RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—It's renewable, fast-growing, and abundant, but does that make bamboo an ideal source material for clothing? According to a recent lawsuit from the Federal Trade Commission, it doesn't.
THE DETAILS: Four companies that use bamboo for clothing and other household fabrics were charged by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for deceptive advertising techniques: claiming that the fabrics are made from "bamboo fiber," are manufactured using an environmentally friendly process, are naturally antimicrobial, and will biodegrade. In point of fact, says the FTC, "bamboo fiber" is really rayon, the same fiber invented in the 1850s. Rayon is traditionally made from wood pulp, but it can be made from any pulpy substance, including bamboo, and the FTC had issues with these companies selling rayon under a misleading label that made it seem more ecofriendly than wood-based rayon. Furthermore, they add, both wood-based and bamboo-based rayon are manufactured using air-polluting caustic soda, or lye, which isn't environmentally friendly and destroys any antimicrobial characteristics that may have existed in raw bamboo pulp. Regarding claims of biodegradation, the FTC says that bamboo won't biodegrade if tossed into a landfill, where most of our trash ends up.
WHAT IT MEANS: The FTC isn't the first to criticize bamboo-clothing manufacturers for advertising the fiber as ecofriendly when the process of converting the pulp into fiber employs such caustic chemicals. In a recent article for the Council of Fashion Designers of America, a representative from the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is currently working with textile mills to lessen their environmental impacts, recommended avoiding bamboo for any designer looking for more ecofriendly fabrics. Bamboo does have an eco upside: It grows quickly, replenishing itself in as little as five years after it's been harvested (compared with 15 to 20 years for trees), and it requires few pesticides and very little water. But for clothing that's lighter on the planet than petroleum-based polyester or chemically grown cotton, there are better choices.