Kicking off B Corp month!: sustainable tableware and event design with the founders of bambu
The year 2003 brought us many things. Hey Ya! by OutKast, the first season of The OC, designer trucker hats (not our finest moment), and… the first ever natural alternative to the paper plate!
I’m going to be focusing on that last item, which was actually introduced by a business featured here on Plan with Purpose: bambu. A company that designs and produces organic, plastic-free, home goods and dinnerware, bambu is responsible for inventing the concept of “natural disposables” (aka single-use, eco-friendly alternatives to paper and plastic tableware), making it easier for us all to live and event-plan more sustainably. In the years since 2003, their range of products has grown to include myriad styles of compostable plates, cutlery, napkins, and more. They also just launched bambu hospitality, which is specifically geared towards event planners, caterers, and food service providers, and offers products in larger volume packs for commercial use.
bambu is a certified B Corp, and as March is B Corp Month in the U.S. and Canada, it feels like an apt time to celebrate businesses that balance purpose and profit. To get a B Corp certification (a rigorous process), businesses must meet high standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability.
I interviewed bambu’s founders, Jeff and Rachel, on their tips for sustainable event design, and their advice for couples and individuals hoping to plan an eco-friendly wedding or event (their blog is chock-full of more creative ideas). From how they dreamed up that first paper-plate alternative, to the empoweringly “rule-free” future of weddings, our conversation provides some sustainable food for thought.
What was the a-ha moment that led you to create bambu?
Jeff + Rachel: We were living and working for large multi-national companies in Asia. Rachel as a sustainability director at Nike, and Jeff in advertising managing the Coca Cola account. Both jobs provided us with great work experiences and new skills, but we were wanting to create something of our own.
Everywhere we visited and lived, we noticed that bamboo was used in numerous ways from scaffolding, to tea ceremonies, to everyday items. It was prevalent everywhere. We became quite enamored with the material and all its uses. Then we read an article in The Financial Times about Linda Garland, and her affair with bamboo. We said, ‘that’s it.’
At this point, bamboo was hardly known outside the garden or yard in the US. But we could make products from an Eastern material with a Western design aesthetic. We weaved it, coiled it, laminated it, carved it – all into a range of products we introduced to the public for the first time in 2003.
Among our first products was our Veneerware® disposable bamboo plate. Months later it was included in Fortune Magazine’s annual Best 25 Designs. Later that year it was recognized by International Design. Until then, there had been only paper or plastic. We set out to create a better paper plate, and the ‘natural disposable’ concept was born.
For people who are overwhelmed by where to start in terms of managing Event waste and being as sustainable as possible, what is your advice?
Weddings and events are very involved and often highly emotional events. People don’t often consider waste among the dozens of considerations and decisions they need to make.
But Waste = $$. And now people have more options. Ask your caterer to provide options and solutions that results in less waste. Consider the local municipality and how they handle waste and compostable dinnerware and food scraps. Perhaps look into a food bank as a recipient for the event. Another idea is to make composting stations stand out, and encourage active participation by making it fun.
(Editor’s note: for more tips on managing event waste, see my first blog post on event clean-up!)
people are often deterred by the “Look” of sustainable tableware. How do you address that concern?
People are wonderfully creative at making beautiful table settings. Yes, our products and most natural products are brown. But with wildflowers, plants, textiles and colorful food, our dinnerware can be a subtle accent of nature and create a beautiful backdrop to the event.
Plus there are so many options out there now. For example, our newest Fancy scalloped plate design certainly elevates the notion of a disposable plate.
(Editior’s note: Check out this couple that beautifully customized their bambu wedding plates through a DIY woodburning technique. Definitely redefines the notion of disposable, and is super easy to replicate!)
For those who want to plan an event as zero waste as possible, what are common mistakes to look out for? Are there products out there that are misleading, or, on the flip-side, certifications that we can trust?
We think it’s wise to consider water. Is water a scarce resource in your area (it is in a lot of areas)? On the surface, it might seem sensible to use ceramic plateware or silver. But if you consider the cost to transport, and use of water to clean, often a low-impact, single-use solution can be more sustainable. And certainly saves on some of the hassle. We are of the belief that you don’t need a big budget to create a fantastic event with a little good planning.
People do need credible sources to help them make the right decisions. We’re all super busy, and when you’re throwing an event, even more so. In many aspects of our lives, we are looking for and need credible sources of information to help us make decisions.
B Corp is an important one. And in 2019 B Corp is launching a global awareness building campaign to help inform people about B Corp Businesses for Good. It’s as good as a certification as there is. Because the assessment process is rigid and lengthy, nobody sneaks in the back door.
Also, that’s why we go the extra mile and were the first to get our bamboo certified organic. We realize we produce in China and some people have a perception that goods from China are unsafe and of poor quality. We set out to cast a positive light on China. Knowing that our products are sourced from certified organic, wild-harvest bamboo, ensures people that no pesticides or chemicals are used in our manufacturing. And it’s audit process that happens yearly.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of greenwashing and marketing speak and misinformation out there. It goes back to doing a little homework. It pays to look at the company behind every product.
Can you unpack what it means to create sustainable, handmade goods in a country often criticized for its manufacturing?
We’ve lived and worked in China for more than 12 years. We currently spend 50% of our time there. We maintain long-standing relationships with our producer groups, and we only work with manufacturers that meet our Code of Conduct. While it’s true that there are exploitative or unsafe work conditions; there are also wonderful examples. Our team of all-women care passionately about our product and our process. We follow Fair Trade principles, and as the owners of bambu, we have a responsibility to all our stakeholders to operate in an integral way.
what does being a B Corp mean to you? how have you seen the community, and consumers, evolve?
When we started our company, B Corp was not in existence. But we wanted to create a business that reflected our own personal values. Joining with B Corp was an affirmation that we reflected the same principles of transparency and fairness. Since becoming a B Corp company we have joined with other like minds in promoting a force for good. And in China, we are helping to promote the same values. It’s exciting because in their hearts, people generally know what defines responsible business and what does not, and people want to associate with good brands.
More than ever, people are supporting brands that reflect their own values. And we think that’s great. That’s the way it should be.
what do you think is on the horizon for Sustainable event planning? What should be on our radar?
We think that when it comes to wedding and events, there aren’t any rules anymore. People are re-inventing how and where they celebrate. We think weddings will become more year-round, rather than seasonal. Venue selection will be open and more varied too.
With social media, people are able to share new and interesting ideas. With more people opting for sustainable solutions, there are more examples of people doing it well. The internet also opens up resources that help people navigate the plethora of decisions and products to consider.
Increasingly, we have places we can go to and people we can trust to help us make our decisions.
** All images provided by bambu.