YES! But How? :: Wool, Hemp, Bamboo

If you're looking for practical ways to live sustainably, just ask us.


What’s the right long underwear choice for me and the earth: wool or polyester?

With winter just around the corner, it’s time to start thinking about how you’re going to keep yourself warm, indoors or out. Synthetics and wool are the most common options for a base layer.

Oil and natural gas are the raw materials for most synthetic fibers, and fossil fuels are among the least sustainable resources out there. Producing polyester, the most common synthetic in long underwear, uses about twice the energy as wool production, and generates about four times the amount of CO2.

In addition, wool comes from a renewable resource. But raising sheep does require a lot of water, and sheep produce large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Wool becomes the clear winner when you add performance to the equation. It can absorb a lot more moisture than synthetics without feeling wet or cold. Wool also doesn’t smell as bad after you’ve worn it, it’s fire resistant, and it usually lasts longer than synthetic fabric.

Wool isn’t cost-free, but it is the better environmental choice—and remember that you can cancel out some of its impacts by turning down the heater at home.

—Noah Grant


I have a friend who seems to think hemp is the answer to everything. Is it?

Hemp advocates tend to get a rapturous look when they talk about their favorite plant. And they have some very good reasons for that.

You can make hemp into clothing, paper, wood composites, personal care products, paint, and food, among other things. Hemp yields several times the amount of fiber per acre that trees do, and as an annual crop, is easier to manage. It doesn’t require the huge amounts of pesticides and herbicides that cotton does, and doesn’t come from fossil fuels like synthetic fabrics. Hemp fiber is also particularly strong, meaning that paper can be recycled more times and textiles last longer. And hempseed oil is a great source of healthy essential fatty acids.

But advocates often go a bit overboard when they describe the benefits of hemp. The plant actually has some of the same problems as others grown on a large scale. It requires about as much nitrogen fertilizer as wheat and is comparable to other crops in terms of water use. Also, as an annual crop, hemp doesn’t do much to preserve the soil or provide animal habitat. It requires a lot of energy for harvesting and processing, and like any monoculture crop, it doesn’t help biodiversity.

Using hemp will give you some good eco-karma, just not as much as, say, eating all organic or vegetarian. So get some hemp products, but also check out clothes made from organically produced cotton, and paper and wood from sustainably harvested trees or recycled pulp. And as always, look for ways to consume less, rather than just shifting to new sources.

—Noah Grant


I was thinking about replacing the old carpeting in my house with bamboo flooring. How green is it really?

Bamboo is popping up everywhere these days—not just in flooring but also in clothing, bowls, cutting boards, and even diapers. Bamboo grows well without pesticides or fertilizers, needs little water, and grows quickly. The roots stay in place after harvest, which stabilizes the soil.

Even though most bamboo comes from China, the energy efficiency of ocean freighters means that “the transportation energy of a Chinese bamboo flooring product may be comparable to a domestic hardwood flooring product,” according to Building Green, a company that focuses on supporting sustainable building. Also, though bamboo can be grown without chemicals, some farmers have begun to raise it more intensively to meet increasing demand—sometimes clearing forest land to do so—and to use pesticides and fertilizers.

It’s important to find out how the flooring was manufactured. According to Brad Salmon, president of the American Bamboo Society, “Most bamboo is treated with chemical preservatives, as is the case with other mainstream flooring materials.” Look for formaldehyde-free flooring with low- or no-VOC glues and finishes. Look out for dyed bamboo, which may contain heavy metals and other toxic substances.

The bottom line on bamboo? It’s an exciting raw material, but not the final answer. Thus far, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has given its stamp of approval to only one manufacturer, Smith & Fong Co., which makes plywood and flooring that are urea formaldehyde-free. If you’re in a lumber-producing area, FSC-certified wood is, for the moment, as green as bamboo. If you live elsewhere, bamboo has a bit of an edge.

—Kristin Carlsen


  • Fix It My family had an old Nintendo sitting broken for over a decade. I found an article on how to fix it. I sneakily stole it from them, fixed it up, and gave it back. I’m not sure if they still use it, but I know they enjoyed it for a while. I imagine you could do this for any broken item sitting in someone’s garage. An old bike, a televison, a radio, etc. They get a “new” thing without wasting all of the resources that go along with making a new item. —Jon
  • Feel Like a VIP My favorite gift ever is a CD that a friend made for me. I like music, but don’t really know a lot about it, and he is a DJ. I felt like a VIP getting this personal music selection. And somehow he hit it just right and I have been listening to it for years now. —Lilja
  • Sew Unique I have a friend who makes her own gifts, and my favorite is a flannel pillowcase with different colorful fabrics for the body and the border pieces. Not only are they beautiful and comfy, but I think of her every night when I go to bed! The perfect gift for someone you care about. —Sharon
  • Re-useful Gifts Garage sale garden tools, cleaned with steel wool and sharpened, used books, and for people with kids, rechargeable batteries and chargers. for more of our favorite sustainable gift ideas

Send questions to YES! But How?, 284 Madrona Way NE, Suite 116, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110 or to [email protected]

Our Issue 48 researchers:
Noah Grant and Kristin Carlsen wrote this article as part of Sustainable Happiness, the Winter 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Noah has had a fine time interning at YES! He’s moving right along to a job as a sustainability coordinator with AmeriCorps. While at YES! Kristin has enjoyed not driving her car for so many days in a row that she regularly forgets where she parked it. She’s hoping to keep it that way post-YES!
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