knows by now, “natural,” “nontoxic,” “eco friendly” and so on are meaningless, per Consumer Union’s Greener Choices excellent But at the consumer level there’s been a long-term love affair with bamboo anything, from flooring to furniture to apparel. It’s gotten to the point where the word “bamboo” itself on a clothing label implies green provenance. The rationale was admittedly vague for bamboo, as for hemp. “Bamboo is a grass that doesn’t require pesticides, fertilizers or lots of water,” many company websites say. But they don't verify that their bamboo is actually grown sustainably, much less processed without a toxic footprint. This has bothered me for years.

Now that it’s officially bothering the FTC, I’m reconsidering, especially since the message of their “Don’t be Bamboozled” campaign is so blatantly self-congratulatory. Yes, the processing's toxic and what you end up with is plain old rayon that could have come from any cellulose source. But if you're going to make rayon anyway, isn't it better to encourage bamboo cultivation and harvesting, rather than cutting forests? When it comes to forest products, such as flooring, furniture and paper, “There is FSC-certified bamboo that has been certified by the Rainforest Alliance’s SmartWood program, although it’s a very tiny amount,” says Abby Ray of Rainforest Alliance.

“Keep in mind that bamboo is an especially fast-growing tree and water efficient, certainly in comparison to cotton,” says Ben Block of the Worldwatch Institute.


Some bamboo is certified organically grown, and the clothing is made in the U.S. with the approval seal of Green America, formerly Co-op America, which requires fair labor standards. This is certainly a step up from rayon made of cellulose taken from trees, causing deforestation. There are now some certified organic bamboo products from conscientious companies, which are also cleaning up the production process, using less toxic solvents. Bamboosa, for one, is remarkably transparent about its sourcing and processing.

While I welcome the FTC’s more vigilant stance it needs more clarification. At a time when consumers are trying to make greener, healthier choices by demanding transparency about the source of food and other products, from farm, forest or mine through processing and delivery, see Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles for instance, for FTC not to allow companies to say that a fiber made from bamboo is no longer bamboo is facetious.

I say, bamboo feels good and it should. Choose certified organic bamboo fabric and wear with pride and comfort.

For more information:

Bamboo helps save forests per Mangrove Action in Indonesia, reported by Worldwatch Here’s a document that explains the certification of bamboo:
Worldwatch Flushing Forests, bamboo fiber used for “washi” toilet paper in Japan

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