"Bamboo" used to be one of those words heard only in a grade school geography lesson focusing on Asia and its vegetation. Now, when shopping for flooring, towels, bedding, dishes or a host of other household items, "bamboo" is proudly touted as making these products distinctive and eco-friendly. How can one material be used so ubiquitously? And how has bamboo emerged from relative obscurity to its current popular position? "Bamboo is considered an ecologically responsible material that does not carry with it a much higher price tag," says Jenny Heinzen York, editor-in-chief of Home Accents Today, a trade publication. "Most American consumers will choose the greener option only when the cost difference is negligible or the quality and design are superior," York says. "Bamboo works in both of these contexts."As the price of cotton continues to spike, York advises looking for an even greater emphasis on bamboo fibers. Shades of green For those who can't remember their geography lessons, bamboo is an incredibly fast-growing plant, and when it is grown in its natural environment, it doesn't require fertilizer, explains Tom Sullivan, owner of www.TotallyBamboo.com, a San Marcos, Calif., firm. For China-grown bamboo bowls, trays, and other wooden bamboo products Sullivan sells, "We really feel that the saving of old-growth forest balances our carbon footprint." While fast-growing bamboo with its extensive root system that reduces rain run-off has inherent eco-friendly properties, transforming it into a product for American homes can be conversely unfriendly to the environment. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has ruled that fabrics are not allowed to be strictly labeled as made from bamboo, unless they are made from a certain mechanical, not chemical, process. However, the chemical process is most common, explains Jim Kohm, head of the FTC's enforcement division, and most manufacturers comply with the labeling rule, he says. When bamboo is chemically processed, the resulting cloth is rayon or a similar manufactured fabric. Good feeling "We have done some small customer surveys, and what we have found is that consumers like it more for the luxury of the product than for iconological reasons, says Corey Dinerstein, co-owner of www.greenearthbamboo.com. "It has amazing qualities," Dinerstein says, "The bed sheets are soft and smooth, like silk, but look like cotton." Similarly, it was the feel of bamboo in its wood form that first attracted Sullivan: "We make chairs for the movie business, and we were experimenting with different woods more than 10 years ago. We tried some bamboo flooring, and then my wife took a piece of it and made a cutting board. It barely got scarred and we just loved it." Quality difference Sullivan says the reason the cutting boards and other products he now manufactures have a unique durability because he selects bamboo when it hits the peak of quality. Some products cost less, but the quality doesn't compare. "It grows to its full height in its first year, but then it fills out and hardens. We use it after it is 4 or 5 years old," he says. Indeed, bamboo is just the raw material, the starting point for a range of products of varying quality. For instance, Vicki Jewell, a sales specialist at www.ecotimber.com, emphasizes that bamboo flooring is available a different quality points, with "solid" or "woven" usually preferable, especially if the flooring is made with quality adhesives. Whatever the product, the careful consumer has to examine and compare the features of products and avoid being so enamored with the word "bamboo" to the exclusion of quality issues.