US Consumer Watchdog Says Shoo to Bamboo Textiles


Photo by annieo76 via Flickr Creative Commons

Last week the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) advised it had sent out letters to 78 US retailers advising them to stop labelling clothing as being made from 'bamboo.' Any company that fails to correct its advertising and labeling may find the FTC imposing penalties of up to $16,000 per violation, or as the FTC did last year suing four companies for falsely claiming that their clothing and other textile products were made of bamboo fibre. The Federal Trade Commission believe such claims are deceptive. Not Bamboo, But Rayon
The FTC contend that the fabric are in fact 'Rayon', a textile made from reconstituted cellulose fibres. There is no official textile classification for Bamboo. In a statement entitled "Have You Been Bamboozled by Bamboo Fabrics?" the FTC, USA's consumer protection agency, state that rayon production use "toxic chemicals in a process that releases pollutants into the air." Going on to say, "Extracting bamboo fibers is expensive and time-consuming, and textiles made just from bamboo fiber don't feel silky smooth.

No Evidence of Antimicrobial Properties
Furthermore, the Federal Trade Commission note that, "There's also no evidence that rayon made from bamboo retains the antimicrobial properties of the bamboo plant, as some sellers and manufacturers claim. Even when bamboo is the "plant source" used to create rayon, no traits of the original plant are left in the finished product."

Already textiles in this category are starting to be labeled as "Rayon from Bamboo." And the claims of wondrous qualities are being tamped down.

It is not only small online retailers of garments and textile products that are being notified by the FTC. Large, well known, national brick and mortar retailers, of Wal-Mart, Target, REI, and Kmart ilk have also been sent the letter. You can see a full list of companies here (PDF).

It has taken the Federal Trade Commission a while to act on this issue. We ran a post back in 2007 asking the question Is Bamboo Clothing Truly Green?, where we referenced the chemical solvent used to make viscose (also known as rayon) from raw bamboo material.

Confused Eco Shoppers
Even the FTC acknowledge that bamboo "stands out for its ability to grow quickly with little or no need for pesticides," but it doesn't want environmentally conscious shoppers to think they are getting an environmentally blameless product when they buy soft bamboo textiles.


Example of bamboo tencle yarn, a popular option for eco-conscious consumers; photo by ilashdesigns via Flickr Creative Commons

And seems that they may have their work cut out for them turning this confusion around. A 2008 consumer environment survey (PDF) asked consumers to rank fibres by whether they were safe or harmful for the environment. Consumers rated bamboo second for environmental safety, just under cotton, apparently oblivious that bamboo was in essence rayon, which they attributed to near the bottom of the list

Obviously the bamboo textile industry has been good at its marketing. And Treehugger has, at times, been complicit in spreading this erroneous message around the place.

Textile Labelling
This is not to say the US Federal Trade Commission aren't open to new textile labeling categories. In 1996 they approved Lyocell as a new and valid description for fabric content labelling, for the textiles commonly known as Tencel. In 2002, they similarly allowed the use of PLA (polylactic acid) to described products like Ingeo which is derived from corn. Though, bear in mind that FTC approval of a textile term does not denote any level of environmental standards.

We wonder if the protein-derived fibres like soy, casein (milk) and so on will also come under their scrutiny? The official FTC identification these manufactured fibre in "which the fiber-forming substance is composed of any regenerated naturally occurring proteins" is termed Azlon.

Federal Trade Commission Resources
The Federal Trade Commission have a wealth of information on textile labeling:
Complying with the Environmental Marketing Guides
A User's Guide to the Language of Recycling
The Textile Products Identification Act
Guides for the use of environmental marketing claims
:: Federal Trade Commission site on Bamboo Textiles, Issues, Cases & Education via Sports One Source.

Tags: Chemicals | Clothing | Corporate Responsibility | United States

Best of TreeHugger