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Conversations with Today's Green Business Leaders

Jeff and Rachel
Jeff Delkin and
Rachel Speth
May 2008 — "A Renewable Ideas Co."
Bambu: Mineola, NY and Shanghai, China

Jeff Delkin and Rachel Speth, founders of bambu (the eco-friendly housewares company) reside in Shanghai, China at the doorstep of the world’s largest source of bamboo. Prior to starting their own business, Rachel was in product development for a major American corporation, and Jeff worked as an advertising executive. But, in Jeff's words, they both "wanted something more."

"We obtained great experience working for these large companies, but we wanted to apply our experience to our values and desires to create a company that benefits many and makes something we can be proud of," says Jeff. "Our company’s values are our values. We try to lead our business in a responsible manner, by putting a focus on product, people and planet. We believe that if you do the right things right, the money takes care of itself." We asked Jeff to tell us more about bambu's sustainable journey and the green movement in China.

Green America: What does your business do?

Bamboo to bambu.
From bamboo to bambu.

Jeff Delkin: Bambu designs, produces, and markets housewares made from bamboo and other renewable materials. We discovered the amazing qualities of bamboo while living in Asia, which inspired a 2-and-a-half-year study of this remarkable renewable resource before we even launched our company five years ago.

We have seven different collections all utilizing bamboo in a different manner. We have a unique coiled Lacquerware collection, where we’ve modernized a centuries-old tradition of coiling bamboo with modern colors and shapes. We’ve created an entirely new category of disposable biodegradable bamboo products under the All Occasion Veneerware® name that is enormously popular. We offer a unique range of Cutting & Serving Boards, and our newest category, bambu KIDS has been hugely popular because finally, there is a safe and tested alternative to plastic for children.

As the late music promoter, Bill Graham, once said of the Grateful Dead, ‘they are not only the best at what they do, they are the only ones who do what they do.’ We feel pretty similar about our brand and the range of our offering.

What makes bambu green?

Protected from harmful pesticides on the job,
this cutter harvests
organic bamboo for bambu.

Jeff:  We ask ourselves that question a lot. For one thing, we make products from renewable bamboo, and we use the waste for making other products or as a source for fuel.  We figure that the practices behind a company's products is as important as the products themselves.

For us, it has always been about more than a product. We look at every aspect of our business, and ask ourselves, "How could we do it better?" For instance, we only use recycled materials or FSC-certified paper for all our packaging; the shipping materials we use are biodegradable or made from recycled content.

We are the first and only company to have our source of bamboo certified organic. That means our customers have the full assurance that the bamboo we use for our utensils and All Occasion Veneerware® is made from bamboo grown free from pesticides or chemicals of any kind, which is good for workers and the environment.

We also follow fair trade practices. We work with international third-party organizations to audit our production centers. We continue to work and grow with and develop the same production teams we started with five years ago.

Because we live and work in China, we work directly with our teams. That means we don’t have to rely on brokers or agents. We are at the source so we are accountable for the work conditions and quality of our product, and it means we’re able to give back to the communities in which we work. In one community we provide support to local the school for the children of our production team, and we've also worked on disaster relief in Vietnam. We work with Grameen Foundation in China and provide assistance and support to the micro-finance work they do in helping to alleviate poverty around the world.

We have set up our small office in Shanghai to allow everyone to walk to work. We’re in a lovely part of the city, away from the traffic, and close to our homes. It’s a treat not to rely on fueled transportation to get us to and from work.

What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?

Jeff: We never quite know what the day will present. Working with a nature product presents a unique set of challenges. Weather can affect our material and transportation. Currency fluctuation is an on-going challenge.

Maintaining the quality standards that we have set is another challenge. We have learned that we need to have our people on site and checking every order that we deliver.

Working cross-culturally and long-distance can be challenging at times. But we’ve become pretty good at it by now.  

What's been your proudest moment as a green business owner?

Jeff: Getting people excited for what we do. When we have customers remark how much they love our product AND our philosophy, that makes us proud.

Also, working with others and growing our community makes us proud. When we can see the sense a pride from our teams in China and Vietnam in their work they do, that means a lot — as does working with our extraordinary team in New York who manage our sales and customer service operations, and being part of a community of like minds.

What is the most hopeful sign you've seen recently in the green economy?

Jeff: There is a groundswell of interest and enthusiasm for getting involved and working towards a better and more humane world, and that’s encouraging. We’re hopeful that businesses will integrate sustainability into everything they do — not just a material use, not just an ‘end of pipe’ solution, but a totally sustainable product creation cycle.

We’re hopeful that small and large companies (and governments, for that matter) are working with greater transparency. We believe business can be the greatest tool for change.

What advice would you give to green entrepreneurs just starting out?

Jeff: A new product is introduced every four minutes. Being green is great, and should be a prerequisite. But other factors are involved.

For example: Design. How does it look? How does it function? Also: Value. Is it valued? Does the cost equal the value? Only then can it be a viable alternative. That forces us to create clever products that answer a need.

We believe that to be an authentic green brand, you have to live it everyday, in every aspect of your business.

What are you excited about going forward?

NEST: Inside Jeff and Rachel's green retail store in Shanghai.

Jeff: Our newest project is opening a retail store. We are launching NEST in Shanghai.

NEST hosts the exclusive product lines from a group of young promising companies producing in China, and each in their own way, promoting a better and more humane world. The brands joining NEST offer a unique blend of contemporary product design, high quality craftsmanship, and responsible manufacturing. We’re working towards being the first ‘carbon neutral’ retail destination in China.

Living in China is exciting. While China has a lot of challenges to face on an enormous scale, there are many examples and initiatives that suggest that China can lead in areas of greener production and sustainable practices. It’s already happening. We’re excited because we see a significant shift in the choices people make and the questions they ask. In fact, Shanghai recently hosted China's first eco-fair. We participated along with several others, and you can read about it on my blog.

What green product (besides your own!) could you not live without? 

Jeff: Well, you’re right, I use our products everyday. To get us started in the day, we love our Intelligentsia Fair-Trade Coffee.

Questions from readers:

Q: I've heard (but not researched it myself) that the popularity of bamboo products is leading to the clearing of forests to grow enough bamboo to meet demand. Is this happening, and how is bambu dealing with this issue?Barbara

Rachel: Thanks, Barbara. That’s a good question, but also one that is somewhat difficult to answer.

In China (the world's largest supply of bamboo) much of the bamboo is grown in the wild within ecosystems. Managing and harvesting bamboo is generally considered a cottage industry where bamboo is made available to farmers to harvest and use for hundreds of applications, both personal as well as commercial.

However, there are various forms of management practices in bamboo forests, some more intensive than others, and these more rigorous efforts often result in damage in the bamboo forest ecosystems. Consequently, this type of unsustainable management jeopardizes forest productivity and forest ecosystems. It also puts at risk the rural people who depend the forest.

Sustainable forest management is a global issue, not just a China issue. And one that the United States is no stranger to. Originally, almost half of the United States, was forested. Forests around the globe have been mostly removed for fuel, building materials, and for farming. In addition to the demand for natural forest resources like bamboo, climate change and environmental pollution are also contributing factors.

So, what’s being done about it? At the Chinese national level the goal is to conserve biodiversity and promote sustainable productivity. There is a huge effort to focus on sustainable management of forests. One such program will be implemented in Hunan, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, which are all rich in bamboo resources.

According to The International Network for Bamboo and Rattan, an intergovernmental organization dedicated to improving the social, economic, and environmental benefits of bamboo and rattan, this project will focus on technology, policy formulation and promoting biodiversity in bamboo forests. In their words, “the goal to reverse biodiversity loss in natural and monoculture bamboo forests, and introduce ecological management technologies and policies that promote conservation of bamboo forest biodiversity and sustainable productivity. Moreover, the project aims to build capacities of local communities and develop linkages between biodiversity policies at the provincial and national levels.”

The Chinese are also known for their very thorough recycling efforts and efficient utilization of natural resources. Some factories, such as charcoal and pulp factories, use waste materials from other bamboo factories; thus, there is a supply-chain in the bamboo industry, in which various factories consume different parts of the bamboo.  This increased the efficiency of bamboo utilization, reduced production costs, and created more added-value to the material. Bambu is currently involved in developing bamboo waste utilization projects that will be quite exciting.
Bambu bamboo
The bamboo we use is sustainably grown and harvested, no pesticides or fertilizers are used. It is grown as a 'wild' crop, sustainably managed and harvested by local farmers. We’ve had several of our sources certified as organic which stipulates the source must be managed sustainably. Depending on the product, we will either buy direct from the farmer or from the factory that produces the bamboo laminates who buys from the farmer.
Your question is an important one. But being quite general, I admit I am not an expert in this area and therefore cannot answer it completely. I hope the above reference information helps answer your question.

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