One of the biggest confusions of the past decade or so has been the labeling of textiles as made from bamboo . Because of all the interest in environmentally friendly products, such labels have helped move tons of merchandise. But in many cases, reading the word “bamboo” on labels has misled consumers, merchandisers, and manufacturers alike. Learning about the path from bamboo plant to finished fabric may surprise you.
What is the bottom line on bamboo?
Although it is possible to make fabric directly from fibers taken from bamboo plants, that process is costly and we rarely see products meriting a 100% bamboo label. And when we do, those fabrics are typically somewhat stiff, resembling hemp or linen fabrics.
Most consumers associate bamboo with a soft, smooth fabric. That’s because the vast majority of “bamboo” textiles are actually 100% rayon. Yes, you read that right, rayon.
Rayon is a generic fiber name used to describe a category of fibers made from cellulose. Fiber producers use natural bamboo fibers to manufacture rayon fibers, in the same way they might use any other cellulosic starting material, such as cotton linters or wood pulp. The resulting fibers are chemically indistinguishable from rayon made of any other cellulose. So while it might be a nice bit of marketing to tout “rayon from bamboo” on the label, rayon originating from bamboo does not perform any differently than rayon from other sources.
So what’s special about rayon from bamboo?
While rayon from bamboo does not possess superior performance compared to other rayon, knowing the rayon is made from bamboo might affect a customer’s perception of the product’s environmental impact. The accuracy of that perception is a little harder to discern…
It is true that bamboo is one of the world’s most marvelously fast-growing plants. And because it requires less of things like water, petroleum, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides to grow, compared to many other sources of cellulose, it ranks high in terms of sustainability.
However, the methods used to manufacture most rayon, including rayon from bamboo, are rarely described as environmentally friendly. The various methods range widely in their environmental impact. The average consumer remains blissfully unaware of all the particulars, and ends up simply trusting the marketing hype of “eco-friendly”, made believable by the mere presence of the word “bamboo” somewhere on the label. But unless this claim is backed up somehow, the words are meaningless, so let the buyer beware.
Lest we tend to over-simplify…
In trying to give you “just the simple facts” above, I haven’t addressed the full complexity of this issue. If you want to think a little bit more, ponder a few of the factors further complicating the picture. Some people point to certification as the way to “know” what products are “good”. But let’s face it, certification is only as good as the organization doing the certification, so you have to look at that organization’s agenda and standards to understand the worth of their certification.
Some countries have very strict environmental standards, while others have practically none. And these stated standards are one thing; knowledge of, compliance with, and enforcement of those standards are a separate story.Then there is all the confusion about labeling, involving miscommunication, lack of knowledge, or in some cases dishonesty.
But let’s not take the easy way out and decide all textile firms are trying to get away with something. Many companies take on the noble mission of producing the best textile products with the least environmental impact using existing technology. Kudos to those fiber producers who take on the tough and competitive challenge of investing heavily to find the most earth-conscious solutions to fiber manufacturing! But the reality is that all fiber manufacturing and processing has some environmental impact; it’s a matter of degree.
The FTC has it right
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires accurate labeling of textile products sold in the United States. The FTC has made numerous strong statements regarding the need for labels to differentiate “bamboo fibers” from “fibers made from bamboo” in order to comply with the Textile Fiber Products Identification Act (TFPIA). It is still up to us to learn what these words on a label mean, and to decide how our understanding impacts our product decisions.
Read more about bamboo-based textiles. For a more thorough coverage of the processes and performance of bamboo-based textiles, visit Bamboo: Facts Behind the Fiber, and to further investigate some of the overblown “hype” about bamboo read Bamboo Sprouting Green Myths. Also, here’s a post from Patagonia on Bamboo and Rayon.
I thought I was clever with the “bamboo-zled” title until I visited the FTC website today and found out they thought of the idea first. At any rate, the FTC website features a number of good posts, such as How to Avoid Bamboozling Your Customers. Just search their site for “bamboo” or “rayon from bamboo” for additional information.