Thursday, February 18th, 2010...11:52 am

Bamboo rayon: Not a green fabric

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Hold the presses! Bamboo rayons aren’t a green fabric?

Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission officially started its campaign to stop well-meaning retailers from misleading consumers about bamboo’s perceived eco-friendly qualities. From the FTC consumer alert:

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.

… 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.

… Even when bamboo is the “plant source” used to create rayon, no traits of the original plant are left in the finished product.

The FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection director told Eco Textile News, “Rayon is rayon, even if bamboo has been used [as a source of raw material] somewhere along the line in the manufacturing process.”

According to that article, the FTC says that the soft fibers we’ve come to know as bamboo-derived, like modal and lyocell, “can really just be considered man-made products, on par with traditional rayon.” Bamboo can be made into fabric in a more direct way, but when it is, it is more like a rough linen.

The FTC sent out letters to 78 retailers warning them to stop labeling various rayons as bamboo, and that they would be breaking the law and subject to $16,000 fines if they didn’t comply.

It was last summer that I first heard someone question the eco factor of bamboo — my friend Kelly LaPlante of Organic Interior Design called it one of the biggest green misconceptions out there, citing the clear-cutting of bamboo forests and thus the ecosystems within them. This Treehugger article from 2005 reported that existing trees and vegetation were being cleared for the growing of bamboo, and that it was becoming a monoculture (meaning a lack of crop rotation, which depletes soil).

Mary Hanlon at Social Alterations has put together piles of fabulous information on sustainable textiles in the site’s Fibre Analysis, published last fall, which includes this break-down on bamboo:

bamboo

Via Social Alterations.

Image from Flickr user kimicon

Although viscose is a man-made fibre created from cellulose found in plants and trees, textiles can also be made out of bamboo which goes through the bast fibre process – rather like linen. These types of bamboo textiles can be considered eco-friendly.

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