When Matt Joyce of Woodbury tried to find a replacement set of his favorite bamboo/cotton sheets at Target recently, he left empty-handed. Target no longer carried them. Neither did Kohl's, Macy's, Wal-Mart or Lands' End stores.
"I thought bamboo was supposed to be so versatile," he said. "What happened?"
Once described as the perfect raw material, bamboo has many desirable properties. It's strong and versatile. It also grows much faster than trees, requires little water and fertilizer, and doesn't require replanting after harvesting.
By 2006, consumers could find bamboo sheets, towels, clothing, flooring and furniture, as well as chopsticks, salad bowls and cutting boards. Demand was growing, well, as fast as bamboo itself.
But like many so-called environmentally friendly products, the green qualities of bamboo began to fade as more became known about it.
Ryan North, who co-owns Moss Envy in St. Louis Park, said his store started scaling back on bamboo products last year. He began to question its eco benefits when the Federal Trade Commission charged four companies (Jonano, Mad Mod, Pure Bamboo and Bamboosa) with false and misleading claims. The companies labeled their clothing as being 100 percent bamboo, but the FTC said that when any plant fiber goes through a chemical cooking process with sodium hydroxide (caustic soda), the resulting manmade fiber has to be called rayon or viscose instead of bamboo.
North quit buying the sheets and recently got word that a furniture line he carried, Ramblin Wood, will quit making bed frames out of bamboo, partly because of decreasing sales. In a letter to retailers, Ramblin Wood said it will start using sustainable wood from U.S. forests.
To put it bluntly, bamboo isn't as green as we originally thought, North said. For one thing, it has to be transported halfway around the world from where it is grown and harvested. Consumers also have heard that the crop is not as pesticide- and fertilizer-free as originally thought, according to Nadav Malin of Environmental Building News, an organization that provides green design information to its members.
Stores, shoppers lose interest
As bamboo's green patina began to fade, retailers and consumers started to look at alternatives.
Room & Board scaled back on the amount of furniture made from bamboo, said Gene Wilson, vendor manager at the Golden Valley-based home furnishing store. It has let go of half of the bamboo furniture collections.
"We're just trying to be more local," he said. "And we can make solid furniture from American hardwoods -- cherry, maple and walnut -- at the same price or less than the price of bamboo."
In some cases, shoppers abandoned bamboo before retailers did. Lands' End found that its customers preferred specialty combed or organic Egyptian cotton. "Our customers weren't as interested in bamboo," spokesman Adam Sodersten said. The company dropped clothing, towels and sheets made of bamboo.
At Target, shoppers favored organic cotton sheets over bamboo, spokeswoman Jennifer Mooney said. It still sells towels with 25 percent rayon from bamboo online.
Bringing bamboo back
Not everyone is ready to quit stalking bamboo. April Femrite of Mankato gets as close to the bamboo jungle as any Minnesotan. Almost four years ago she started an online and wholesale clothing business, Naturally Bamboo (www. naturallybambooclothing.com). She loves the way bamboo breathes and the way it wicks away moisture from the body, for example. But, she says, "it's very frustrating to not be able to see the process firsthand."
Chinese factories don't let fiber and fabric companies see how the fabric is made, because the process is patented. She looks forward to the day when consumers can buy her bamboo clothing with a label that has third-party, independent verification of its processing. She's working with a European company developing a bio-bamboo fiber made from a chemical-free process.
As for bamboo's bad rep, she attributes part of it to competition. The cotton and lumber industries, for example, see bamboo as a threat, but each has a long history of environmental problems, from intensive insecticide and pesticide use (cotton) to deforestation (lumber).
Bamboo makes up only a fraction of hardwood flooring sales, but critics have pointed out its toxic glues and quality-control issues. That's not true of all bamboo flooring, said Rachel Maloney of Natural Built Home store in Minneapolis. "The new strand-woven bamboo is even harder than red oak," she said. "We haven't had any complaints." The EcoTimber Woven Honey ($4.99 per square foot on sale) that the store sells was labeled a "best buy" by Consumer Reports in its August 2010 issue and uses glue that is free of formaldehyde and urea.
Maloney admits there are greener options, such as elm floors made from reclaimed trees in the Twin Cities felled by Dutch elm disease, but it's all customer preference.
"We try to give consumers what they want," Femrite said, "even if we have to do a lot of re-education to win back the green fans. Bamboo is not as clean as we want it to be yet, but we're working on it."