It’s Easy Being Green When You’re Not

By: Peter Fonash, Staffwriter

Bamboo is touted as an eco-friendly material for flooring and furniture. It is eco-friendly because it grows quickly with little need for pesticides, it can be harvested without killing the parent plant, and, as luck would have it, it is easy to maintain.[1] As a result, bamboo has seen increasing use as an “industrial raw material and substitute for wood.”[2]

Naturally, corporations are eager to capitalize on the increasing number of environmentally conscious consumers by advertising their products as ‘green’ because they are made from bamboo. For some bamboo products, like flooring and furniture, these claims are true. With “soft” bamboo products, however, like shirts and sheets, these claims are often half true or are even patently false.[3] Indeed, companies have claimed their clothing is 100% bamboo fiber when, in fact, the clothing is made out of rayon, which is a synthetic material.[4]

Much of the issue derives from the production of rayon. Rayon is “created from the cellulose found in plants and trees and processed with a harsh chemical that releases hazardous air pollutants.”[5] Any cellulose source, including bamboo, is sufficient to use in the production of rayon. While a rayon product is technically made with or from bamboo when bamboo is used as this cellulose source, it is far from 100% bamboo fiber. Notably, in contrast to the manufacture of bamboo, which can be fairly ‘green,’ manufacturing rayon uses toxic chemicals, resulting in the emission of hazardous air pollutants.[6]

In recent years, many corporations have falsely claimed their rayon products are eco-friendly because they are made from bamboo, thereby misleading consumers and opening themselves up to liability. Two instances serve as useful examples, the first in 2009 and the second in 2013. In both instances, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) brought complaints against the participating corporations.  

In 2009, the FTC charged Jonäno, Mad Mod, and Pure Bamboo, with “deceptively labeling and advertising” some of their products as “made of bamboo fiber, when they are made of rayon.”[7] The FTC, moreover, charged these sellers 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.”[8] The FTC charged that the seller’s products were made of rayon that was made with bamboo, rather than being made from pure bamboo, and that the seller’s process for manufacturing these products was not in fact environmentally friendly.[9] The sellers, in response to the charges, settled with FTC, agreeing to “use the proper names to label and advertise the fibers in their products.”[10]

Later, in 2010, FTC sent letters to Amazon.com, Leon Max, Inc., Macy’s, and Sears warning the companies they were violating the “Textile Products Identification Act and the FTC’s ’Textile Rules’ by mislabeling and advertising products as made of bamboo.”[11] It was not until three years later, in 2013, that the four retailers finally settled with the FTC for a combined $1.26 million “for falsely labeling clothing and textiles as made of bamboo.”[12]

Although the offending corporations agreed to cease making false claims in both instances, the second instance highlights that it can take years for corporations to accept responsibility and implement the necessary changes. During the interim, consumers are vulnerable to false claims. Moreover, prior to receiving FTC warnings, corporations may be unaware that their claims are illegal. To avoid these issues, consumers and corporations alike should read FTC publications designed to help both businesses and the public navigate the purchase and sale of bamboo products.[13] This information helps consumers determine when their bamboo purchases are truly green and it guides corporations in making ‘green’ claims about their bamboo products.

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[1] See ‘Bamboo’ Fabrics, Federal Trade Commission, http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0122-bamboo-fabrics(lasted visited Mar. 30, 2014) (discussing uses of bamboo).

[2] Inga Muller and Camille Rebelo, Bamboo Worldwide, EcoPlanet Bamboo, 5, http://www.ecoplanetbamboo.net/files/bamboo_worldwide.pdf (lasted visited Mar. 30, 2014) (listing physical and environmental properties of bamboo making it exceptional resource).

[3] SeeBamboo’ Fabrics, supra note 1.

[4] See Four National Retailers Agree to Pay Penalties Totaling $1.26 Million for Allegedly Falsely Labeling Textiles as Made of Bamboo, While They Actually Were Rayon, Federal Trade Commission (Jan. 3, 2013), http://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2013/01/four-national-retailers-agree-pay-penalties-totaling-126-million(charging four companies for false bamboo claims); see also FTC Charges Companies with ‘Bamboo-zling’ Consumers with False Product Claims, Federal Trade Commission (Aug. 11 2009), http://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2009/08/ftc-charges-companies-bamboo-zling-consumers-false-product-claims (charging three companies for false bamboo claims and unsubstantiated green claims).

[5] FTC Charges Companies with ‘Bamboo-zling’, supra note 4 (explaining Rayon manufacturing process).

[6] See id. (finding further that Rayon products are not “biodegradable because they will not break down in a reasonably short time after customary disposal.”)

[7] Id. (violating Commission’s Textile Fiber Products Identification Act).

[8] Id. (explaining Rayon products are “not biodegradable because they will not break down in a reasonably short time after customary disposal.”)

[9] Id. (citing harsh chemicals used in process).

[10] FTC Charges Companies with ‘Bamboo-zling’, supra note 4 (allowing descriptions like “rayon made from bamboo”).

[11] Susana Kim, Macy’s, Sears, Amazon, Max Studio Fined for ‘Bamboozling’ Customers, ABC News (Jan. 5 2013), http://abcnews.go.com/Business/macys-sears-amazon-max-studio-fined-bamboozling-customers/story?id=18132575 (explaining mechanically processed bamboo cannot be called bamboo); see also Four National Retailers Agree to Pay Penalties Totaling $1.26 Million for Allegedly Falsely Labeling Textiles as Made of Bamboo, While They Actually Were Rayon, Federal Trade Commission (Jan. 3 2013), http://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2013/01/four-national-retailers-agree-pay-penalties-totaling-126-million

[12] Retailers Agree to Pay Penalties, supra note 11.

[13] SeeBamboo’ Fabrics, supra note 1; see also Threading Your Way Through the Labeling Requirements Under the Textile and Wool Acts, Federal Trade Commission (May 2005), http://business.ftc.gov/documents/bus21-threading-your-way-through-labeling-requirements-under-textile-and-wool-acts#intro (listing laws governing bamboo labeling and sale).

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