I was wandering through a downtown department store the other day looking for a pair of socks. I prefer socks in natural fibers, so I usually check the fiber content — and I was intrigued when I came across a pair made from 100% bamboo.

Bamboo is beginning to get a foothold in the construction industry. It was widely featured as a material in the Green House exhibit at the National Building Museum here in Washington DC, where it had a wide variety of applications, from floor planking to carpeting to furniture. It’s been praised by advocates of green technologies as more sustainable than wood because of its short growth cycle.

I don’t doubt that some of the claims made by folks using bamboo in their manufacturing are quite true. It does have a faster growth cycle than timber. It may very possibly “generate more oxygen than an equivalent stand of trees”, as is claimed at SFGate. That’s an odd claim, though. Do we need more oxygen? We certainly need less CO2, but if that’s what it does, why not say so? (And what’s an “equivalent” stand of trees, anyway?)

Maybe it’s just incompetence on my part, but among all of these claims, I can’t find a whole lot of links to actual studies which provide evidence for the claims. Now a good number of the claims come from advertisers (including a decent number of the claims made by the Green House exhibit, which very prominently lists the commercial suppliers for the products used to produce the house). Some of the claims from advertisers verge on the absurd.

For instance, from Bambu, which makes bamboo kitchenware:

“Bamboo shoots provide a nutritional source of food which can be made into bread, cakes scones and cookies.”

Well. Hell. If there’s gonna be cakes, scones and cookies!! Must be good. They don’t say how much of the bamboo grown for their product line makes it into the secondary baked goods market, but I’m sure most of it does.

There are a ton of companies now offering bamboo clothing. One of the claims specific to clothing is the “antibacterial” properties of bamboo:

Its test results shows over 70% death rate after bacteria was incubated on bamboo fibre fabric. In addition, tests by the Japanese Textile Inspection Association found that, even after fifty times of washing, bamboo fabric still possessed these functions.

Science! At last! I figured that maybe I could find this Japanese Textile Inspection Association online. Oddly, they don’t get many hits on google — a scant 25, many of which appear to be repeating claims from the Bambrotex manufacturing plant in China.

Now, I’ll buy that there could possibly be translation problems going on here — if the “Japanese Textile Inspection Association” is a translation from Japanese to Chinese to English, it’s entirely possible that the science is available online, and I just can’t find it, because that’s not the name of the research institute. And it’s also entirely possible that it’s not available in English. (This doesn’t count.)

Something of a bigger problem for me is that a lot of the bamboo milled and woven into fabric appears to be coming out of China. I’m very skeptical about environmental claims coming from advertisers anywhere, but China isn’t exactly an international star of environmental regulation.

I also have to wonder — if I were to buy those renewable, sustainable, bamboo socks, how much money went to the worker who made the fiber? What sort of factory does she work in? What sort of labor protections does she have?


2 Responses to “Bamboo”

  1. frog Says:

    I don’t know the answers to your questions, but I have bamboo socks and they are oddly slippery.

  2. Anna Phor Says:

    I was actually going to buy a pair — just to see what the fabric felt like. But I was scared they would be too sweaty.

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