The U.K. newspaper, The Telegraph, ran an opinion piece earlier this week alleging that the entire bamboo textile industry is guilty of greenwashing its products and making false claims of eco-friendliness. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that greenwashing is a very real phenomenon that many companies from many industries engage in as a way of boosting their public image without making an effort at improving their actual practices. I’ll also be the first to criticize it, because it’s truly damaging to environmental progress. This recent Telegraph article presents itself as a correction of the misinformation of greenwashing, but it is deeply flawed, and it comes across as a groundless, across-the-board attack on the entire industry surrounding a remarkably underutilized natural resource.
I find it curious that the article doesn’t have a byline. It makes me suspicious that this is a press release from someone writing on behalf of another textile industry. If I had to bet, I’d say that wool is that industry, as it’s mentioned three times in the brief piece. Now, to be clear, I’m not making the source of that article the basis for a counter-argument. The fact that a given set of assertions come from people with a probable ulterior motive does not necessarily mean that the information is not credible or correct. It does however raise a red flag and call for the audience to consider the matter independently. I question the honesty and forthrightness of the author if he represents a competing industry, just as you might question my honesty on account of my writing as a proponent of bamboo. Judge the matter for yourself.
The focus of this nameless author’s argument seems to be the claim that bamboo textiles are not ecologically perfect. Of course they aren’t; that’s virtually undeniable. And Green Earth Bamboo isn’t engaged in greenwashing, so we make no claims to the contrary. All that we do claim is that bamboo is the greenest, most sustainable source of textiles on the market today. It is also my earnest belief that as the industry develops, it will become greener still.
The author’s first objection to bamboo is that he “can’t help wondering how truly ‘green’ a product is if it has to be transported across thousands of miles of ocean to get to my bathroom.” Well, first of all, it doesn’t have to be transported so far. That is exactly why I advocate for an expansion of bamboo cultivation to new growing regions, where it can be harvested for local markets. As it stands, bamboo is indigenous to East Asia, South Asia, Australia, sub-Saharan Africa, and part of the Americas, and that’s a rather large cross-section of the globe. If we are to compare it to wool, as seems to be the original author’s intention, it bears pointing out that Australia and New Zealand are the world’s largest producers and exporters of wool, from which countries it must be transported over the aforementioned thousands of miles of ocean. Obviously, cotton also is exported. The mere fact that something tends to have a carbon footprint does not mean that it cannot be greener than its alternatives.
However, the Telegraph author would evidently object to my advocacy for expansion of the growing area for bamboo, since he claims that it “relies on putting vast areas of land under monoculture production, causing soil depletion and damage to biodiversity.” That’s simply not true. Bamboo does not strictly demand monoculture production, and is in fact a perfect agroforestry crop – that is, it can be integrated into areas where other crops are produced simultaneously. Soil depletion in those and other areas is certainly a concern, but given the woodiness of bamboo and the amount of carbon dioxide that it extracts from the atmosphere, it is remarkable that it depletes so much less of the soil than do trees. And the facts of needing space to grow and consuming nutrients in the soil are by no means problems limited to bamboo production. If the anonymous author favors wool as an alternative, he would do well to note that livestock currently accounts for use of thirty percent of the land on Earth, with agricultural growth being devoted to feed, and forests being cleared for new pasture land. I see this difference as one of the major advantages of bamboo – increased cultivation of it can help to counteract global warming, while a continued emphasis on animal products and less efficient textile plants will likely produce more greenhouse gases than they can sequester.
Mr. Anonymous also directs his ire at the chemical processing of bamboo. Again, we are not about to deny that this is a legitimate concern. We address it right in the bamboo facts section of our site -that very fact should make it clear that we’re not greenwashing our product. We don’t think it’s 100% eco-friendly, with no room for improvement, but we also don’t think that any such product exists. The process of building a greener society is just that: a process. And we must utilize the best resources available to us, and try to make them better. At present that means using viscose from bamboo that has been processed in a system that recaptures and recycles ninety-eight percent of the sodium hydroxide produced, and seventy-four percent of the carbon disulphide. Meanwhile, the scouring process of industrial wool utilizes detergents and alkali, and cotton uses many toxic chemicals and a great deal of energy in its own production process. But the closest that the author comes to pointing this out is to say, “I’m sure bamboo-fibre towels are no worse for the environment than non-organic cotton ones, but it’s the misleading claims that bother me.” Well, which misleading claims? Certainly none that we’ve made.
I’m sure that many bamboo producers and retailers are greenwashing their own products to make them appear even more environmentally beneficial than they are, or to excuse environmentally irresponsible company practices, just as do numerous other companies. But there’s still a reality underlying all conflicting claims, contrary to the quotation invoked by the author at the end of his article. “Rob Harrison of the organisation Ethical Consumer said: ‘Until such time as independent certification of bamboo cloth is available, claims that bamboo is an environmentally benign or preferable fibre are unlikely to be true.’”
What’s profoundly wrong with that sentence is that Harrison is essentially saying that the actual truth or falsity of claims of this sort can be changed by the implementation of a certification process. That is just an absolutely ridiculous assertion. Claims about the environmental friendliness of bamboo are true or false on their own merits, and while a certification process would be a nice way to separate greenwashers from honest merchants, it’s unfair, foolish, and potentially environmentally irresponsible to assume that all of the established evidence for the ecological benefits of bamboo is either exaggerated or fabricated.
The portion of the article that does not specifically attack bamboo instead takes umbrage with most any emphasis of the green aspects of a product. This includes reference to a “partially upheld” complaint about the coffee-machine maker Bodum suggesting through an advertisement that said “make taste, not waste” that its French press method of brewing coffee was the greenest method. Interestingly, that complaint was brought not by conscientious consumers, but by Bodum’s competitor Nespresso, which tried to argue that the slogan “get green” implied no negative impact whatsoever on the environment. No rational person who uses the word “green” should take it to convey that meaning. Yet the Advertising Standards Authority agreed with Nespresso, and said, “Because we had not seen evidence to show that the French press was ‘the greenest way to brew coffee…’ we concluded that the claim was misleading.” What evidence could be needed to substantiate that claim? Brewing coffee with a French press requires nothing but ground coffee beans and hot water, whereas Nespresso’s competing capsules add aluminum and a protective film to that formula, as well as the energy required to run a separate appliance. So too with a typical drip coffee maker that generally uses a new, disposable paper filter for every brew. It doesn’t take a double-blind scientific study to demonstrate which of these methods produces the least waste; it just takes common sense.
Sometimes common sense is all that is needed. Without a doubt, there are open questions about bamboo, and there is need for further scientific study and more rigorous industry standards. But a simple observation of the known facts should indicate that it’s one of, if not the most eco-friendly resources available. So judge its genuine merits for yourself, because without evidence you can’t assume that any retailer isn’t greenwashing their product, but you can’t assume that they are, either.