Bamboo Standing Desks – Separating Truth From Fiction in Environmental Claims
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A number of online sellers of standing desks have been promoting bamboo desktop options in recent years, including Fully (Jarvis), UpLiftDesk, UpRise (Ergoprise), Autonomous and StandDesk, among others. We set our research team out to investigate how these desktops are manufactured and to verify whether these sellers’ claims of bamboo’s environmental benefits are truthful or just greenwashing marketing spin. Let’s start with the basics…
Is Bamboo a Wood or a Grass?
Despite common marketing claims that bamboo is a wood it is actually a perennial grass, growing primarily in China. One billion people around the world live in bamboo houses, and bamboo has been made into everything from window shades and flooring to apparel, and of course food. In terms of “wood,” bamboo is processed into three different products that could be used in making furniture: thin veneer sheeting, plywood and lumber. Its unique character which separates it from real wood is its long fibers, which give it a supple flexibility unlike wood.
The consequence of bamboo’s flexible nature is that in order to turn these long fiber strands into wood an extraordinary amount of energy, water, glues and laminates are required, in a weeks-long process involving drying out the moisture, converting bamboo tubes to flat sheets, separating those sheets into thin sheets or strands, stacking the sheets with glue in between and compressing them under great force and temperature. Once turned into something resembling wood up to nine additional finishing processes ending in UV coating or some other lamination are required before this grass can be turned into something comparable to a hard wood.
There are over 1,000 species of bamboo, but the kind used in making a desktop plank is known as moso bamboo.
Is Bamboo Really a Hardwood?
Marketers claim that bamboo is a hardwood (defined as timber species that drop their leaves in winter, so it’s not that) or harder than oak. The way bamboo is turned into a hard wood-like plank is by gluing together alternating horizontal grain and vertical grain players, again applying a massive amount of energy and chemicals in the process, routing and sanding it down to the desired desktop shape, and then laminating it with clear sealants to give it both rigidity and a nice sheen. Once enrobed in these final lamination stages the combined cross-grained plywood (as pictured at the top of this page) becomes a hard wood.
Bamboo has a naturally blonde color, and distinctive knots and joints that make for beautiful flooring and furniture. What is often marketed as “carbonized” bamboo is just a heating process that converts the blonde color to darker shades. This process adds no hardening properties as one might be led to believe by the term “carbonized.” Carbonized simply means darker tones.
An alternative method to making a bamboo desktop is to use a core of MDF and glue veneer tops, bottoms and edge banding to reduce the usage of highly-processed bamboo. The disadvantage of this method is that like any high-pressure laminating process or veneering process, the seams are exposed to air, moisture and cleaning chemicals, and eventually the glues dry out and the tabletop starts to peel at the edges. A third alternative is to enrobe an MDF core in thermofoil (also known as 3D lamination) that is imprinted with an image of bamboo. This approach is the least environmentally impacting because it involves no actual bamboo or clear laminates to hold the bamboo layers together and provide hardness.
What is the Environmental Impact of Growing Bamboo?
The process begins in China, where the vast majority of bamboo is grown. Bamboo farming employs millions of people—it is a huge industry. As detailed in this environmental impact study conducted by research scientists at Dovetail, “although bamboo forests provide considerable ecological and socioeconomic benefits, there are problems associated with their cultivation, including a decline in biodiversity, soil and water loss, decreased soil fertility, and water pollution due to intensive management using inorganic fertilizers and pesticides.”
As the Dovetail report elucidates, the sham marketing of bamboo as an environmentally superior choice started when well-intentioned bureaucrats decided to list bamboo as an environmentally preferable material for LEED certified buildings. They did so based on claims published in Scientific American, of all places, that “Bamboo’s environmental benefits arise largely out of its ability to grow quickly – in some cases three to four feet per day – without the need for fertilizers, pesticides, or much water... Bamboo is so fast growing that it can yield 20x more timber than trees on the same area.” These claimed turned out to be completely false but the genie was already out of the bottle. Hundreds of companies starting importing bamboo materials and hundreds more converted them into everything from flooring to furniture products, and exported them worldwide, all based on totally false information. It took too many years for the bureaucrats to reverse their mistake but bamboo was eventually removed from this list of approved materials in 2014.
Like many growth opportunities that China has seized the massive upscaling of bamboo farming in the country has wreaked widespread environmental devastation. Bamboo naturally grows in forests interspersed with trees that create a healthy mixed ecosystem for plants and animals. To increase production output, these forests have been denuded of any other species except for thickly packed bamboo, creating large areas of monoculture ecosystems, and leading to an unhealthy decimation of various plant, insect and animal species.
The Dovetail report states about the impact on China’s environment:
“Encouragement from the authorities, coupled with the obvious financial gains from planting and harvesting bamboo, has led to widespread over-harvesting and intensive monoculture plantations in many parts of southwest China in recent years. Unbeknownst to many locals, this has resulted in serious negative effects on local ecosystems, worrying environmental and scientific observers…. There is an urgent need to demonstrate long-term technical and policy strategies to halt and restore the degraded biodiversity and the natural productivity of the damaged forests. The trends of monoculture forests lead to biodiversity loss and ecosystem service decrease. Local communities believe that monocultures can bring more income. To change this strong belief is the main challenge.“
There is massive damage being done to China’s water sources as a consequence of the booming market for moso bamboo, as well:
“Some farmers have begun returning farmland to bamboo forest in the pursuit of higher profits, which may constitute a potential threat to China’s food security and therefore merits concern. Perhaps more importantly, in mountainous areas, some other types of forest have been clearcut to plant bamboo for current economic benefit without considering the site condition and future market changes. Moreover, most bamboo forests are located in the source regions of China’s main rivers and water systems, where inappropriate forest type changes and management often leads not only to biodiversity loss, but also to heavy soil erosion and subsequently excess transport of N and P into surface waters via surface runoff, thereby exacerbating surface water pollution and eutrophication of downstream.”
And all this is before we even look at harvesting and processing. Harvesting is often done by poorly-paid workers under extreme working conditions. If you avoid buying Chinese apparel made in sweatshops, you should keep this in mind when considering any bamboo product.
The Dovetail report was commissioned by the forestry industry, so it doesn’t even encompass any of the environmental impact of processing the grass crop into wood products. But just as far as the impact from farming bamboo, this highly-detailed scientific report boils down to its summary statement:
Bamboo is a marvelous resource that provides a myriad of benefits for billions of people. Development of bamboo resources is economically assisting impoverished people while at the same time stabilizing erodible slopes and flood-prone watersheds. The ability to substantially accentuate rapid growth through intensive management for commercialization purposes magnifies its many benefits. The benefits, however, come at a high environmental cost. Degradation of natural forests, tremendous biodiversity loss, widespread use of fertilizers and pesticides, loss of resilience in bamboo resources, and increased social and environmental risks linked to large-scale monoculture agriculture are among the costs.
The rapid renewal capacity of bamboo is a reality. But reality is replaced by fantasy when rapid growth is equated to environmental superiority without serious consideration of practices employed to achieve rapid growth. Fantasy becomes even more fantastic when completely unfounded claims are accepted without question. Bamboo products should never be designated as environmentally preferable materials without at the very least requiring careful consideration of environmental impacts throughout the entire supply chain. It is time for all players in the green building arena to replace rapid renewability credits with a bit of common sense.
What is the Environmental Impact of Converting Bamboo Into a Desktop?
When compared to harvesting timber from well managed and government-regulated renewable forests in North America bamboo is creating an ecological catastrophe in Asia right now, worsening as demand continues to soar and millions of workers and acres are being subsumed to satisfy the demand. There is also the impact on trade imbalance and loss of North American jobs, and the carbon coast of shipping these products halfway around the world to North American customers.
For the sake of another beautiful choice of grain for ones floor, walls, or tabletop, we’re paying a heavy societal price that is not incorporated into the relative low cost of bamboo wood products. Converting harvested bamboo into solid wood tabletops requires an immense amount of energy, chemicals, and mechanical processes that, together with the impact on farming it, actually damage the environment much more than conventional made-in-America tabletop options. Some furniture manufacturers that were early adopters of bamboo in their products have discontinued their use. See Dapwood’s corporate statement on why consumers should beware of bamboo furniture as but one example.
Dapwood’s statement points out among the many reasons they chose to discontinue making furniture out of bamboo:
“In order to make a usable piece of ‘bamboo lumber’, lots of little rectangular pieces need to be glued together to make a panel. It takes a significant amount of glue and adhesive to bind the small pieces together. Because of long-term chemical exposure concerns for our customers, we ordered our bamboo panels to meet the stringent European urea formaldehyde emission standards (.13 parts per million (ppm)). Other importers of bamboo will specify the minimum regulatory requirement- US HUD standards (.30 ppm). We feel the US is far behind other governments in adequately protecting customers- even the Chinese share the tougher European standard! As a good first step, on July 7 2010, President Obama signed into law the Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act. Unfortunately, the act does not apply to bamboo panels but at least it will protect consumers of other wood products. Overall, we wanted to do the right thing with the glues but felt we were being wrongfully lumped in with all the other bamboos.“
What’s the Bottom Line? Are Online Sellers of Bamboo Standing Desks Being Dishonest in Portraying Bamboo as Environmentally Friendly?
Every purveyor of bamboo standing desks we’re aware of is buying their finished product from an Asian factory, where it is produced without the kind of EPA governance that we have here. This may change soon, but hasn’t yet. Currently there are bamboo farms being planted in Alabama and Louisiana, and there are factories being built to produce the same products here in the USA once the crops have reached maturity (4 to 7 years). While our domestic labor, land and environmental compliance costs are significantly higher, the American-made bamboo wood products promise to deliver on the original claim of its environmental superiority, albeit at a significantly higher end-cost to the consumer. Desk manufacturers like our sister company, iMovR, are waiting for these products to reach the market before offering real bamboo wood products to their customers.
In the meantime, however, desk sellers like Fully (Jarvis), UpLift (TheHumanSolution) and others have continued to parrot claims of bamboo’s environmental superiority without a shred of supporting evidence. In an ongoing brinksmanship each is coming up with even more compelling arguments for why their bamboo standing desks are superior to their competitors’. Here are some examples of top-flight marketing spin that we found in a recent scan:
From UpLiftDesk.com (TheHumanSolution)
- Bamboo is a beautiful, fast-growing, and sustainable grass most famously found in Asia. Our bamboo desktops are 33% thicker than our competitors, giving you something truly special and still eco-friendly (UpLift).
- We avoid using harsh agents and chemicals in finishing our desktops, protecting not only your desk but your indoor air quality.
- So you’ve had your eye on our adjustable height desks – don’t forget about our environmentally friendly and renewable Stand Up Desk with 1″ Thick Bamboo Top by UPLIFT Desk. At almost twice the thickness of our competitors’ bamboo desks, you’ll have a cost-effective workstation that’s as durable as it is beautiful. The desktop is UV-cured using a clean, energy-efficient process with no VOCs or pollutants, making it one of the healthiest standup desks on the market today. With a weight capacity of 355 pounds, you can be sure your monitors and desk equipment will have a stable new home base for more productive work instantly.
- Fun fact, one of our long-wearing, great looking hardwoods is actually a closer cousin to a manicured lawn than a grand old oak. It’s true—bamboo’s a grass, not a wood. But that’s what makes it so green…environmentally speaking anyway. Aside from keeping pandas looking black and white and cute all over, bamboo’s natural lightning-fast growth rates (seriously, one inch in under an hour) make it one of the most renewable materials this side of a wacky sitcom premise.
- Even though bamboo hails from the grass family, it is 40% harder than oak and will provide a strong and durable work surface. At a whopping 1″ thick, your bamboo desktop won’t sag under the weight of your desktop items.
- Bamboo is a species of grass, and as you know from having to cut your lawn weekly, grass grows at an alarming rate. Therefore the bamboo that is harvested to make our bamboo tops is pretty readily available as compared to our reclaimed or solid wood desktops and we can offer you a beautiful, durable desktop at a low price!
- And the one that really pins the needle on marketing spin… Some people may think of bamboo as rickety tubes held together by string, or worse, panda food, but believe me when I say that this desktop has a lot more going for it than meets the eye. See, our Premium Bamboo tops have something like a secret superpower. Unlike the lamps and flooring you may be used to, our desktops are made with a younger Moso bamboo, which actually acts as a natural air filter for the room. Soaking up small amounts of pollution and creating a cleaner breathing area. Pretty cool right? No? What if I told you it’s also super durable. Would that sway things a bit?
We would find it laughable if it wasn’t so patently deceptive that TheHumanSolution claims that its UV coated bamboo desktop is a natural air filter for your room. How exactly are molecules supposed to penetrate the UV coating??
From Fully.com (Jarvis):
- [The Jarvis Bamboo Desk is the] Best standing desk for (and on) the planet. Designed to keep you moving and the earth spinning, Jarvis Bamboo is the perfect adjustable height desk for both environmentally and aesthetically conscious standing desk users. For the desktop we use sustainable bamboo harvested without pesticides or fertilizers, and its beautiful color comes only from the kiln, not from any chemical dyes or stains.
- The beauty of bamboo. Where to begin. Not only is bamboo a fast-growing grass that matures in just 5 years, making it an incredibly sustainable resource, but it releases 35% more earth-healing oxygen than equivalent trees.
- Going bamboo means that you are pro-sustainability. From the harvesting process to the construction techniques, our bamboo desk tops meet and exceed what it means to be eco-conscious.
- When designing the Jarvis, we sought out construction companies who uphold high environmental standards. Our bamboo is sourced from, what is described as a ‘Forest City’ in rural Zhejiang, China. There, optimal cultivating conditions allow for the bamboo to reach its full height of 98 feet in just one month; this sustainable resource grows 3+ feet every day! And it spreads like wildfire, thus replenishing itself after harvest. Trees, simply, will never regenerate that quickly.
- Whether you are pro-environment, pro-quality, pro-aesthetics, or all three, Jarvis Bamboo’s got you.
From UpRise (Ergoprise):
- A bamboo tabletop offers versatility along with distinct beauty. The understated grains and colors of the tabletop will never go out of style! The desk top is extremely durable. This particular bamboo is made from Optimum 5.5® Moso (Phyllostachys pubescens). It has been sustainably harvested at a level of maturity between 5½ and 6 years for maximum stability and hardness. The end result, our bamboo desktop is 25% harder than oak and 12% harder than maple.
Autonomous does not offer any information on its bamboo desktop, not on their website and not when we asked on live chat with a sales rep. StandDesk can be commended for refraining from the hyberbolic environmental claims its competitors make, limiting themselves to saying only that “Choose the Bamboo Standing Desk and move into a more sustainable existence that starts with not only taking care of your body but the environment as well.”
How Does a Bamboo Desktop Compare in Durability to Other Options?
Marketing claims are all over the map, but a consistent user complaint regarding bamboo tops is eventual delamination due to contact with the air, moisture and sunlight. This makes a once-beautiful desktop worthy for the trash bin. Perhaps this is why desk makers like Fully, UpLift, Autonomous, Ergoprise and StandDesk offer no warranty on their desktops.
This concern over delaminated has also been voiced to use repeatedly over the years by bamboo resellers, who also struggle with constant supply issues. Because bamboo demand continues to outstrip supply it is common for standing desk resellers to show out of stock on their bamboo tops, or add a significant upcharge, of up to $250, during certain periods when supply is low.
All this is in sharp contrast to higher-quality producers like Humanscale and iMovR (full disclosure: our sister company), that provide five-year warranties on all their desktops. Humanscale uses traditional High-Pressure Laminate (HPL) on their tops, and iMovR uses and exclusive 3D-Laminate technology on their desktops.
We expect to see new options emerge over time in USA-grown bamboo lumber and veneer, as well as 3D-laminate offerings in various bamboo colorations, but as of this writing none of this are as yet available.