Why we do not carry bamboo flooring products.

There continues to be ongoing confusion about bamboo: Is it a sustainable, environmentally friendly green building product or not? Within our manufacturing and building supply industry this argument continues to spark debate.

For us, this isn't a debate. We simply will not carry it.

Bamboo was first introduced and marketed as a "green" building product in the 1990's. Well­meaning consumers were quick to embrace this material with the intention of supporting a healthier, greener environment. Suppliers promoted bamboo with these key selling points:

  • Sustainable & renewable
  • Low carbon footprint
  • Recognized as a LEED green building product
  • Durable & attractive

At face value bamboo can be positioned as an impressive building material. However, a deeper look reveals compelling reasons to question bamboo as a universal authentic green choice.

1) Not a Native species

True sustainability optimally involves communities and companies utilizing their local and regional natural (renewable) and human resources in a manner that allows them to both be healthfully sustained indefinitely. No, that doesn’t mean that if you act sustainably you’ll live forever, but rather that generations of the local and regional population will continue to thrive perpetually, as will the natural resources upon which they rely.

Unlike bamboo or tropical import woods, our products are derived from locally grown native hardwoods, harvested from well­-managed forests (including those that are FSC®­certified) in the heart of Appalachia – the region celebrated worldwide for its prized hardwoods (in 2005 only one species of bamboo grew naturally here in the U.S.). This wood is then crafted by experienced woodworkers according to each client’s particular specifications. Our efforts to source responsibly harvested hardwood and locally crafted products help protect and enhance the health of the region's forests while supporting a diverse network of local forest­based businesses.

Unlike diverse native forests, bamboo is typically grown in monoculture stands, the domestic growth of which can threaten native ecosystems by outcompeting natural ground cover. In fact, many species of bamboo are formally classified in the U.S. as alien invasive species due to their aggressive nature. Offering bamboo products goes against our core Mission of responsibly supplying, supporting and promoting our region's very best resources ­ both natural and human.

2) Manufactured Crops Devastate Biodiversity

Bamboo's life cycle from growth to harvest is relatively quick. Moso bamboo, for example, takes only about 3–7 years to fully mature and harden. Unfortunately, the demand for this fast­growing product has often come at the expense of land use conversions in various Asian regions in order to plant large monoculture bamboo crops for mass manufacturing purposes. This has immediate and long term ecological consequences. This practice results in soil erosion along with loss of other plant and animal life uprooted in the clearing process. Although bamboo is quickly able to renew itself, other forms of life indigenous to bamboo “forests” are not as resilient to the frequent harvesting intrusions which has left these previously diverse and balanced habitats environmentally damaged and unable to recover.

3) Not carbon Friendly

Within their native habitats, hardwood forests store more carbon than bamboo forests. Bamboo plantations and products can indeed store more carbon than hardwood forests if they are harvested frequently. However, as previously mentioned, that comes with other negative environmental consequences. Moreover, the environmental benefit of any higher initial carbon sequestration is often offset by the shorter usable lifespan of bamboo products, as opposed to domestic hardwood, and the fact that 80% of bamboo is imported into the U.S. from China and India. International transportation, after factoring fuel consumption, pollution, and costs, ultimately works to negate those original environmental benefits and increase carbon footprints.

This is something green building professionals should all care about on a global level, and remember when considering incorporating bamboo or exotic imports into their projects. In addition to supporting native regional hardwood forests and forest product producers, we are proud to partner with Appalachian Carbon Partnership (ACP) which provides carbon offsets whose proceeds go to central Appalachian landowners to encourage forest conservation and stewardship. The carbon impact of the manufacturing and transportation of our products are offset through the purchase of carbon credits through the ACP.

4) LEED Credits Not Robust

If locally grown and manufactured real wood products aren’t available and you are resolute in your decision to purchase bamboo products, it is paramount to be thorough in your research. While bamboo products do qualify for the Materials and Resources credit for rapidly renewable materials in the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED® Rating System, this particular approval’s scope does not seem to extend past the rapidness of this particular grass’s growth. Bamboo products and manufacturers vary widely in terms of quality, performance, toxicity, and sustainability. Unlike most hardwood products, bamboo is highly processed and the quality of the individual materials and the processing itself creates many opportunities for compromise. A quick scan of bamboo threads on popular flooring forums illustrate first hand owner experiences with some of these potential problems.

Another important consideration for bamboo products is the toxicity of their binders and the adhesives with which they are often attached to the subfloor. Some bamboo products that are made without the use of urea­formaldehyde binders also meet the criteria for the LEED Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) credit for low­emitting composite materials. Bamboo products without this claim can potentially offgass potentially harmful chemicals into your home or building.

Further, silvicultural management, harvesting practices, and worker conditions are often suspect with bamboo. When a product is imported from countries with minimal environmental and worker protections, the oversight and accountability of individual bamboo growers and producers can be lacking. While not a perfect solution, comprehensive third­party certifications such as those of the Forest Stewardship CouncilTM (FSC®), can ensure that more rigorous environmental and social standards are applied.

5) Bamboo lacks Integrity

Bamboo floors are popular because they are highly processed to be attractive to buyers who prefer visual uniformity. However, when a product is harvested and processed over 7,000 miles away, reputable domestic suppliers are at a disadvantage as they are unable monitor quality control and maintain manufacturing and social standards. How a bamboo floor holds up over time depends on a myriad of factors. Harvesting bamboo before peak maturity, after peak maturity, too high on the stalk, or under numerous of other imperfect conditions, results in a weak finished product, highly susceptible to unsightly dents, chips, and deep scratches from routine foot traffic.

Bamboo stalks also vary in hardness from the inside to the outside, from top to bottom, and even between stalks of the same age and species in the same plantation! To complicate matters, unlike wood, bamboo hardness tests vary among manufacturers. Some have even resorted to performing tests on the harder bamboo nodes or knuckles rather than the more abundant, but softer intermodal culm or stalk sections. One should also keep in might that scratch and scuff resistance is not necessarily determined by hardness ratings alone. Wood with a lower Janka (hardness) rating often outperforms bamboo with a higher Janka rating in real world damage resistance.

The performance of bamboo surfaces is further dependent upon the specific fiber layup and color treatment used. For instance, strand woven layups are typically harder than vertical layups, and vertical is harder than horizontally oriented bamboo. However, the hardness of strand woven bamboo products may actually be enhanced by the significantly larger amount of glue used as opposed to any inherent structural properties of the bamboo strand orientation itself. The carbonization process of bamboo also significantly reduces the hardness of the surface. Further, unlike hardwood which swells mostly along its width and exhibits relatively even moisture content throughout, bamboo swells along its width and length when exposed to moisture while simultaneously exhibiting very uneven moisture content in the finished product.

These natural and processing­based realities are what makes uniform, high performing, long lasting bamboo floors almost impossible. Unfortunately, it is difficult to spot treat damaged or poor performing sections without the floors becoming “furry” with displaced bamboo fibers and adhesive particles. Fixing these problems often require that the entire floor be replaced which means ripping up large quantities of adhesive­infused boards which end up as potentially toxic waste in landfills – not terribly sustainable from a life cycle analysis (LCA) perspective. Conversely, well maintained hardwood flooring has stood the test of time, often wearing beautifully for the entire life of the home, while being able to be repurposed as reclaimed wood products in subsequent homes – all while being easily sourced from neighboring forests and manufacturers you can feel good about supporting.

We hope this information adequately clarifies why we do not carry bamboo as one of our species offerings.

Do you support bamboo as a green building product? Why or why not? We'd love to hear your comments.