Indulgent yet responsible fabrics

Bamboo and the FTC

O Ecotextiles (and Two Sisters Ecotextiles)


“Bamboo” fabric has taken the world by storm – people love its luxurious softness, smooth hand and gentle drape,  and they also seem to love its eco credentials (as touted by those selling the fabric).

It’s easy to tout bamboo (the plant) as eco friendly, because it is a wonderfully beneficial plant and just might be the world’s most sustainable resource: It’s the fastest growing grass and can grow up to a yard or more per day.  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. It doesn’t require replanting after harvest because its vast root network continually sprouts new shoots, all the while pulling in sunlight and greenhouse gases while converting them to new growth.  All this without the use of tractors or other machinery using petroleum, and without pesticides or fertilizers.

Bamboo (the plant) produces a huge biomass, both above and below ground.  One study found bamboo produces 14 tons of wood per acre, as against 8 for loblolly pine[1]; planted in large groves, it can store four times the CO2 as a stand of trees of similar size, and it releases 35% more oxygen.[2] Currently there are no known genetically modified organism (GMO) variants of bamboo.

But though bamboo the plant can be terrifically sustainable and beneficial, bamboo the fabric can raise environmental and health concerns – but like many issues on the green front, the answer is not black and white.  Some bamboo fiber can be green and some is not – and some green bamboo fiber can be woven conventionally and dyed with dyestuffs that contain lead, mercury, or other heavy metals, mutagenic chemicals that change our DNA or endocrine disruptors which affect our hormone balance.  And the factory using these chemicals probably did not treat their effluent before returning it to our waterways.

The Federal Trade Commission has finally acted to restrict some of the more outrageous claims being made about textiles, bamboo fabric specifically:  they have charged four sellers of clothing and other textile products with deceptive labeling and advertising.  Their intention is to demonstrate that unsubstantiated green claims in the clothing and other textile related product categories will not be tolerated.  And believe me, that’s a GREAT thing, because claims are being made for “green” textiles of every stripe – often stretching the “green” issue to the limit.   But to categorically say bamboo fabric is NOT green is to overstep in the opposite direction.   There is some naturally retted bamboo (processed like flax or hemp) on the market though it’s still hard to find.  The process used to turn bamboo into a fiber which is used almost exclusively today, the viscose process, can also be eco friendly if the manufacturer makes the effort to capture emissions and treat effluent.   We have to stop and take the time to evaluate claims.

Let’s give it a go.

“Rayon” is the generic name for any man-made fiber made from cellulose  – man in this case applies a chemical process to transform the cellulose.  It’s usually used with cellulose found in very hard and woody plants, such as wood or bamboo, although it can also be made from algae or other types of cellulose.   Cellulose is a carbohydrate and the chief component in the walls of plants.  There are several chemical and manufacturing techniques to make rayon, but the most common method is the viscose process.  In the viscose process, cellulose is treated with caustic soda (aka: sodium hydroxide) and carbon disulfide, converting it into a gold liquid about the color and consistency of honey, called viscose.  Viscose is forced through fine holes, called a spinerette, directly into a chemical bath where it hardens into fine strands.  When washed and bleached these strands become rayon yarn.  Most rayon made today uses this viscose process, which dates to the early 1900s.


Viscose is known as a “regenerated cellulose” fiber – in other words, it is reconstituted from cellulose.  Other regenerated cellulosic fibers include lyocell, Tencel®, modal and MicroModal – these are all made from wood.  Although the viscose process of making rayon from wood or cotton has been around for a long time, it wasn’t until 2003 that a method was devised for using bamboo for this process.(3)

The reason the viscose process is thought to be detrimental to the environment is based on the process chemicals used.  Though sodium hydroxide is routinely used in the processing of organic cotton, and is approved by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), carbon disulfide can cause nervous system damage with chronic exposure.  And that “chemical bath” to harden the threads?  Sulfuric acid.  These chemicals do not remain as a residue on the fibers – the proof of this is that almost all of the viscose produced can be (and often is) Oeko Tex certified (which certifies that the finished fiber has been tested for any chemicals which may be harmful to a person’s health and contains no trace of these chemicals.)

The problem comes in disposing of these process chemicals:  the sodium hydroxide (though not harmful to humans) is nevertheless harmful to the environment if dumped into our rivers as untreated effluent.  Same with carbon disulfide and, certainly, sulfuric acid.  Oeko Tex certifies only the final product, i.e.,the fibers or the fabric.  They do not look at the production process, which can be devastating.  The production could be done in a closed loop process, capturing and reclaiming all the chemicals used during manufacture, but this is seldom done.

And then of course there is the weaving of these viscose fibers into fabric – if done conventionally, the environmental burden is devastating (in terms of chemical and water use) and the fabric itself probably contains many chemicals known to be harmful to our health.

What is the FTC saying in their charge of deceptive advertising?  The unsubstantiated green claims they take issue with are:

  • The claim that the products are manufactured using an environmentally friendly process.
    • As I explained above, the claims may or may not be true.  Certainly the standard viscose production process is definitely NOT environmentally friendly, but some manufacturers use new closed loop systems, treat and/or recycle wastewater and capture emissions.  Tencel® certainly advertises its environmentally friendly production processes, based on closed loop systems, and a new non-toxic solvent (amine oxide) which, they say,  is 99.9% recycled.  Tencel® brand takes great pains to differentiate itself from viscose (saying that it is different because it’s based on solvents, but  I cannot find what they really mean by this as it seems to me they’re just using different chemicals.)  In the lyocell/Tencel process, the wood pulp is dissolved in N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide, then pushed thru spinneets to form individual fibers.  Although there is little by-product, the process uses a lot of energy and the solvent used is a by-product of gasoline production.
  • The claim that these products retain natural antimicrobial properties of the bamboo plant.
    • There has been little research done on viscose made from bamboo.  However, many studies have been done by Lenzing Group, which produces Tencel®.  One study sponsored by Lenzing found that “bacterial growth on textiles made from cellulosic fibers as compared to synthetic fibers showed lower bacterial growth”.[4] Of course, many claims assert that bamboo’s “natural antimicrobial properties” are retained by the viscose fibers.  However, could  it be possible that the exceptional water absorption ability of cellulosic fibers retards bacterial growth, as Tencel® claims?
  • The claim that they are biodegradable.
    • Ohio State University’s Consumer and Textile Sciences fact sheet on lyocell says it is “biodegradeable and recyclable”[5] and Tencel® also makes that claim – as seen in many advertisements about products made from this fiber. Is the bamboo viscose not as biodegradeable and/or recyclable as lyocell and Tencel®, both very similar fibers to bamboo viscose?  What is the inherent difference that would preclude the degredation of one and not the other?

The FTC says that “bamboo is not a generic fiber”.  Their reasoning is that the products are advertised as being made of “bamboo” when they should be saying the products are made of “rayon” or “rayon from bamboo”:

  • The differences between lyocell, Tencel, modal and viscose gets WAY technical; I think it’s sufficient here to note that they are all known by their fiber or brand names, rather than the cellulose source used in production.  For example, rayon is derived from wood pulp – and the kind of wood used can vary from beech, pine, spruce and hemlock to Eucalyptus – it’s not known as “lyocell rayon from beech” or “Tencel rayon from beech trees” as the FTC is requiring for “rayon from bamboo”. MicroModal, another regenerated cellulosic fiber, is even classified as “cotton” for importation by U.S. Customs.(6)

I guess I’m glad they’ve finally drawn a line in the sand.  Something is always better than nothing.  But I’m disappointed that they’re focusing on the fiber and ignoring the processing, because the processing is both a huge environmental burden (if done conventionally) and potentially very harmful to us and our kids.  So why stop with the fiber?  The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) addresses these issues.  If manufacturers were forced (by the market or by federal regulations) to have third party certifications in place, we’d all be healthier and the ecosystem would have a better chance.  Perhaps the FTC could spend some effort spreading the word about GOTS and what exactly a GOTS certified fabric is  and why it’s better than a fabric (non certified) made with a GOTS certified – or organic – fiber.

[1]Raver, Ann, “A Cane the World Can Lean On”, New York Times, July 5, 2007

[2] Janssen, Jules A., Technical University Eindhoven, 2000

[3] US patent 7313906 by Xiangqi Zhou, Zheng Liu, Liming Liu and Hao Geng

[4] http://www.lenzing.com/fe/media/I_22-30_FIRGO_The_Functional_Properties_of_TENCEL.pdf

[5] http://ohioline.osu.edu/hyg-fact/5000/5572.html

[6] http://www.askandyaboutclothes.com/forum/archive/index.php?t-49815.html

10 thoughts on “Bamboo and the FTC

  1. Hi Patty and Leigh Ann,

    Thanks for your thoughtful analysis of the FTC vs Bamboo Textiles issue that has recently hit newsstands. It is great to hear that mindful and fact seeking people are examining the facts. As you correctly noted in your piece, recently the FTC developed new labeling guidelines for the organic and natural product market including bamboo textiles. Our company, Sami Designs and the brands we produce including Jonano along with several other companies at the forefront of the eco textile and eco fashion world who work in bamboo were asked to ensure that our labeling and marketing to conform with these new guidelines. Jonano immediately signed on, agreeing to conform to the new labeling guidelines, while other companies are going to fight some of the specific new FTC guidelines that do not jive with the extensive testing and data widely available and accepted by research and testing facilities, and universities worldwide.

    Here are the facts:

    2005 Sami Designs began researching textiles and wrote a 90 page white paper on antimicrobial textiles including bamboo, chitin, alginin, and hemp. Testing data is included from several sources showing antimicrobial factors for both bamboo and hemp and biodegradability of bamboo crops and hemp crops and chitin/rayon fabrics. These quantitative tests were performed by Japan Textile Inspection Association, SWICOFIL, China Industrial Testing Center, Bambrotex.

    2006 the Jonano Brand began designing marketing and selling bamboo, organic cotton and hemp clothing. Characteristics such as grown without the use of pesticides, produced in a “closed loop system” that recirculates and captures agents used to convert the plant into fiber, “antimicrobial” were used in our marketing. All of these “claims” were due diligently researched and substantiated in writing by independent sources, textile manufacturing agencies and textile research organizations.

    2007 bamboo organic certification criteria was released by the FDA. Jonano chose to select only certified organic bamboo for our production and could then use the label “certified organic bamboo.”

    Beginning in 2008 Jonano switched our labeling of the organic bamboo content on our clothing production from “organic bamboo” to “viscose from organic bamboo,” after we received information that the government was ready to present labeling guidelines for this new eco textile that might require this switch shortly. Prior to this time no FDA guidelines for bamboo textiles were available and this fiber and fabric was labeled “bamboo” as had been accepted by the US Customs Department during importation and customs clearance for all Sami Designs products since we began.

    In 2009 Sami Designs received a mailing from the FTC asking that a settlement agreement be reached that Sami Designs would conform to the new FTC regulations and standards. We signed on immediately and went over all of our marketing materials with a fine tooth comb in order to ensure that we were in compliance with these new labeling and marketing standards.

    As for the claim that Sami Designs and our brands misrepresented our clothing products in our labels, no standardization was available until after we began using the term viscose from bamboo on our clothing. We are compliant with the new FTC labeling standards and never tried to mislead.

    As new eco textiles continue to be developed and brought to market, the challenge of this task includes working with agencies in developing labeling and organic certification standards, obtaining new organic certifications for these crops, and continually working towards better and safer ways to produce textiles. All textile production requires processing of crops into fibers to create fabrics that can be comfortably worn and enjoyed for years to come. Our goal is and has always been to develop great eco textiles that make a positive impact on the environment, on the farmers and growers, on our manufacturing and cooperative production facilities and most importantly on the lives of the people who choose to select organic fashion for their wardrobe.

    Our company makes available detailed information that describes the process of turning hardy organically grown bamboo into fiber that we select to create our viscose from organic bamboo blends sold under the Jonano ecoKashmere Collection. If anyone is interested in obtaining our testing data, simply write me through the contact us pages on the jonano.com website.

    We are currently working on new eco textiles including corn blends, peace silks and more. As always, technologies and scientific advancements precede governmental standardization. The end result of developing new and improved eco textiles, we envision, will be a world where fewer pesticides and fertilizers are used on textile crops, safer methods for producing textile fibers and fabrics continue to be developed and organic clothing and eco textiles continue to become more available.
    Although Jonano will not be participating in any fight with the FTC, we support the work of the companies who will be fighting to secure acceptance of the extensive research, testing and documentation and research that supports emerging new eco textiles so that we can all continue to expand the world of eco fashion together.

    With Metta,


  2. Marcy Drye says:

    Thank you for explaining and so charmingly teaching. I am looking for decently priced but good quality organic clothing. I am learning it comes in more than just organic cotton:) If anyone is nterested in my featuring thier products please do not hesitate to contact me.



  3. pamela wynne says:

    Thanks so much for this excellent overview! As a knitter, I see manymany claims about bamboo fiber and bamboo viscose in commercially-produced yarns, and this clears up a LOT. What a great unpacking of textile-industry industry language and everything that’s hidden behind it.

  4. blaireladd says:

    On a slightly different note, do you have any research on soy textiles? I’ve read that soy is made from the by product of tofu production and then produced the same way bamboo textiles are made. Another concern is that the tofu is probably made from GMO soy. Have you done any research on the sustainability of soy textile? If so, how ‘green’ is it?

  5. oecotextiles says:

    I don’t know much about soy as we don’t use it. However, I do know that soy yarns are subject to the same process chemicals as any other fiber, so it would be important to make sure your supplier is – at the least – treating its wastewater, using GOTS compliant dyestuffs and other process chemicals and paying decent wages. But in looking at the production of the soy fibers only: these fibers are man made regenerated fibers made from the soy protein. They must undergo a chemical conversion, similar to that of viscose. They are actually a member of the azlon family of fibers (derived from protein from natural products, like soy, peanuts, milk and corn). For the information in quotes, I couldn’t find specifics as to what chemicals are used:
    • first the soybean cake is refined,
    • then the protein structure is changed, using an “auxiliary agent and biological enzyme”
    • “high polymers” are added to the liquid, which is then cooked;
    • The liquid is forced thru spinnerets, and “stabilized by acetalizing”

    Some reports say the stabilization occurs using formaldehyde.

    So I think the processing may certainly have environmental impacts.
    As to the GMO content of the soy – it’s safe to assume that that’s the case, because 70% of the world’s soybean crop is GMO (and 91% of the soybean crop in the USA is GMO).
    Of course if you could find a textile using certified organic soy, you’d be assured that the soybeans were not GMO. But then you’d still have to worry about the processing.

  6. heather carey says:

    Hi , thanks for the insight – I am looking at making up some designs in eco fabrics – hopefully bamboo. How can I find out where to get them from ?

    I am in Australia. i heard a discussion on our national broadcaster this week talking about how the claims for bamboo are exagerated, a woman is doing research into the cred of bamboo as organic/ sunblocking/ , she is at Deakon University. Also the waistfulness of the industry making disposable clothing and is looking at using the offcuts or being able to recycle them.

    A guy rang in and said he works in the fabric industry and there is an Italian mill that are making eco/ organic bamboo fabric but the clothing industry want the cheapest cloth.


    1. oecotextiles says:

      Hi Heather: I guess we always have to keep in mind that each product has many facets – and bamboo is certainly a case in point. For example, bamboo can be made into fiber and yarn through either retting, as other bast fibers are processed (linen and hemp); this process breaks down the hard culm and frees the fibers – but the resulting cloth is similar to linen. What you see in the market is mostly regenerated fibers that were produced using the viscose process. This can be environmentally damaging if the producer doesn’t treat their waste (air and water) – but the fibers are soft and silky, like other viscose fibers, and are very popular because other properties are attributed to bamboo, such as antibacterial (known as “kun”). Those properties have been supported by tests done by the Japan Textile Inspection Association and the China Industrial Testing Center – but it’s not clear that bamboo fibers that have undergone the viscose process have the same efficacy. And it’s sadly all too true that the industry is always looking for the cheapest cloth – which is where consumers strength is most apparent. Because what consumers buy is what gets produced. If consumers will put their money where their ethics are, then these industrial clients will be forced to treat their wastewater. If not, then the industry will continue to force prices down, which means chemically infused effluent will continue to be dumped into our rivers.

  7. Karla says:

    I’m curious to know if you can lead me to a company that makes Oeko-Tex standard bamboo sheets and towels with the closed loop system. Or yarn for that matter (I’m a knitter).

    1. I’m sorry but I don’t know – the only company I know of which produces the yarns in a closed loop system is Lenzing, and they make Tencel and Modal yarns, but the cellulose is eucalyptus rather than bamboo.

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