An elevator convo with Julia Washbourne, creator of Bamboa.
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What do you do?
I’m the founder and creator of Bamboa (Facebook / Instagram), which is dedicated to offering a wide range of attractive, durable but also reasonably-priced necessity lifestyle goods made from 100% sustainable bamboo.
My goal is to educate people about bamboo — did you know that bamboo produces 35% more oxygen and absorb five times more carbon dioxide than trees? — and rediscover what you can do with this cheap and eco-friendly resource.
How does your business work?
When I first learned about bamboo, it was like discovering a whole different world. We have a retail store in PMQ to show people what you can make out of bamboo. Our products range from silky bedsheets and soft towels to breathable masks and bento boxes. Even today, when people come in, they still can’t believe that everything is made out of bamboo.
We source 100% sustainable bamboos from Vietnam, Thailand and China, all from communities that surround bamboo forests. Bamboo has so many incredible properties: it’s antibacterial, hypoallergenic, highly absorbent, and it dries quickly. It’s a fast-growing plant that doesn’t require pesticides or irrigation, and can be used for thousands of different products.
One of my major passions is travelling to countries like Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia to look for the bamboo cottage industries and learn how local communities use bamboo. You know the bamboo lacquer bowls? Those were actually created 500 years before Christ — that’s 2,500 years ago, and it’s still very prominent in Southeast Asian countries. We’re learning and adapting techniques that have been around for many, many centuries. In China, if you go to a rural village, they will have bamboo chairs, bamboo tables, bamboo chopsticks. In Hong Kong, there’s the dim sum basket and scaffolding. Bamboo has long been incredible, but because of the popularization of plastic, which is so cheap and so practical, it has been pushed into the background.
How did your business get started?
In 2005, I was working for a German company and was sent to Hong Kong in charge of purchasing. I had to go very often to China to visit the factories, and I witnessed so many non-environmentally friendly practices. I saw toxic chemicals being put into products, and many plastic-derived materials being used. The steel industry uses an incredible amount of energy, and the cotton industry is also very harmful, using gallons of pesticides and gallons of water for irrigation.
It was really doing my head in. I felt I was part of the problem and it wasn’t making me happy. I wanted to be part of the solution. At that time, some of the products we were selling was bamboo socks and face towels. I came across the material and was surprised at how you can make fabric using bamboo. I did a lot of research into bamboo and it was eye-opening. I became a fanatic! My friends were all witnesses. They started calling me Bamboolia because I could not stop talking about bamboo.
As I had experience with product development and communicating with factories, I knew I had the skill set and started my own company. It was tough in the beginning. I was teaching English part-time and started out as a trading company. By luck, I got a few big orders which helped me rent an office space in Central in 2008 — that was the beginning of Bamboa.
Who are your customers?
In the beginning, it was challenging because we were the only company specializing in bamboo products, and we had to educate not only our customers but the market. But it’s developed drastically these several years, and it’s thanks to social media. When Al Gore came out with the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, there was more discussion, but it didn’t really have much of an impact on the main consumer. But social media reaches everybody’s homes. People are slowly beginning to realize, “what are we doing to our planet?” To be honest, it’s still not enough.
When we first started, our customers were mostly expats, but now it has diversified and local Chinese make up the majority of our customers. Hong Kong is slowly realizing that we can’t go on like this.
What’s a day in your working life like?
I wake up at about 5am and do two to three hours of exercise in the morning. It’s usually hiking, or kayaking. Before getting on this call, I went for a hike at The Peak. I use that time to think, to collect my thoughts and come up with ideas. At The Peak, I have a morning coffee and appreciate the incredible views, while listening to podcasts or writing on my iPhone.
And then I go into the shop at PMQ. I support my staff, and I also have my office space there. I will work on various things as well, working on new products or strategies. I stay until about 7pm, and get on the bus back home, which takes about an hour. But it’s enjoyable as I get to listen to podcasts. I go to bed at about 10pm.
What are some exciting projects we can look forward to at Bamboa?
Tove & Libra, an eco-fashion shop just moved in next to our shop at PMQ, and we’re going to be doing a collaboration with them in the weeks leading up to Chinese New Year. We’ll be having a sale outside on our veranda.
Also, we’ve launched the very exciting “Grow Bamboo Initiative”. When people purchase a Boo-Coin, we plant one bamboo in the Kavre district of Nepal, which employs the local rural community to tend to the bamboo forests until its harvest in three years. The bamboo will be made into baskets, chopsticks and other daily items that are eco-friendly and serve as a plastic alternative. So far, we have planted one hectare of bamboo! You can support the initiative by purchasing a 100% ethically-sourced Boo-Coin here.
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