Don't fret just yet! You can still feel good about your bamboo flooring and rad SK8 board. The product in question is the bamboo fabric that many folks are touting as a green alternative to conventional textiles, like cotton.
So I have to admit that the pros and cons of bamboo have been on my mind for a while. Well, it sounds like I wasn't the only one with reservations about bamboo. This August, the FTC released an official consumer alert claiming that marketers made false claims about bamboo fabric and is charging four companies with "bamboozling" consumers. Of course, the companies that sell bamboo fabric disagree.
So who to believe? Here's the skinny on the great bamboo debate.
Here's the first part of the FTC consumer alert:
Looking to be a more environmentally conscious shopper? You’ve probably heard about bamboo. Bamboo stands out for its ability to grow quickly with little or no need for pesticides, and it is used in a variety of products, from flooring to furniture. But when it comes to soft bamboo textiles, like shirts or sheets, there’s a catch: they’re actually rayon.
The Federal Trade Commission, the nation’s consumer protection agency, wants you to know that the soft “bamboo” fabrics on the market today are rayon. They are made using toxic chemicals in a process that releases pollutants into the air. Extracting bamboo fibers is expensive and time-consuming, and textiles made just from bamboo fiber don’t feel silky smooth.
The chemical process they're referring to basically involves mushing up the bamboo plant into a sort of chemical slurry that's cooked to create the fabric. Not only are these chemicals, such as carbon disulfide, harsh on the environment, they're terrible for the folks who work around them, irritating skin and eyes and sometimes even leading to neural disorders.
Yikes! So what does the industry have to say?
Over at Green Earth Bamboo, a company that sells all sorts of bamboo fabric products, you can take a look at some of the bamboo industry's counterpoints. The article attempts to debunk the FTC charges, point by point. Here are some highlights.
They start out by comparing claims about bamboo fabric to those about Entegrion's military bandages, which are also made of bamboo. I sort of think this argument misses the point. Maybe the company that produced bandages "made from a combination of glass and bamboo fibers" should have said "rayon from bamboo," but it doesn't seem like a fair comparison. These bandages weren't marketed as a green product, and they didn't tout bamboo as a benefit...it just happened to be the material that worked best to stop bleeding. It's a shame, because some of Green Earth's arguments feel a bit more legit.
They're also saying that bamboo should not be classified as rayon but should instead have its own textile classification. That's fair enough. Maybe fabric from bamboo should have its own classification. Still, that wouldn't change the process that turns the plant into a pair of socks. It feels a bit like arguing semantics.
I'm not sure that saying that bamboo is the same as rayon is fair to the folks who make bamboo products, and I do believe that maybe they didn't intend to be misleading. Now that everything is out in the open, it will be interesting to see if companies still claim bamboo fabric as a green product.
But wait! There's more. A lot of companies have been claiming that bamboo fabric has antimicrobial properties, and the FTC does not agree:
There’s also no evidence that rayon made from bamboo retains the antimicrobial properties of the bamboo plant, as some sellers and manufacturers claim. Even when bamboo is the “plant source” used to create rayon, no traits of the original plant are left in the finished product.
Companies that claim a product is “bamboo” should have reliable evidence, like scientific tests and analyses, to show that it’s made of actual bamboo fiber.
Green Earth holds that the antimicrobial claims are not misleading and are based on science, despite what the FTC says.
I can get a bit more on board with the counter arguments here. They cite a couple of different studies that did find antimicrobial properties in bamboo fabric. You can read about a couple of such studies over here, on the Green Earth Bamboo site. They also mention a study of antimicrobial behavior of bamboo socks.
Finally, the FTC says that some bamboo fabric companies "make unqualified claims that their products are biodegradable, and that they will completely break down and return to the elements found in nature in a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal."
I've got to say that I'm with Green Earth on this one. After reading what the FTC means by biodegradable, their definition seems to have very little to do with the material and lots to do with the disposal. Their argument is basically that since most rayon is recycled or landfilled, then it isn't biodegradable. That doesn't make any sense to me!
So what's the truth about bamboo?
It's not really a black or white (green or white?) issue. The FTC piled on several claims, some of which feel a little bit shaky. It sounds like they ignored some independent studies and I don't agree with all of their logic.
Really, though, how green can a fabric be if the production process involves such harmful chemicals? I almost wish the FTC had stopped there, because that is a strong point, and more folks need to know how companies turn that lovey green plant into a baby blanket.
So what do you guys think? Have we been bamboozled, or is the FTC being way too hard on these companies?