The Bamboo Backlash


Take a closer look at that bamboo apparel in your closet–it may actually be made from rayon. Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reached a settlement totaling $1.3 million with four retailers, including, over false bamboo textile claims. The complaints allege the four companies–Nordstrom, Bed Bath & Beyond, and J.C. Penny the other three–broke the law by continuing to misrepresent or mislabel rayon products as bamboo despite receiving warning letters from the FTC in 2010 and a synopsis of previous litigated cases against marketers for deceptively labeling rayon products as bamboo.

In addition to the mislabeling, the FTC’s case against also alleges the company made false and unsubstantiated green claims that clothing and textile products were manufactured through an environmentally-friendly process and that they retain the natural antimicrobial properties of bamboo. The FTC claims that while so-called bamboo textiles often are promoted as environmentally friendly, the process for manufacturing rayon–even when it is made from bamboo–is far from a green one. “When attempting to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers, companies need to ensure they don’t cross the line into misleading labeling and advertising,” said Charles Harwood, Acting Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “If a textile is made of rayon, sellers need to say that, even if bamboo was used somewhere along the line in the production process.”

Bamboo is considered a more environmentally friendly choice because of its ability to grow quickly with little or no need for pesticides. But when it comes to textile products made from bamboo, that’s not the whole story. According to the FTC, most bamboo textile products, if not all, really are rayon, which typically is made using environmentally toxic chemicals in a process that emits hazardous pollutants into the air. While different plants, including bamboo, can be used as a source material to create rayon, there’s no trace of the original plant in the finished rayon product.

To help retailers understand how to correctly label, advertise, and market products that are purportedly made from bamboo, they released a publication called, “Avoid Bamboo-zling Your Buyers.” Unless a product is made directly with bamboo fiber—often called “mechanically processed bamboo”—it can’t be called bamboo. Indeed, to advertise or label a product as bamboo, you need competent and reliable evidence, such as scientific tests and analyses, to show that it’s made of actual bamboo fiber. Relying on other people’s claims (such as from the brand itself) isn’t substantiation. The same standard applies to other claims, like a claim that rayon fibers retain natural antimicrobial properties from the bamboo plant.

Update: An earlier version of this post showed a photo of a Bridgedale sock. I have removed the photo so as not to mislead anyone–although Bridgedale was cited as an example in the FTC complaint documentation against Backcountry, this was for the retailer’s use of “bamboo” in the title of the product on the website, which they have since corrected, even though the fiber content was correctly listed as “viscose from bamboo.” I have spoken with Steve Fowler, Managing Director of Bridgedale, who assures me they have worked with the FTC since 2011 to comply with all packaging and marketing guidelines.  

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