Building economic, social and cultural sustainability alongside ecological sustainability | Rebecca Reubens

Growing global issues—including pollution, resource scarcity and climate change—have put sustainable materials in the spotlight. Bamboo is one of these materials.

Bamboo has been the poster-child of sustainability initiatives the world over because it is highly renewable and a viable replacement for timber. When a tree is harvested one loses the complete green cover of the tree.  In contrast, when bamboo culms are harvested sustainably—meaning mature culms are harvested and immature culms are left intact—total green cover is not lost, and more culms spring up the next season to replenish the ones cut. Bamboo prevents soil erosion, has high nitrogen absorption and helps reclaim degraded lands through mulching.

The eco-friendly nature of bamboo has led to an explosion of bamboo products—from bamboo furniture to bamboo toothbrushes to bamboo i-pod cases.  These products’ sales figures indicate that the market cannot get enough of this versatile material, especially when it is positioned as ‘green’. However, bamboo has a larger role to play in sustainability.

Bamboo has the potential to contribute to economic, social and cultural sustainability alongside ecological sustainability.  This is because bamboo geographically coexists with poor communities in Asia, Africa and Latin America.  Since it is easily available in their natural environment—and since bamboo has linear fibers and is easily processed with the most simple of tools—it has tremendous eco-income generation potential for these communities.

Most of these communities have traditionally used bamboo in their day to day lives—to build their homes, fish traps, containers, and even as food. The influx of industrialized goods through globalization has broken down their local economies, and the demand for their bamboo products.  Currently, these communities struggle to sell their wares, often migrating to cities as wage labor.  This causes great unsustainability to their community and family life.  It also puts in peril the bamboo based bio-regional traditions.  Each generation that does not practice bamboo loses indigenous knowledge that had been handed down from parent to child—and translates into the loss of tested bio-regional knowledge and systems that underpin holistically sustainable production to consumption systems (PCSs).

On one side, the market for bamboo exists, and on the other side the resource—both labor and material—exists.  The challenge is, and has been for quite some time now to bridge the gap between the two—production and market.

Design has a significant role to play in this, as it orchestrates PCSs—design dictates what material is used, how it is processed, how it is packaged, how it is transported, how it is used and what happens to it at the end of its life.  But to truly use bamboo as a vehicle towards holistic sustainability, design needs to look beyond being part of a bamboo product marketing strategy that might in reality be ‘green-washing’.  For example, a study revealed that hardwood products made in the North are more sustainable that bamboo products made in the South and transported to the North because of the transport footprint involved. In order to truly address sustainability holistically, design needs to be supported by policy, and accreditation initiatives that can measure the product’s sustainability on different scales—including social, economic, ecological and cultural.

Bamboo truly has a huge potential to positively impact sustainability.  It is imperative that we—both developed and developing countries—look beyond man-made boundaries together, to actualize this potential.

Rebecca Reubens is the Founder-Principal Designer, RHIZOME. Content Hub is India’s First Bamboo Advocacy and Bamboo Entrepreneurship Development Digital platform.

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