This is a good question, because as sustainable as bamboo the grass is, the cultivation and manufacturing process into hardwood flooring can potentially be unsustainable. In other words, it all comes down to what brand of bamboo flooring you go with. The bottom line is that some bamboo is grown with the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers and cheaply manufactured with potentially toxic levels of formaldehyde. This is the bamboo flooring that is NOT green and is obviously the one you want to avoid.
As mentioned in our Bamboo Flooring Selection Guide, the Moso species of bamboo is the best species for bamboo flooring. Since this species only grows at lower altitudes, there is no threat against endangered pandas, who live at higher elevations and whose diet consists of a different species of bamboo. Also, it is in the “lower” altitudes of Southern China’s Hunan Province where many a bamboo plantation is sustainably managed. Ensuring that your bamboo flooring has been grown on a plantation is essential to ensuring it isn’t contributing to deforestation. Some of the oldest bamboo plantations are indeed in China.
Another good indicator of sustainability is using bamboo flooring that is certified green by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) – the wood products authority for sustainably harvested wood. The only thing to keep in mind is that just because a company is a member of FSC, does not mean all of their products are FSC certified. In fact, most bamboo flooring manufacturers are not FSC certified. This is beginning to change, however. In 2008, Smith and Fong were the first company to receive an FSC certification on their Plyboo bamboo hardwood flooring. And more certifications are in the works. However, just because a bamboo flooring line is not FSC certified does not mean it isn’t green.
What it all really comes down to is transparency. Many bamboo flooring companies in the U.S. are simply distributors and truly don’t know where their bamboo comes from or how it is cultivated and manufactured. However, there are a few handful of brands and distributors who are highly transparent about their bamboo flooring – revealing their relationships with organic cultivators and bamboo plantations committed to social responsibility and fair trade.
What about the use of formaldehyde in the lamination process? While formaldehyde can lead to very toxic levels, the best brands contain formaldehyde levels far lower than what naturally occurs in Mother Nature herself (Yes, formaldehyde is a naturally occurring substance). E1 environmental guidelines call for no more than 0.1 Parts per million (PPM) formaldehyde levels. The greenest brands mentioned above, however, contain either no formaldehyde at all (using water-based finishers instead) or levels lower than 0.01 PPM – ten times lower that regulatory health guidelines. Keep in mind that non-formaldehyde glues contain isocyanate, which despite being non-toxic in its hardened state as a floor, is highly toxic to factory workers. Not necessarily a rewarding payoff is it? Again, formaldehyde levels lower than the amount found outdoors is NOT toxic to your health.
In terms of shipping, imported bamboo hardwood flooring manages to stay “green” via transportation by energy efficient ocean liners. In fact, energy used to transport Chinese bamboo flooring has been shown to be compatible with, if not better than domestic truck transportation. For example, if you live in the West Coast and purchase oak or maple flooring which comes from the Eastern U.S., there is more energy that goes into this purchase than bamboo flooring shipped overseas. And if you are worried about unsafe and pollutant causing conditions in Chinese factories, think again. Some of the best-run flooring mills in the world are in China. You can tell by looking at the factory’s ISO certification. Those mills with ISO 1400 certification are very tightly controlled for waste, pollutants and ensuring the safety and health of their workers. Most mills in the U.S. don’t even come close to ISO 1400. Again, those brands mentioned above are in the green.
So yes, bamboo flooring can be green. Don’t settle for the cheap stuff. Know your brands and retailers and go with the pros that know. Even if you have to pay more, besides the fact that you will be getting a better product, the knowledge that you are indeed helping the Earth, will pay for itself ten fold.