Gallery: ASK INHABITAT: Is imported bamboo really sustainable?


Q: I’m a regular reader and make my living as a furniture designer/builder. I confess I’m in love with bamboo – I use it as often as I can and would love to spout to every client about it’s sustainability, renewability and ecologically friendly properties but there is one thing that bothers me about this product. It seems perfect in every way except for the fact that it was brought to me via a massive trans oceanic co2 belching container ship. Do I just suck it up and say “it’s a step in the right direction” or is there some other way to get around the co2 issue?

-Chris, Victoria, BC

A: The perfect scenario for any designer is to walk to work and have all the materials you need healthily and restoratively growing right next to your shop. But for the rest of us- we have to develop a value system for selecting the most appropriate materials and resources with which to work. You are off to a great start by asking the right questions, such as- is a material recycle-able, renewable, non-toxic, and/or enjoyable to use??

Bamboo is rapidly-renewable, restoring itself for use in just five years, and requires far less energy to harvest and produce than most ‘lumber’ products. Bamboo also has an incredible range of product- from flooring to cabinetry, drapery, and in your case, furniture. Its production and by-products yield healthy, salvageable materials that continue to be used in new ways.

All materials require transport, and shipping remains to be a relatively efficient means of transport, despite the wrong fuel. (Anyone out there working on hybrid-ships, btw??) But until the entire processes behind global shipping switch to more environmentally-friendly practices, you’ll have to take a different tack. The good news is, there are ways to offset the climate-changing Green House Gas (GHG) emissions of shipping. TransNeutral, a partner with DriveNeutral and TransGroup, is a non-profit program that calculates the GHGs produced from shipping and adds a voluntary ‘tax’ of 1/7 of a cent per pound for funding of Green House Gas Emission Reduction programs such as reforestation and renewable energy projects.

To learn more about GHG Emission Reduction programs, visit the Chicago Climate Exchange for a full listing of these programs. You may also suggest to your suppliers that they look into TransNeutral credits.

Best of Luck Chris! Let us know if you find local materials that you enjoy working with.. or invent the next wind and solar powered turbo tanker (with your spare cash.)


Piper Kujac is a LEED accredited designer in San Francisco with architectural experience ranging from project manager at C. David Robinson Architects to design consultant at Origo, Inc., developing the Best House Ever business model. Trained in Architecture at the environmentally-conscious University of Oregon, she admits to an obsession with materials and resources and thrives on finding new means and methods of sustainable design. She is co-chair of the NCC Emerging Green Builders committee of the USGBC and teaches a class in Sustainable Project Development at the UC Berkeley Extension. She enjoys knitting, running marathons, and the occasional design competition, winning first prize in the Green Dollhouse Competition. She also loves trekking through virgin rainforests in Oregon, Thailand, Malaysia, and Brazil, where she recently fell in love with Ipe trees.

Piper can be contacted at


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  1. Joe Scalia July 7, 2010 at 11:12 am

    As an eco-conscious general contractor, I generally tell people to stay about from bamboo products because, personally, I can’t say for sure whether or not it’s really eco-friendly. Using formaldehyde and benzene included glues and adhesives have really soured me on the idea of bamboo being a sustainable product. I know, and am willing to use it only if I can be sure it’s not ecologically damaging too. Anyways, I’m partial to recycled wood green flooring because it actually saves waste, offers more color options than bamboo, and looks really, really good.

  2. theamazing December 30, 2009 at 12:51 am

    I couldn’t read the entire thread so if being redundant; sorry! Southern Oregon has a bamboo farm growing it for commercial use. There is a private farm in Canby, Oregon that has some for sale. I personally want to have a 10 acre bamboo free range chicken farm since bamboo eats up nitrogen and chickens offer it freely. 60′ “construction” bamboo grows to about 45′ in Oregon. Ecuador has tons of bamboo so I would imagine Brazil does too. I think it’s the Amazon region. (please note the sarcasm) If we could convince production of bamboo fibers as an exportable commodity and push for the sustainable biodiversity during growth, we could keep the rainforest to a degree. To any aspiring billionaire out there, find a way to separate the bamboo fibers for a broad production application like paper, clothing and construction and you’ve saved the planet. I strongly suggest containing the bamboo farms.

  3. kieran ball September 18, 2009 at 11:00 am

    Hi Stacy,

    Just came across this thread. I am an Industrial Designer from Australia current doing an internship in a design studio in Mexico City. I am currently working on a range of sustainable furniture and looking for a local supplier of Bamboo board, I found a supplier in the USA, however am wondering if you know of anyone producing a similar product here in Mexico. Obviously I will have to give consideration to all the points made in this post however it is just one approach I am currentñy considering.


  4. stacy April 17, 2009 at 5:21 pm

    How about bamboo from southern Mexico, not China? There are some great new sources here of south american bamboos. I am living and working with bamboo and in my spare time researching a thesis on the prospects for the use of bamboo in construction both here in Mexico and in the US…I am very interested in comparing bamboo strandboard to traditional OSB….and lots of other issues. I have yet to read all the other posts,but look forward to it and I’m thrilled to find this type of discussion..I’ll be back.

  5. João Sousa June 16, 2007 at 10:31 pm

    Why not plating your own Bamboo? This plant grows in almost any earth conditions so it is possible to have a nice production of bamboo without a lot of work into it and without spending much time. Since a young bamboo grows till 20cms per day i can think that in an year you can have enough bamboo to create furniture or houses.

    But there are things about bamboo we need to know like how to cut it how to mantain it. Because when we cut the right bamboo it means that we are giving new life to the plant because the type of bamboo we want for construction is the older one so when you cut an old bamboo it will begin to grow 2 or 3 new bamboos instantly.

  6. Hun Boon May 4, 2007 at 1:53 am

    Hi Bob,

    Thanks for getting in touch with me, you should be receiving your free samples anytime soon now.

    I only just saw this comment, hence the late reply. We are amongst the few bamboo flooring manufacturers which are fully owned by a foreign company, in this case, a Singapore company. So we have total control over how we wish to run the business.

    The glue we use exceeds the E0 standard for formaldehyde release, and we use zero-formaldehyde glue upon request too. The working conditions for the workers are excellent. We provide them with free meals, spacious and well-ventilated environment, ear plugs for workers operating noisy machinery e.g. cutters, uniforms, and even lodging for those who stay far away (most of them come from Shaowu city and go back home after work). And on top of this, we even pay them salaries which are above market rate.

    Visitors to our factory are most welcome. :)

  7. Bob A. April 30, 2007 at 10:42 am

    Hello Hun Boon,

    I appreciate the information. I live in Singapore and my wife and I have been considering bamboo flooring because we have seen the environmentally friendly aspects, plus it is natural and beautiful. However, the posts above made me think about the working conditions of the workers and the land being cleared to grow the bamboo.

    What does your company in Singapore do to meet the environmental and social concerns as discussed above? What kind of glue do you use? Have you taken steps to ensure it is the most environmentally safe glue on the market? If not, why not? The same goes for the working conditions for your plant in China? Anyway, it seems you are concerned. I just like some specific examples, if possible? Thanks

  8. Hun Boon April 25, 2007 at 6:07 am

    Hi everyone, I’m working for a bamboo flooring company in Singapore (Star Bamboo), so hope to add an insider’s perspective to the discussion above.

    Some of you asked why can’t the bamboo in USA be used for products like bamboo flooring. The simple explanation is cost. It is much cheaper to manufacture in China, where most of these flooring come from. Even for us as a Singapore company, we also have our own factory in China. Unless the customer is willing to bear the cost of a made-in-USA product, this isn’t going to change.

    The glue used to stick the strips of bamboo together can be a concern. Be sure to check that a low formaldehyde glue (E1/E0 standard) is used.

    If you’re a distributor or corporate buyer, please visit the factory to ensure that the working conditions are healthy – no excessive noise, adequate light and ventilation, fair wages etc. Many China companies cut corners in order to sell their products at the cheapest possible prices. Indirectly, this is the result of fierce price competition and customer demands – so you can do your part by purchasing quality products at a slightly more premium price. :)

    How are the waste materials disposed of? In our factory, we either use it to fuel the burners or sell it to companies who then recycle the waste bamboo material into other products.

    Recycled or reclaimed materials are definitely greener than renewable materials like bamboo. But there is a limited amount of recycled materials available. So realistically speaking, I think bamboo is a more viable alternative.

    I don’t think I’ve managed to address all the issues above. Feel free to contact me for further discussion. :)

  9. David April 23, 2007 at 3:01 am

    Hello Chris

    Thank you for starting this topic, I myself grow bamboo but not in the sizes necessary for furniture production and like other furniture made in Asia am concerned about ‘furniture miles’. My business makes creates items solely from reclaimed materials, locally supplied and in abundance. The design process is somewhat challenging but makes for interesting items.

  10. Ligia March 24, 2007 at 12:22 pm

    Does the use of bamboo products promote the loss of habitat of pandas which are an endangered species? When you purchase bamboo products are they certified as having been obtained sustainably?

    WWF link:

  11. Erin March 21, 2007 at 10:34 am

    I actually find a lot of this talk about transportation fuel waste rather humorous. It actually takes more fuel to transport the same product 100 miles over land than it does 1000 miles via ocean via a big huge CO2 container ship.

  12. cally March 13, 2007 at 9:14 pm

    Someone else mentioned this too, that one of the bad aspects of bamboo is the glue they use to bind it together. Apperently it’s really bad, I guess because the strips are so tiny they use a lot more glue than standard slices of wood require and on the whole that glue tends to be of the nasty variety.

  13. tw February 23, 2007 at 1:08 pm

    we use bamboo flooring and really appreciate the cost and the look, resistance to water etc… as a prefinished floor product it excells. However one must have concerns of the manufacturing process and the workers environment.

  14. Jodi Smits Anderson February 20, 2007 at 9:28 am

    I like bamboo and I admire the process of working on more sustainable delivery methods. As with everything in life (and design) variety is the key. Monocultures are bad (ie – never good). So don’t look forward to a culture using solely bamboo for all wood uses – that would be bad. Look to a world where there are several good choices available at any time and weigh the choices for your particular need.

  15. Michael McKenzie February 19, 2007 at 9:53 pm

    Hi All,
    The short sweet answer is …EXPERIMENT with new materials. For inatance would a substrate with dimensional strenght for span and support superior to any wood, able to readily accept digital graphics, in formats prefinished or custom made, for any indoor or outdoor application, produced with and from totally recycled materials from one of this planets’ largest substrate producers hold some interest?
    This is a new product here on the “big is better Hoser Land of North America” but has a lengthy project history in Europe.
    Anyone interested in learning more please let me know.
    Cheers, Michael

  16. John Wells February 19, 2007 at 4:29 pm

    It is heartening to see the growth in education on issues of sustainability–the breadth of responses to this simple question show the complexity of this issue. As designers of the built environment, we are called now to understand the impacts of our decisions. All decisions have environmental impacts for better or worse and figuring out which choices have the greatest net positive impacts is the key to increasing the rate by which we transform our society to one that is life-sustaining rather than life-depleting.

    From the perspective of lifecycle assessment (LCA), the key issues relating to the environmental impact of a consumer product (including bamboo furniture) are as follows: 1) energy use over the life of the product (for electronic products only), 2) the embodied energy of the materials, and 3) transportation impacts. There are many other issues to be considered (including toxicity, packaging, etc.), however, generally speaking these three are by far the issues of greatest importance and are heavily weighted in an LCA primarily because these are the issues of greatest significance for the problem of global warming.

    Because of it’s rapid growth, bamboo has very low embodied energy and is therefore a better choice than wood (and far better than steel, glass and aluminum), however wood typically requires less processing and the trade-off in energy consumption would require further study. Transporting materials at a great distance is less desirable than using local products (all other issues being equal), and the environmental impact depends upon the method of transport. Shipping by boat and train are already among the least harmful, though a hybrid or wind driven vessel would improve this factor.

    Issues such as were brought up above regarding clear-cutting existing bio-diverse forests to farm bamboo (or other trees for that matter) are critical to the impact assessment of a given material. These issues go beyond the scope of guesswork into the realm of complex scientific analysis that would likely cost thousands of dollars to accurately assess. To guess about such issues is of little true benefit. Buying FSC certified materials will help support manufacturers who are adhering to strict guidelines of forestry practice

    Consider a different approach. Why not find a local material source (preferably a waste product) and use your creativity and design talent to make the most seductively beautiful and useful thing you can from that material. Pick something that you know will have small environmental impact because it is local and widely available in a waste stream. Make something useful with a broad appeal so that lots of people end up buying your product instead of less sustainable alternatives.

    For example, my furniture company in Seattle ( takes a bioregional approach to materials sourcing and manufacturing. We salvage local urban trees, mill them into usable stock and make modern furniture for architects and designers whose projects are largely within our own bioregion. Our products help support LEED credits. This is a unique niche that with a relatively modest investment could be replicated all over North America. Nearly 4 billion usable board feet of material are removed from urban areas each year and most are disposed of as firewood, woodchips or landfill. These urban trees are magnificent, and the material is unmatched in character by anything you can get from a large mill or a bamboo forest.

  17. AliRay February 19, 2007 at 12:48 pm

    Bamboo has many pros and cons, but one of the worst aspects of the ever-growing-in-popularity product are the horrible working conditions under which many of the products are fabricated. Engineered bamboo flooring requires copious amounts of energy, adhesives, solvents and toxic finishes. Like many other markets, some bamboo flooring producers expose their workers to these harsh chemicals unprotected, demand long work hours, and pay very little. When considering “green” products, do not forget the social cost as well.

  18. The Revolution Corporation February 19, 2007 at 9:07 am

    Glad you brought this up. I also love bamboo, but had to wain myself off of it, for the same concern that in the end it is really not sustainable practice to ship sustainable materials across the world. Personally, I don’t consider a made object “sustainable” or “green” unless it purposefully resources sustainable materials (hopefully with some post-consumer content) from the region in which it is fabricated.
    I’ve never understood why bamboo farming does not exist in the US.

  19. cheryl February 19, 2007 at 3:42 am

    Designing more ecological shipping transportation is a worthwhile goal in and of itself I suppose, but why not grow it here as a crop. My husband & I recently bought mostly wooded property in Michigan and a previous
    owner planted a grove of bamboo. We were shocked to see it and even more shocked to learn that it survives the harsh winters. If it grows here, I imagine it will grow just about anywhere.
    It is beautiful and makes the most wonderful sound in the wind.
    It unfortunately is an invasive species here, and it does spread faster than you can imagine. But containing it and growing it as a harvestable crop makes alot of sense to me & I’m sure that it is just a matter of time before farmers in the US figure this out.

  20. Karl February 18, 2007 at 5:21 pm

    I think using bamboo is a great alternative. But, like everything else, there are pros and cons. Just as a side note, living in the Pacific Northwest, he has access to a wonderful hardwood: Pacific Madrona. Because it grows so large/tall, its a beautiful alternative to using the relatively small cheery tree. Like a lot of people, I grew up loving the look of cheery wood. But, when it came time to do a remodel, I couldn’t bring myself to use it. I consulted with a local sustainable wood practices supplier and discovered madrona. Its not the solution that bamboo is, but it definitely is a local (Pacific NW) alternative in relative abundance. I don’t think it would make sense to use in large amounts in other parts of the country. But, then again, sustainability is, in part, about using local alternatives.

  21. Mike February 18, 2007 at 4:15 pm

    Check out this link..talks about US Bamboo possibilities..


  22. jean harrington February 18, 2007 at 1:14 pm

    You didn’t say it had to be ‘tropical’ bamboo.
    I grow (and kill) a lot of bamboo in zone 6.
    The U.S. has native species that are not tropical,
    but temperate.Just type ‘hardy bamboo’ into a search engine.

  23. Brad February 18, 2007 at 10:47 am

    …and of course, in most cases, the most ecological floor is the one you already have. There’s not much that can be considered an ecologically sound product once the demand gets too high.

  24. johnlinck February 18, 2007 at 12:24 am

    I wonder about the cost to our earth of the adhesives used in making bamboo into wood. Must be an awful lot. Locally grown hardwood flooring has to be a better alternative. Here in the American Midwest hardwood flooring seldom travels more than 200 miles from its forest origins and its production usually happens in small family owned mills. Even the dry kilns that dry the wood are fueled by wood waste. American hardwood forests are in good health and are larger in extent than 100 years ago. The annual growth in wood is about 3 times larger than the annual harvest. American softwood forests are not nearly so healthy. So, buy locally, and plant a few tress every year.

    john the toymaker


    Compiled from various sources by:

    Glenn Roloff
    USDA Forest Service – Northern Region
    Missoula, Montana

    1. Alleviating the “Greenhouse Effect,” trees act as carbon “sinks.”
    • 1 acre of new forest will sequester about 2.5 tons of carbon annually. Trees can absorb CO2 at the rate of 13 pounds/tree/year. Trees reach their most productive stage of carbon storage at about 10 years.

    • In its “Reforesting the Earth” paper, the Worldwatch Institute estimated that our planet needs at least 321 million acres planted to trees just to restore and maintain the productivity of soil and water resources, meet industrial and fuel-wood needs in the third world, and annually remove from the atmosphere roughly 780 million tons of carbon as the trees grow. This 780 million tons represents the removal of about 25 percent of the 2.9 billion tons of carbon currently going into the earth’s atmosphere.

    • Planting 100 million trees could reduce the amount of carbon by an estimated 18 million tons per year and at the same time, save American consumers $4 billion each year on utility bills.

    • For every ton of new wood that grows, about 1.5 tons of CO2 are removed from the air and 1.07 tons of life-giving oxygen are produced. During a 50-year life span, one tree will generate $30,000 in oxygen, recycle $35,000 worth of water, and clean up $60,000 worth of air pollution or $125,000 total per tree without including any other values!

    Prevents or reduces soil erosion and water pollution.
    Helps recharge ground water and sustains streamflow.
    Properly placed screens of trees and shrubs significantly decrease noise pollution along busy thoroughfares and intersections.
    Screen unsightly views.
    Soften harsh outlines of buildings.
    Provide fuelwood for stoves and fireplaces by establishing energy plantations of hybrid poplars and other fast-growing species and managed on a sustained yield basis for a continuous supply of fuelwood.
    Properly managed forests provide lumber, plywood and other wood products on a sustained yield basis.
    Depending on location, species, size, and condition, shade from trees can reduce utility bills for air conditioning in residential and commercial buildings by 15-50 percent. Trees, through their shade and transpiration, provide natural “low-tech” cooling that means less need to build additional dams, power plants, and nuclear generators.

    Windbreaks around homes can be shields against wind and snow and heating costs can be reduced by as much as 30 percent.
    Shade from trees cools hot streets and parking lots. Cities are “heat islands” that are 5-9 degrees hotter than surrounding areas. And cities spread each year.
    Trees and shrubs properly placed and cared for on a residential or commercial lot can significantly increase property values.
    Numerous research studies conducted in the Great Plains States have found that properly placed and cared-for field windbreaks will significantly increase crop yields compared to fields with no windbreaks, even after taking into account the space occupied by the trees. Windbreaks create a more favorable micro-climate for cropland by reducing wind and heat stress on the crop, while at the same time preventing topsoil loss and reducing soil moisture losses. During the winter, more moisture is available for use later in the year since windbreaks trap and accumulate snow that, without windbreaks, would have blown over and past the cropland and end up on roads and other breaks in topography.

    Farmstead windbreaks have many values including reduction of utility bills for cooling and heating, snow entrapment, wind reduction, aesthetics, and wildlife habitat.
    Trees also provide nutmeats (walnuts, pecans, hickory), fruit (plum, peaches, apples, pears), berries for jams and jellies (chokecherry and buffaloberry) and maple syrup.
    Tree shelters for livestock effectively reduce weight losses during cold winter months and provide shade for moderating summer heat.
    Living snowfences, strategically placed, hold snow away from roads, thus effectively reducing road maintenance costs and keeping roads open.
    Trees add beauty and grace to any community setting. They make life more enjoyable, peaceful, relaxing, and offer a rich inheritance for future generations.
    Tropical forests, in addition to their value for winter range for migratory birds, wood products, etc., are extremely value for healing purposes. One of every four pharmaceutical products used in the U.S. comes from a plant found in a tropical forest. However, the majority of tropical plants have not yet even been scientifically screened to discover what healing powers they may offer.

    Likewise, substances found in native trees in the U.S. are used both for pharmaceutical and other medical purposes. The most recent example is the Pacific yew tree found in the coastal regions of southeastern Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and northern California and inland areas of northern Idaho and western Montana. Experiments conducted at the National Cancer Institute for the past 10 years have shown that taxol, a drug extracted from the bark of the Pacific yew, is effective in treating cancer. One of the Institute’s chemists stated recently, “We have found taxol to be the most effective product in curing ovarian cancer. So far, 30 percent of our patients have had a total remission or cure.” The USDA Forest Service is now cooperating with the Institute by inventorying areas in the States mentioned earlier. Cuttings from those areas were taken last fall, shipped to several Forest Service nurseries, and are now starting to grow in their greenhouses. The National Cancer Institute is conducting tests on this plant material to determine which individual yew trees will produce the highest volume of taxol. After selections are made, plantations of these high- yielding trees will be grown for future use in fighting cancer.

    Trees give people a multitude of recreational opportunities and provide habitat for wildlife.
    Trees along rivers, streams, and lakes reduce water temperatures by their shade, prevent or reduce bank erosion and silt, and provide hiding places for improving fisheries habitat.
    They provide brilliant colors to landscapes in the fall. After the leaves drop to the ground and are raked, they provide excellent mulch for flowerbeds and gardens as well as exercise for people.
    Research indicates that trees help reduce stress in the workplace and speed recovery of hospital patients.
    Police officers believe that trees and landscaping can instill community pride and help cool tempers that sometimes erupt during “long, hot summers.”
    Trees help us experience connections with our natural heritage and with our most deeply held spiritual and cultural values.
    Trees are valuable as commemoratives of deceased loved ones and for passing on something of value to future generations.
    A tribe of South American Indians believes that the trees of the forest hold up the sky. According to the legend, the fall of trees will precipitate the downfall of the Earth.
    Finally, many people enjoy planting and caring for trees simply because they like to see them grow.

  25. RK February 17, 2007 at 12:17 pm

    The reason that hybrid cars work so well is that they can recapture the energy that is normally lost in braking and use it to re-accelerate. Transport ships spend days at a constant load on the engine. A hybrid would be a waste of batteries that could be used to make hundreds of priuses (priuii?). The use of more fuel efficient turbine power plants would be a much better solution, but they are noisy, and expensive to purchase. Some turbines are twice as fuel efficient as piston engines.

    Also, aren’t there bamboo farms in the us? I think I heard it grew well in the south and Hawaii

  26. JS February 17, 2007 at 11:03 am

    Just to add…recently many bamboo manufacturers have started clearcutting forests in China and elsewhere to create bamboo plantations.

    As with everything, do your research and take a comprehensive cradle to cradle lifecycle approach. Consider whether the bamboo grower uses pesticides, has clearcut existing bio-diverse forests or displaced local communities, etc…

    Many bamboo product makers investigate these aspects and will certify their products are free of these things.

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