If you’re interested in eco-friendly shopping, then chances are you’ve seen plenty of products made with bamboo. Bamboo has become regarded as something of a wonder material over the years, as much for the benefits it offers consumers as for the benefits it offers the environment.
We sell several products made with bamboo at Quality Logo Products, from cooking utensils to flash drives. If you look around the site, however, you’ll notice that there really aren’t any bamboo textile products – no bamboo tote bags or t-shirts, nothing like items you might find at retail stores.
Why is that?
It turns out that the standards for labeling and selling bamboo fabric are higher than you might think. And that has a lot to do with some companies that were trying to get around those standards in a less-than-okay way.
What Makes Bamboo So Great?
It isn’t just a case of something becoming trendy, the way beards and owls did when hipsters began defining our aesthetic preferences. Bamboo has a number of properties that make it a legitimately great resource for our environment:
- Unlike hardwood trees like oaks, a bamboo plant can grow back after it’s been harvested.
- It can grow quickly, up to a yard a day.
- Its roots can absorb, or leach, metals from soil, making the land it’s growing in healthier for animals and other plants.
- It doesn’t need a lot of nutrients to grow, so it doesn’t require the heavy use of chemical fertilizers that’s seen with other crops.
- Once bamboo plants are older and well-established, their roots can hold soil in place and prevent it from washing away in storms, which keeps healthy topsoil that’s good for growing crops in place where farmers need it.
- Bamboo appears to be even more efficient than other trees at removing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
If those weren’t enough reasons to love bamboo, then there are the direct benefits to consumers to consider. For one, bamboo is durable as heck. It has what’s called a high tensile strength, which is the amount of strain from outside forces a material can stand before breaking. That’s why it’s often used in construction. Its leaves are also antibacterial and antimicrobial – in theory, great for sensitive skin.
Bamboo isn’t a perfect material. Left unchecked and undermanaged, it’ll grow anywhere it can, often taking over more soil than a grower might have bargained for. And as with any popular crop, it carries the risk that farmers will try to profit by growing nothing but bamboo, getting rid of forests and other plants in the process (even though having a wide range of living things around is a good idea).
Still, you can understand why so many people have gone wild for bamboo. All of that popularity, though, has led to some unsavory attempts to cash in on it.
What’s Wrong with Bamboo Fabric?
The idea of making a fabric out of bamboo isn’t a bad one at all. Other plants, from cotton to hemp, get their parts broken down and processed into fibers all the time.
It’s the procedure that’s commonly used to turn bamboo into fabric that’s the problem. The procedure we’re talking about is called the viscose process, and it’s used on other kinds of plant matter in addition to bamboo. It works by subjecting the plant matter to a bunch of chemicals that break it down and render it more flexible, because flexibility is pretty important in fabrics, we’d say. You know what’s left after the chemicals are washed away?
That’s right; the viscose process is used to make rayon, the same material that constitutes that one funky dress shirt from 1982 that your mom was trying to give away the last time she cleaned out her closet. It doesn’t matter that the source is now eco-friendly bamboo. The end product is still the same.
As you can imagine, once the Federal Trade Commission got wind of this, it wasn’t too crazy about manufacturers and retailers selling their rayon goods as “100% eco-friendly bamboo.” There were two reasons in particular the FTC took issue with this label:
- Using the viscose process to treat bamboo strips the bamboo fiber of those nice antibacterial properties. Science backs this up.
- The viscose process also uses toxic chemicals and releases air pollutants, which pretty much negates any of the environmental benefits that bamboo is supposed to have.
At the end of 2015, the FTC filed complaints and levied some massive financial penalties against four retailers – Backcountry.com, Nordstrom, JCPenney, and Bed Bath & Beyond – that it said were misrepresenting the benefits of products made from bamboo. It wasn’t the first time that a legal agency acted against irresponsible advertising. In 2010, Canada’s Compliance Bureau announced that it had compelled changes to ads for about 450,000 items that previously were marketed as bamboo.
The lesson was so clear that even the FTC got in on it with a pun: don’t bamboozle your customers.
Are There Any Responsibly Made Bamboo Promo Products?
Good news: actual, real, true-to-its-name bamboo fiber does exist!
Here’s the trick: your best bet is to look for what’s known as mechanically processed bamboo. It might be called “natural bamboo” or “bamboo linen” as well. That mechanically processed part is key, though; it means that the bamboo was processed in a way that involved crushing the bamboo and combing out the fibers to spin into yarn, without the use of industrial-strength solvents to break the bamboo down.
Processing bamboo fiber mechanically is more resource intensive (and therefore more costly) than doing it the chemical way, so natural bamboo fabric is less commonly available. Plus, Josette Bosse, Program Manager at Bay State Specialty Company (which provides QLP with a number of its bamboo products), passed along this thought from the company’s president, Mike Moore: “[Bamboo textiles is a] very competitive market and hard to break into it if you only have a couple of products. Really need a whole line of product.”
If you’re looking for a promo item with the benefits of bamboo, a better bet is to look for an item made with bamboo boards.
Bamboo boards are super strong, as we’ve mentioned, and they look like wood, too (even though bamboo is technically a grass). The best part, however, is that they can be produced in a way that’s incredibly kind to the environment, no crazy solvents needed. Once bamboo exists in board format, it can be cut down and resized to make all kind of promo products, including cutting boards and even phone holders.
As industrialists work on the ways they turn bamboo fibers into textiles, we’re sure to see more processes that result in real, sustainable bamboo fabric at prices that customers everywhere can appreciate. Until then, QLP is happy to keep offering other responsibly manufactured bamboo promotional products to demonstrate why bamboo is a good choice for you.