Screen Shot 2014-06-16 at 8.49.48 AMEarlier this year, I was very pleased to see a new report released by Dovetail Partners, Inc on the subject of Bamboo Products and Environmental Impacts.  Dovetail is a Minnesota-based, non-profit think-tank; and  one of the best sources of thoughtful, balanced, and articulate information on a broad range of subjects related to sustainability, land-use, and forest product certification.  Their bamboo report provides a very interesting look at the growing market for Bamboo as a substitute for wood-based products, and shines a thoughtful and critical light on the “Green Mythology” that has surrounded Bamboo for years.  I recommend it strongly.

My interest in Bamboo comes primarily from my business in FSC certification.  MixedWood has several clients who deal occasionally in Bamboo lumber; and a few others who are interested in Bamboo as a fiber supply alternative to trees and wood pulp.  The Dovetail report, unfortunately, did not really address the question of certified Bamboo at all.  I approached the authors and learned that they had found little information available on the subject. This inspired me to do a little digging of my own.

FSC-certified bamboo

At first glance, one might assume that FSC-certification would not apply to bamboo at all.  Bamboo is, after all, more of an agricultural than a forest product.  Bamboo plants are not properly considered trees, but belong to a family of perennial grasses.  FSC doesn’t certify cotton or asparagus.  So why do they certify bamboo?

The answer is complex, but lies – I think – in the practical consideration of two facts:

  1. Bamboo competes directly with traditional wood products – principally lumber and flooring –  in retail and wholesale markets.
  2. Bamboo’s market appeal is heavily linked to the “Green Mythology” described in the Dovetail report.

Early in the last decade – when FSC was still struggling to establish itself as a significant player in the “green” marketplace, they entertained a request to certify bamboo.  The result was this policy.  Originally a stand-alone document, it now lives in the Directive on Forest Management Evaluations (FSC-DIR-20-007 v.3-0) – which defines rules for Certification Bodies who issue Forest Management (FM) certifications.   The bamboo policy dates from 2004, at a time when much of FSC policy was rather informal and ad hoc.  It lays out a rather simple rational for including bamboo, that I would summarize this way:

  1. Bamboo sometimes grows in forests.
  2. Bamboo that grows in forests can be called a “non-timber forest product”.
  3. Forests that have bamboo growing in them can be either “natural forests” or “plantations”.
  4. If the forests that have bamboo growing in them are certified to the FSC FM standard, then bamboo can be marketed as a FSC-certified non-timber forest product.

There are other examples of “non-timber forest products” – nuts, berries, maple syrup, and even game animals.  Bamboo is probably the only commodity-scale product which competes directly with traditional wood products.

Today’s FSC bamboo marketplace

MixedWood was engaged by a client in 2011 to look into the state of the market for FSC-certified bamboo.  Our survey was informal, but yielded a rather clear result.  At that time (3 years ago) we found only 4 certified companies who held FM certificates which included bamboo production in their Product Groups.  All 4 four were in China and had very similar profiles:  small-scale rural harvesting cooperatives.  We looked briefly at the Chain of Custody (CoC) market as well – finding a rather narrow array of flooring and specialty lumber outlets.  It was very clear that the market at that time was very small.

After my correspondence with the Dovetail authors, I repeated my informal survey this spring.  The results were very different.  Today, the CoC market for bamboo products is broad, diverse, and highly developed.  Using the (imperfect but helpful) FSC certificate database, with the code “N5” as my search term, I was able to isolate 1374 companies with valid FSC CoC certificates that include bamboo products in their Product Group listing.  20% are in China; and about 15% each in the USA and the UK.  It is extremely difficult to attach any quantitative values to this certificate count, but these are big numbers.  For example, the certificate count for the USA (206) represents about 5% of all CoC certificates in the country.  It is very clear that the growth of FSC-certified bamboo has followed the rapid growth of all bamboo trade reported by Dovetail.

I then went looking for FM certificates to find the source of all this bamboo.  I found a very different story.  There are currently only 21 companies listed by FSC with a valid FM certificate and listing bamboo (code N5) in their certified products.  This is greater than the 4 companies found in 2011, but still a very small number.  Digging a little deeper, I found that these 21 companies collectively report less than 100,000 hectares of land under management – 42% managed by one company, and 67% is managed by the top 3.  All are in China.  Here are links to their certificate records:

I have no information about the productive capacity of any of these companies, but it seems reasonable to make a rough extrapolation to prove an important point.  Dovetail provides us (in Table 1 on page 12 of their report) with an estimate of the average growth to be expected from “intensively managed plantations” of Moso bamboo in China – about 8.5 mt/ha/yr.  Applying this number to the roughly 100,000 ha of reported, FSC-certified bamboo land, we arrive at a theoretical global total of 850,000 metric tons (mT) per year.

A puzzle: something doesn’t add up

Let’s try and put that number in perspective.  A medium-sized sawmill, producing spruce construction lumber near my home, requires annual log inputs of about 200,000 mT.  That means that the bamboo production I’ve estimated above – theoretically the global supply – is sufficient to supply 4-5 medium sized sawmills.   Clearly this puzzle is missing some big pieces.

It is difficult to guess just what is being missed here, but I can make some guesses:

  • The FSC certificate database is incomplete
  • FM certified suppliers are under-reporting their capacity
  • CoC certified producers are advertising, but not actually selling FSC-certified bamboo

The other possibility, of course, is deliberate fraud.  This is possible, of course, but I tend to discount its significance.  From my perspective, this remains a mystery.  I am hoping that some of my readers may be able to offer some clues to solving it.  If you think you can help, please comment below, or write to me directly.  If and when I learn more, I will be sure to share it here.