Bamboo is an incredible plant with a fascinating history, capable of bridging gaps between cultures and continents. Bamboo grows well on six continents, but we usually associate it with the Far East. The great preponderance of bamboo products still comes from Asia, with an increasing influx from South America. But in the name of sustainability and curbing our carbon emissions, wouldn’t it be nice to see a domestic supply of this remarkable grass?
Over the course of 15 years in the bamboo retail trade in California, we got plenty of concerned customers asking, “When are we going to start growing the bamboo here in the States?” Well, that’s a good question, because that’s an awfully appealing idea, at least in theory. It could, after all, be an important step in thwarting deforestation, replacing plastics, and reducing our dependency on Chinese imports.
As much as we strive to eliminate our carbon footprints and environmental impacts, there are limits to what we can realistically do. We can reduce and minimize, but there’s no such thing as a consumer product with zero impact. Even if you grow all your own organic produce and make your own clothing with a solar-powered sewing machine, you’ll still need to bring in nitrogen-rich manure from somewhere, and get your new sewing needles, threads and fabrics from somewhere.
In this eight billion person village, our survival depends on specialization, and specialization means commerce. We can encourage as much local trade as possible, but we cannot eliminate international commerce. The Fair Trade movement, for example, fosters socially responsible trade with the developing world, recognizing that we need to eliminate inhumane business practices without completely severing ties with our trading partners around the globe.
But one of the best ways to reduce your footprint is by reducing the distance your goods travel. Consumer products usually take a long trip around the world before they end up in your hands. It’s hard to avoid that. But at the grocery store, you can look at the labels on your produce to see where it was grown. Better yet, you can shop at the farmer’s market and buy truly local fruits and vegetables. Buying from local shops and farms also means more of your money will stay in your community, rather than being siphoned off to a faraway corporate headquarters.
Local bamboo: Introducing foreign species
For economic and environmental reasons, we do what we can to support our local farmers, but most varieties of bamboo are native to Asia. Of the 1,500+ species, only three are native to North America. Moso bamboo (Phyllostachys edulis), the variety most commonly harvested for commercial use — for clothing, flooring and kitchen wares — is native to China and Japan. And while it may survive in the humidity of the Deep South or the rains of the Pacific Northwest, introducing it to the U.S. on a massive agricultural scale is not so simple. Other species seem to grow much better. But it remains to be seen whether farming any species of bamboo in the US will prove to be a viable concept.
The beauty of bamboo, as a natural resource, resides in its tenacious growth habit, its minimal need for irrigation or fertilizers, and its resilience against pests. In sharp contrast to cotton, it rarely requires pesticides or herbicides. These wonderful benefits are seen in bamboo’s natural habitat. But transplanted to someplace like the San Joaquin Valley, intensive irrigation would become necessary, and who knows what sort of pest and disease issues might crop up.
Take a look at my article on the Challenges and pitfalls of farming bamboo in the US for more details.
But does this mean we should abandon the idea altogether? Not necessarily, but careful consideration and extensive research are needed. Species selection is just the first hurdle. In new habitats, pest could become an greater issue. Then there’s a huge question about where the bamboo will be processed.
And skeptics are always raising the specter of invasiveness. Remember the rabbits in Australia? In the right (or wrong?) conditions, bamboo can spread like bunnies. Although this is probably what people fear most, the concerns about a bamboo farm overtaking the land are really unwarranted.
Bamboo containment: Control your enthusiasm
Bamboo has a reputation for being an aggressive spreader. It’s true that running bamboos, the varieties that invariably perform better in climates with freezing winters, have roots and rhizomes that extend outward. Planted in a narrow garden and left unchecked, these plants will eventually end up overstepping their boundaries. But in the context of a larger-scale farm, this is less of a threat.
For starters, the thoughtful gardeners and farmers will always take measures to contain their bamboo. There are a variety of ways to do this. Rhizome barriers, available online or from a specialty nursery, provide an excellent solution for most gardens. Click here to read more about bamboo root barriers.
In larger settings, a better bet is to dig a containment trench around the perimeter of your bamboo grove. This allows you to monitor your bamboo and cut back the most aggressive roots, which tend to be pretty shallow. A responsible bamboo farmer would almost certainly dig a large trench like this around his plot.
But more important than that, in a large bamboo grove that’s being well managed and steadily harvested, the plant usually produces new shoots inside the grove, filling in gaps where older culms had been removed. Under these circumstances, the bamboo doesn’t feel the need to expand its boundaries outward. It’s quite different when bamboo is kept in a tight residential garden and made to feel claustrophobic.
Bamboo t-shirts and apparel
The “Support Your Local Farmer” t-shirt, pictured at the top of this article, and conveying many of the sincere sentiments expressed above, was one of our best-selling designs for many years. We used bamboo t-shirts from Onno or Spun Bamboo, made from 70% bamboo viscose and 30% organic cotton, a deliciously soft and sustainable blend. And, of course, we had them printed locally, somewhere in San Luis Obispo County, close to home or close to the shop.
Bambu Batu produced these shirts for more than a decade, and they never fell out of fashion. Although they couldn’t quite match the popularity of the classic “B here now” design or the all-time best-selling “Kale: It’s what’s for dinner” t-shirt.
Sadly, Bambu Batu closed its doors permanently in Spring 2020, at the onset of the Pandemic. Unwilling or uninterested in trying to navigate the commercial regulations and restrictions of “lockdown”, we decided to liquidate the complete bamboo inventory, furniture, clothing, cutting boards and all. And at that point, we also retired our historic line of t-shirt designs.
Local residents and long-time customers were devastated, as was my congenial landlord. A store like Bambu Batu doesn’t come around every year, and finding another place like it would be impossible. Fortunately, the brands we carried stuck it out through the many waves of Covid, and bamboo lovers can continue to support ethical businesses and sumptuous bamboo products by shopping online.
It’s not the same as meandering through the House of Bamboo, but brands like Yala and Boody have easy-to-navigate e-commerce sites. And their commitments to social and environmental justice remain as strong as ever.
If you’re a fan of bamboo, bamboo apparel, and supporting local businesses and agriculture, please take a look at some of these related articles.
- Keeping it local: Rutiz Farms is now Halcyon Farms
- Best Green Stores in SLO
- Zero Waste Shops in California
- Bamboo undies from Boody Wear
NOTE: This article first appeared in June 2010, most recently updated in May 2022.