How to avoid trouble if using bamboo fabrics

On the heels of Canada’s change in labeling laws, the FTC is stepping up enforcement against manufacturers making misleading claims about bamboo fabric that violate labeling requirements. If you’re using bamboo fabrics or blends and making similar claims, you’ll need to change your labeling and marketing practices quickly. The FTC has charged four firms -the tip of the iceberg- with violating the Textile Act by, in part, labeling rayon products as “bamboo”. Legally and technically, fabric made of bamboo is rayon and must be labeled as such. [The FTC will permit companies to label products as “rayon made from bamboo,” if one can prove it… and supplier dishonesty is a topic best left to another day.]

I think confusion has risen because considering the context, it’s common to label fabric products according to basis of component fibers used in them. Such examples are cotton, silk, linen, wool etc. The difference with rayon is that although it is a natural cellulose based fabric (made of wood, bamboo and even cotton lintner), it is man-made -but man-made fabrics are not labeled according to ingredients. For example, just as you don’t see “petroleum” listed on the care labels of polyester products, you won’t see “wood” listed on the care labels of rayon products.  Therefore it holds that rayon made of bamboo must also be legally labeled as rayon. Also consider the example of lyocell, another cellulose based rayon-like fabric. Lyocell is the generic name while Tencel is the brand name. Products made of Tencel must be labeled as lyocell on care labels to comply with FTC regulations. In some ways, it might be easier to define rayon as a process rather than a product.

The FTC enforcement action is intended to hold producers accountable and to reduce consumer confusion over greenwashing. Here’s the gist of it:

The Federal Trade Commission has charged four sellers of clothing and other textile products with deceptively labeling and advertising these items as made of bamboo fiber, when they are made of rayon. The complaints also charge the companies with making false and unsubstantiated “green” claims that their clothing and textile products are manufactured using an environmentally friendly process, that they retain the natural antimicrobial properties of the bamboo plant, and that they are biodegradable… The FTC also charges three of the companies […] with violating the Textile Act and Rules by advertising or labeling their products without disclosing where the products were manufactured… The proposed orders do allow the companies to describe their products as “rayon made from bamboo,” as long as this is true and can be substantiated.

The FTC has provided guidance to manufacturers which will be useful to amend your labeling practices. In any event, not labeling where your products are manufactured is a big no-no. I can’t count the number of companies on the web who do not list the country of origin in the descriptions for individual items on the catalog pages of their websites.

Why this matters
The FTC is concerned that consumers are being misled by greenwashing. Although rayon is a natural but man made fabric, rayon production is highly toxic (Avtex, the largest EPA Super Fund clean up site was a rayon plant). Of all the fabrics in the rayon family, lyocell is considered to be the most eco-friendly because Lenzing, the firm that manufacturers lyocell, has a certified closed loop system. While many bamboo producers claim they use a closed loop system, the claims are dubious for two reasons. The first is that lyocell is a proprietary process patented by Lenzig which has not licensed the process to any bamboo producers. Secondly, while it’s possible bamboo producers have developed their own proprietary closed loop processes, no firms to date have permitted inspectors on site to verify these claims.

Claims of bamboo superiority are widespread on the internet and must be critically considered. For example, one site attempts to make the case for bamboo (rayon) by comparing it to cotton when a fairer comparison is to compare bamboo rayon to regular rayon. In truth, the only advantage appears to be that bamboo is quickly replenished but caveats (below) abound. Regardless, this advantage is comparatively negligible because regular rayon is made of wood recycled from lumber processing. Another site bolsters their claims of bamboo’s lower toxic load by employing a bait and switch, launching into a description of the lyocell process that is not (yet) used in bamboo rayon production. Unless one reads carefully, one can be easily misled to believe bamboo rayon production is less toxic and superior to regular rayon or cotton production and this has yet to be proven.

Examples of questionable claims:
Claim: Organic bamboo fiber clothing is naturally anti-microbial… It …prevents bacteria from cultivating on it.
Fact: Rayon, regardless of input (wood pulp or bamboo) and whether organic or not, doesn’t mildew as easily as some other natural fabrics. If “anti-microbial” is intended to convey the characteristic of preventing bacteria growth (mildew resistance), then this would be true -of all rayons, not just bamboo.

Claim: Bamboo apparel is thermal regulating, anti-fungal, anti-static and will keep you cooler, drier, warmer and odor free.
Fact: This is characteristic of rayon, regardless of whether made by wood or bamboo.

Claim: Bamboo is grown without pesticides.
Fact: Trees used to make rayon are also grown organically without pesticides. The only trees sprayed with pesticides are fruit and nut trees and this wood is not likely to be used in rayon production because the lumber harvested at the end of the tree’s life cycle is highly coveted. Fruit and nut lumbers are used in expensive furniture, veneers and consumer products. Furthermore, it is not possible for residual pesticides to remain in the fiber at the end of the rayon process.

Claim: Bamboo is hypoallergenic, breathable, and absorbent.
Fact: Again, true of all rayons.

Claim: Growing bamboo improves soil quality and helps rebuild eroded soil. The extensive root system of bamboo holds soil together, prevents soil erosion, and retains water in the watershed.
Fact: This is also true of trees used to make rayon.

Claim: Bamboo grows naturally without the need for agricultural tending and large diesel exhaust-spewing tractors to plant seeds and cultivate the soil.
Fact: Also true of trees used to make rayon.

Claim: Bamboo fabrics and clothing can be manufactured and produced without any chemical additives
Fact: This is wildly untrue of any rayon regardless of the material used for the cellulose base.

Claim: Bamboo grows rapidly and naturally without any pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers.
Fact: On the face of it, this is all true. As a practical matter, the rise of bamboo’s popularity has led to the hazards common to commercialization. For example, clearing vast tracts for bamboo production has contributed to deforestation, rendering a mono-culture at the expense of biodiversity. Similarly, acreage formerly used for food production has given way to bamboo cultivation. What’s more, herbicides are increasingly used to reduce competing foliage.

The point of this discussion is not whether you should use rayon whether made of bamboo or anything else because rayon has many desirable properties, but that rayon made of bamboo should be labeled and marketed according to the law. However, if your purchasing decisions are motivated by sustainability, experts agree that hemp and organic cotton are better alternatives to rayon.

Sources and more information:
Rayon – The Multi-Faceted Fiber
History and process description of rayon

Forum discussions:
Canada, Bamboo and Rayon
Cupra/Cupro Fabric
Organic Fabrics
Bamboo Fabric

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