You’re aware by now that bamboo is an incredibly sustainable crop. It grows quickly without fertilizers, regenerates itself, and absorbs an amazing amount of carbon from the atmosphere. But have you ever considered where bamboo comes from and who manages bamboo harvest and production?
The $53 billion bamboo industry is supported by many small, rural farms. Ethical brands look for sustainable farms to work with that put the environment and welfare of workers above their profits.
It’s important to buy from brands that work with these farmers, because of the opportunities they create for rural communities.
Where Is Bamboo Grown?
Bamboo is native to tropical and sub-tropical climates with high heat and humidity. Most commercial bamboo is grown in Southeast Asia with 80% of the world’s bamboo production coming from China. Bamboo production is worldwide with products being produced on all continents except Antarctica.
The US is the largest importer of bamboo because large-scale bamboo farms are not likely to be found in the US where the climate is not ideal. There are some small-scale bamboo farms in the southwest United States that produce bamboo to use as building materials and fuel. This means the US relies heavily on bamboo farms overseas.
Is Bamboo Farming Good for the Environment?
Bamboo farms need to be carefully managed and harvested to be sustainable. The most sustainable harvest practices use hand tools to select the highest quality bamboo plants. This allows the younger poles to harden into better poles for production. As the healthiest poles are harvested, the bamboo plant will regenerate and new bamboo shoots will take their place.
Unlike other crops, bamboo grows very quickly without the use of pesticides or fertilizers and releases 35% more oxygen than trees. Products made from pure bamboo are compostable and help reduce the 300 million tonnes of plastic waste produced each year.
Because it can grow in poor soil conditions, it’s ideal for planting on abandoned farms, landfills, and hillsides where other crops won’t grow. Even better, bamboo turns these areas into a literal carbon sink. A single tropical bamboo plant will absorb two tons of carbon dioxide in seven years. A hardwood tree takes 40 years to absorb just one ton.
There have been concerns that the increased popularity of bamboo will have farmers looking for less sustainable ways to increase their harvest like using pesticides. Some also may be tempted by the quick profits to clearcut forests and grow more bamboo. Fortunately, there are organizations committed to the development of a sustainable bamboo industry like the International Bamboo and Rattan Organization (INBAR). INBAR is an intergovernmental organization that promotes sustainable practices for the bamboo industry. They focus on ending poverty, efficient use of natural resources, and addressing climate change.
Bamboo Transportation and Imports
A common concern about bamboo production is the impact on the environment when it’s imported.
While there are some small bamboo farms located in North America and Europe, bamboo can’t be sustainably grown there on a large scale. This means almost most of our bamboo has to be imported which requires more fuel.
According to the Department of Energy, however, fuel use for bringing bamboo from Asia to the west coast of the United States is equal to shipping timber coast to coast in the US. So, importing bamboo doesn’t appear to have a greater impact on the environment.
There are situations when bamboo isn’t the most sustainable material due to the long distance it needs to travel. It’s always best to research local options first. Having your items travel shorter distances may be the best environmental option.
Impact of Bamboo Farms on Pandas
Roly-poly pandas might be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of bamboo. A concern you might have about bamboo production is, “What will the pandas eat if we start using all the bamboo?”
Rest easy, friend. The species of bamboo used in construction is different than what pandas eat for dinner. The majority of bamboo harvested is grown on controlled farms so producers are not taking wild harvests. Even if products use the bamboo that pandas rely on for food, bamboo grows so quickly that there is plenty available for them to eat.
While we aren’t taking their food supply we still need to be aware of where materials are coming from. Road building, farming expansion, and deforestation are the top three threats to panda habitat. If we aren’t conscious consumers, panda homes (along with many other species) can be affected by bamboo farming and other industries.
How Does Bamboo Support Rural Farms?
Bamboo has become a reliable source of income for many rural communities that may otherwise struggle with poverty. According to the UN, 80% of the world’s poorest live in rural areas of developing countries. This is largely due to a lack of infrastructure so many people from rural communities are forced to migrate to cities to find steady employment. Bringing bamboo farming to small villages empowers farmers and helps end poverty for some communities.
Bamboo Farms Create Employment Opportunities
Bamboo farms create job opportunities in rural areas affected by unemployment. Agriculture is the main source of income in rural villages. Bamboo is an easy and profitable crop to grow for many families who have limited farmland.
Because bamboo farming only uses traditional hand tools for planting and harvesting, there is no need for farmers to invest in large equipment like they would for logging. Bamboo can be harvested every 3-4 years so this creates a very consistent income for farmers in otherwise struggling regions.
The bamboo harvested can be used for raw materials, animal feed, and even fuel. Products and raw materials can be sold at local markets which gives farmers a variety of options to increase their income. In Vietnam, bamboo shoots are a primary source of income because they are used as a food source during the pre-harvest season of other crops. Currently, 60% of the value of bamboo production goes right back into the pocket of the farmers who grew it.
As the demand for bamboo continues to grow, so do the opportunities for these rural farmers.
Bamboo Grows on Degraded Land and Prevents Soil Erosion
Bamboo can be planted on land not suitable for other crops. Even areas devastated by fire or flood can be ideal for growing bamboo. This is a huge advantage for rural farmers whose land might not be level or fertile. Bamboo has an incredibly strong root system so once it’s established, it can produce high-quality crops year after year.
The strong root system also helps with soil erosion. This is helpful to farmers who also have other crops as bamboo helps prevent the land from being washed away during heavy rainfall. Bamboo also holds the topsoil in place and, as bamboo leaves fall and decompose, they create even more nutrient-dense topsoil.
Bamboo Farms Improve Local Environments
With bamboo being so easy to grow on otherwise desolate lands, farmers are under less economic pressure to exploit tropical forests or use unsustainable farming practices.
Sustainable bamboo farmers are proud of the positive impact they’re having on the planet. In an interview with the World Wildlife Fund, farm owner Mr. Zhang Jianrong says:
“For me, bamboo is a green fortune that is not only about economic profits but also about environmental improvement. To plant [bamboo plants] is just like [depositing] into the bank. I feel really proud that my [bamboo plants] are also of great value [in helping to] absorb the carbons and can contribute to global climate change [mitigation], which is a topic that was once far away to a rural farmer like me.”
Which Brands Use Sustainable Bamboo Farms?
Many brands choose to use sustainable bamboo farms for their products and this translates to the quality of their products. Below are just a few that we love:
Cariloha is an excellent example of sustainable bamboo farming. Their selection of bed, bath, and apparel items are made from organically grown bamboo. They use zero pesticides on their 10-square-mile bamboo farm in the Sichuan province of China. After being turned into fiber in nearby Hebei province, they work with partners all over the world to create soft and sustainable goods.
They also have an amazing recycling program where they take old mattresses and recycle or repurpose the parts. Check out some of their safety and standard certifications including Fair Trade certification, to ensure fair wages and safe working conditions, and CertiPUR-US, to keep harmful chemicals out of your home and out of the environment.
Their commitment to the environment and their employees extends from the initial harvest all the way through their supply chain. They are 100% carbon-neutral through their land reforestation, wind power, and solar power initiatives.
Jungle Culture is dedicated to supporting small, rural farmers through the production of their signature bamboo straws, bamboo cutlery, and coconut bowls. The owners personally source their products and have created a sustainable supply chain of farms, workshops, and factories. You know you’re supporting ethical business practices each time you shop.
Their story started with producing bamboo straws to help cut the 500 million plastic straws that are thrown away every year just in the US. Now they’ve developed an entire business that guarantees fair treatment of workers, high-quality production standards, and 100% organic manufacturing.
What I love most about Jungle Culture is the transparency of where their goods are made. You can even find the names of the makers on their website – Ha Van Thom of Vietnam produces their bamboo straws on his family farm. He is now able to hire local villagers, family, and friends in his business. A local bamboo craftsman, Há, is the man behind their bamboo cutlery. He has hired a team of over five people to carve cutlery and build bamboo houses. Without bamboo, these jobs may not be possible.
Bambu is well known for its line of reusable and disposable bamboo products which come from the mountainous region in Eastern China. The founders have spent more than 15 years living and working in China alongside their team in Shanghai and the Fujian Province. The team of 30 are all local to the region and are paid a fair living wage and work under fair labor practices.
The bamboo they use is harvested by individual farmers who lease their land from the government. The farmers don’t use any chemicals while growing the bamboo which has allowed them to have their entire line of cooking utensils certified by the National Organic Program (NOP). Their line of disposable items is also made from organic materials and is certified by the USDA.
Bambu is also 100% carbon-neutral. They offset their carbon emissions by investing in projects that support reforestation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy through a partnership with Carbonfund.org.
How You Can Support Sustainable Bamboo Farms
There are many other brands we love that use sustainable business practices. To find ethical and sustainable brands, check their website to see where their products are produced. Read product descriptions to see what, if any, chemicals are being added to their products. It’s important to be a conscious consumer and make selective decisions about who you’re buying from.
Sustainable bamboo farms are just one way to support rural communities. If you’re looking for more ways to help, here are a few ideas:
- Support sustainable and ethical organizations when you shop. Look for third-party certifications that prove sustainable and ethical business practices. Shopping for sustainable materials like bamboo goods is a great place to start. Check out our blog post on How to Introduce Bamboo Products into Your Lifestyle.
- Lobby your local and national governments for laws that support ethical and sustainable business practices. Find your representative’s contact information and call or email them directly to let them know you care about specific issues.
- Donate to organizations that support rural communities. This could include farm and food workers, women in impoverished communities, and children in need of education.
More importantly, stay informed. Don’t support businesses that exploit their workers or use methods that harm our environment. Choose brands that support rural communities and put the environment above their profits to show businesses and governments what’s really important to consumers.