Rayon, or Viscose if you’re British or just want to sound British, is typically made from wood pulp or plant fibers, including bamboo. However, in doing so the fibers are subject to significant processing, including numerous chemicals, thus the Grateful Dead reference in the title. Nevertheless, in a time when consumers are concerned about the environment and their own health, manufacturers and retailers alike are often drawn to evoking the image of lush fields of bamboo and its sustainability and eco-friendly features and thus labeling or advertising textile products as “bamboo,” which, let’s face it, does sound a lot better than rayon. The difficulty with this is the Textile Fiber Products Identification Act, or Textile Act, for short. The FTC, which enforces the Act, has established generic names for manufactured fibers that must be used in labeling and advertising. “Bamboo” definitely is not on the list, while Rayon and Viscose are. (If you’re a total fiber geek, there is such a thing as a natural bamboo fiber but in the FTC’s view it is rarely if ever used in commercial textiles.) Just to demonstrate their generous nature, the FTC has said it won’t quibble with terms like “rayon from bamboo,” just so long as the magic word “rayon” appears.
The FTC can’t be accused of being slackers in trying to get this message across. In 2009 the FTC sued several companies for labeling or advertising rayon textiles as “bamboo.” Then in 2010 the agency sent warning letters to 78 companies essentially putting them on notice that they could be subject to civil penalties for making the same mistake. In 2013 the FTC sued 4 retailers who received this letter for advertising and labeling rayon textiles as bamboo. And now it seems that “bamboo” textile claims are once again in the FTC’s crosshairs, as the FTC’s Enforcement Division has opened investigations of multiple retailers over calling items “made from bamboo,” including seeking consent orders with penalties of companies that received one of the 2011 warning letters under the view that the warning letter put them on notice and now paying stiff penalties are in order.
So, if you manufacture or sell textiles it is worth a quick look to make sure you are “bamboo” compliant (including whether the terms “carbonized bamboo” or “charcoal bamboo” appear in your labeling or advertising). And while you’re checking, you may also want to look for performance claims sometimes associated with “rayon from bamboo,” including antimicrobial. And, retailers take note, under the Textile Act retailers and manufacturers are jointly responsible even for textile labeling that does not comply with the Act. Further, retailers who may be relying upon “continuing guarantees” from their vendors (basically a form of promise that the vendor is in compliance with the Textile Act) may not be protected. The FTC has been known to argue that retailers cannot rely on continuing guarantees that they know to be false. To use the FTC’s own bad pun, they may not be sympathetic to a claim by retailers that they were “bamboozled” by their vendors.
*Picture by Luan Anh (CC BY 2.0)