FTC warns retailers about misleading labels on bamboo products

REI was among 78 national retailers that received letters from the FTC warning that stores might be breaking the law by selling bamboo-based products with misleading labels. SNEWS talks to the FTC, REI and The North Face.
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The Federal Trade Commission announced Feb. 3 that it sent letters to 78 retailers, including REI and large chains such as Target and Wal-Mart, warning the stores that they might be breaking the law by selling products that have misleading labels concerning bamboo.

The FTC told retailers they will violate FTC guidelines if they sell products that claim to be made of bamboo, but are actually made of rayon. The FTC also informed retailers they should not mislead consumers by carrying bamboo products labeled as having environmental and performance claims that the government thinks are false.

“We have seen a considerable influx of products labeled bamboo,” James Kohm, director of enforcement for the FTC’s Consumer Protection bureau, told SNEWS®. He said a key concern is that some products labeled or marketed as being made of bamboo are not environmentally friendly, though consumers are duped into believing they are.

The FTC pointed out in the statement released Feb. 3 that some products claiming to be made of bamboo are actually made of rayon. (Click here to read the release.) The confusion stems from the fact that rayon is made from cellulose found in plants and trees, and it can be made from bamboo cellulose. However, the FTC said bamboo used to make rayon “is processed with harsh chemicals that release hazardous air pollution.” The FTC added, “Any plant or tree -- including bamboo -- could be used as the cellulose source, but the fiber that is created is rayon.”

Proper labeling

Kohm said that the FTC has specifically approved one phrase -- “rayon made from bamboo” -- to be used on labels for rayon made from bamboo cellulose. However, he said the FTC might determine that other words or phrases are permissible. For example, he said the word “viscose” might be OK, because it is generally considered synonymous with rayon.

REI sells on its website The North Face Bamboo Glove Liners and Bridgedale Bamboo Low Socks, which, according to their specs, are made of “viscose from bamboo.”

We asked REI to comment on the bamboo issue and any concerns over labeling, and REI provided the following statement:

“REI is committed to marketing our products accurately, transparently and in a way that provides our members with trustworthy product information. On January 27, the co-op was one of numerous companies that received an FTC form letter addressing the marketing of synthetic textiles made from bamboo. The co-op has been actively addressing this matter over the past year as FTC concern and direction emerged around the appropriate marketing of this material. In this time we have worked diligently with our vendors to have product information that accurately reflects the content and use of bamboo in the textile manufacturing process. As always, clear and accurate product information and compliance with the FTC’s guidelines is our goal.”

SNEWS also asked Bridgedale and The North Face to comment on the FTC letters to retailers. Bridgedale declined to comment, while Adam Mott, corporate sustainability manager for The North Face, sent us the following in an email: “The North Face supports the FTC guidelines related to the use of the term bamboo. Our goal is to ensure accuracy and transparency in any claims related to environmental attributes of our products. We are committed to complying with these guidelines, specifically as it relates to products containing manufactured rayon.”

False claims on labels

While the FTC is concerned about the labeling of rayon, it is also warning retailers that some bamboo-based products, particularly those made of rayon, carry false claims that they are environmentally friendly, or able to kill bacteria.

“We’ve seen the antibacterial claims, and the experts tell us that any antibacterial properties the bamboo has are destroyed in this harsh chemical process that makes rayon,” said Kohm. “We’ve also seen them associated with biodegradable claims, and with very specific environmental benefit claims, and we’re concerned about all of them.”

As for products that appear on REI.com, the product descriptions for the Bridgedale socks and the gloves from The North Face do not include claims that the bamboo makes them environmentally friendly or able to fight or kill bacteria.

The FTC said its letters to retailers are really a second phase in its work to address the bamboo problem. In August 2009, the FTC filed complaints against four manufacturers, claiming that they had improperly labeled and advertised fibers in their products. The four companies -- Sami Designs, which does business as Jonäno; CSE, which does business as Mad Mod; M Group, which does business as Bamboosa; and Pure Bamboo --have settled with the FTC and agreed to change their product labels.

Despite going after manufacturers, the FTC has not stemmed the tide of improper bamboo labels and marketing, said Kohm.

“It’s been less successful than we had hoped,” he said. “We had some success in curbing the number of claims we think are problematic, but not nearly as much as we hoped.”

As a result, the FTC is now putting its attention on retailers.

“This is a problem we need to solve for the American consumer,” said Kohm, “and we’ll keep taking whatever actions are necessary.”

For guidelines on bamboo textiles, click here to read the FTC publication “Avoid Bamboo-zling Your Customers.”

--Marcus Woolf

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