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Have You Been Bamboozled by Bamboo Fabrics -- or the FTC? (draft)

Bamboo fibers only irritate the cotton lobby.

A recent Consumer Alert from the FTC brings forward some interesting misconceptions and some realities related to the use and marketing of of Bamboo in textiles. In it's recent alerts, the FTC makes several key points in an attempt to make the consumer aware that bamboo plants are used to make fibers through the process of viscose.    It's no coincidence the FTC notices closely resemble Cotton Inc's position on bamboo, so it's not a shock that the tone and some carefully omitted facts don't really help the consumer other than informing them that a chemical process is used to make their clothing. 

The FTC asserts 4 major things:

1) Some manufacturers do not correctly represent the fiber type as required under the Textile Labeling Act
2) The viscosing process uses chemicals 
3) Some manufacturers make unsubstantial or unqualified claims with respect to environment, antibacterial properties.
4) Some manufacturers cheat by substituting rayons from wood sources as rayons from bamboo sources

In this articles we will expand upon what the FTC states by including meaningful comparisons to cotton. First we will look at their 4 major points, then we will look at the key differences between bamboo source fiber and cotton from the beginning to the end of the fiber/yarn lifecycle.

Most people assume that there are two kinds of fibres: natural ones, like cotton, wool and silk; and artificial ones synthesized out of petrochemicals like nylon and polyester. Viscose falls somewhere in between, when harvested bamboo has natural fibers however they are not in a long stringy form that can easily be converted to yarns for knitting or weaving.  In order to make soft yarns, the fiber is broken down then reconstituted.  This is a chemical/mechanical process that involves chemicals and a well controlled environment.  The chemical used may have nasty names, but for the most part they are the same chemicals used in municipal water treatments and other common textile processing.  Now, lets compare that to cotton processing: each year over 1 million cotton workers are hospitalized due to poisining from chemicals used to cultivate and process cotton.

Like most industrial process this is dependent on the processing facility. Viscosing bamboo is a new process done in new modern plants. The main producers, Tenbro in India and Bambrotex in China both operate low emission plants and are committed to good environmental practices. Lets put this into perspective too: viscose emissions are low decay so quickly that there are no recorded environmental issues from bamboo viscosing plants.   On the other hand, cotton cultivation dumps millions of tons of toxic pesticides, herbicides, defoliants, and mercerizing chemicals into the environment each year.

the end fiber is bamboo cellulose reorganized. There are no chemicals added and no traces of the
Other concerns the FTC expresses concerns with are the lack of substantiation in marketing claims. Most typically these are 'greenwashing', the act of painting a product to be greener than it is and unsubstantiated performance representations such as "naturally antibacterial" or "natural UV protection". The FTC is correct with these concerns as many vendors and marketeers have simply collected these claims and applied them to their products with little or no substantiation.

The FTC's position while technically correct, is quite confusing to small manufacturers and consumers who make their buying decisions based on the characteristics (look, feel, performance) and source materials used for a textile fiber, and NOT based on the processing. A survey of 1000 consumers who recently visited our web site tells us 61% base their decisions on characteristics of the finished cloth, 39% on the source fiber, and 0% based on the processing methods used in the Textile Labeling Act.
Note to readers: To make this document easier to read, we use the term Bamboo in place of Vicsose from Bamboo for the balance of this article
Textile Act Classification of Fiber Types for dummies
The rules for naming fibers are unique in that based on whether a fiber the processing of preparing fibers for spinning into yarns, and NOT based on the source fibers. This method is rooted in the early 1900s when the textile act took form under the strength and demands of the US cotton lobby.
1) Natural fibers. These fibers can be mechanically or chemically processed so long as the source material does not undergo a mechanical change. Natural fibers can be chemically, biologically or mechanically processed so long as the fiber remains in tact through the process. For example, cotton fiber processing typically starts with chemically defoliating the cotton boll, followed by mechanical picking and ginning. Hemp uses biological agents in the form of enzymes and bacteria to decompose unusable plant material away of the ling bast fibers. Defoliation and rhetting are both extremely eco toxic.
Other examples of natural fibers are hair (wools), silk, ramie, cotton, hemp, sisal, and jute.
2) Man Made Fibers. These are fibers that generally have a plants as their sources but undergo a change in state, that is the resulting fiber is not the same as fiber extracted from the source plant. The generic name for a type of regenerated fiber made from plants cellulose is viscose (rayon, lyocell, modal, cupro are all synonyms for viscose). Viscose is manufactured by converting cellulose from plant sources into fibers using chemical and mechanical processes.
Other examples of material that can be used as the source for viscose is cotton, beechwood (most commonly used for rayon), soy, milk protein, corn, sea weeds. Other examples of man made fibers are latex, rubber, and acetate.
3) Synthetic fibers. These fibers are largely made from petro or refined plant oils that are first converted to plastic then extruded into ling fibers.
Common synthetic fibers include polyester, nylon, olefin, acrylic, carbon fiber, and lycra/spandex.
Fibers and the environment.
There are 3 main phases to fiber production: cultivation/recovery or raw materials, processing to fibers, finishing and dying in fabrics. The degree of eco friendliness varies considerably between fiber types so it's a real challenge to do an apples to apples comparison. The best way we can boil it down is to look at the environmental impact of a red tee shirt. We're going to look at cotton, organic cotton, bamboo, and polyester - the 4 most likely used in tees today.

Now, lets examine why people like clothes made from Bamboo. The first buyers of garments made from bamboo were attracted by the the eco-friendly aspects of bamboo cultivation, particularly when compared to cotton and synthetics. While that group of buyers still exists, however a larger base of mainstream customers buy these products because of performance, fashion and comfort.
Furthermore, synthetic fibers like polyester and lycra are being blended with bamboo as a way to reduce cost and further increase the fabrics performance and utility -- these4 are being embraced by the market which is further evidence that comfort, fashion and performance are the key drivers today.
Eco Friendliness of Bamboo:
Wazoodle uses fibers made by Tenbro (www.tenbro.com), a leading grower and fiber producer. We use Tenbro because they operate their own bamboo groves to OCIA/NOP international organic standards which ensures the crop is 100% natural grown without any chemical pesticides or chemical inputs.

Of all the inputs to clothing, bamboo may arguably be the most eco friendly -- by a long shot. It's a forestry product so there is zero tilling, fertilizing, pesticide or herbicide application (your cotton tee needed about 1/3lb of chemicals to grow to maturity).
Factoid: Over 1 million cotton workers are hospitalized each year because of toxic exposure to cotton farming chemicals?
Bamboo creates a massive biomass acre, most of which can be used to make yarns, building materials and other products. thereby containing and holding immense amounts of carbon. With other crops the biomass is burned or decomposed releasing much of this carbon back into the atmosphere as ninstead of burned or plowed under. An acre of bamboo grove removes 10x more Co2 from the atmosphere than cotton, and returns 12x the oxygen.
Bamboo is extremely ecologically friendly
Now, let's break down the FTC's memorandum.
1) Bamboo textiles, like shirts or sheets, are actually rayon. True and False
We're going to give then a 1/2 truth on this. In the textile manufacturing and retail trade and international ISO standards bamboo fibers are known as Viscose from Bamboo. Rayon is typically viscose from Beechwood although the 'from Beechwood' is rarely attached to the fiber's description. The Textile Act also treats rayon, lyocell, cupro, and modal as synonoms to viscose.
The US system for characterizing fibers dates back almost a century and changes slowly so new fibers like the ones made from Bamboo, take years and $millions before getting their own classification. Until that happens, the fibers are grouped into the next closest thing, which for Bamboo happens to be viscose. Others products grouped into this category include fibers made from Soy, Corn, and Milk Bamboo will probably have it's own classification at some point, p until then it will be classified as man made and called viscose or rayon just like Modal, Cupro, Tencel, -- all made with the viscose process.
Perhaps the FTC was trying to make a point that unscrupulous manufacturers substitute one fiber source for another and recently many importers and wholesales have been caught marketing inexpensive wood based rayon as bamboo knowing it is difficult for many consumers to identify textile fibers.
2) Extracting bamboo fibers is expensive and time-consuming, and textiles made just from bamboo fiber donít feel silky smooth.

This is a deceptive statement, as deceptive as the ones the FTC accuses garment makers of making. Garment textiles are not made with fibers separated from the stalk of a bamboo, they are made by viscosing bamboo. It's as absurd as stating "Extracting fibers from cotton is expensive and time-consuming, and textiles made just from cotton stem fiber donít feel silky smooth. "
3) Toxic chemicals in a process that releases pollutants into the air.

False. A few decades ago this was true but today's viscose manufacturers recycle all waste and emissions so virtually nothing is released into the air and water.
The main chemical released from the process is carbon disulphide. This, link many chemicals can be harmful when concentrated by harmless in small concentrations. When released it decomposes quickly and harmlessly, with a half life of 2.6 hours in water and and 9 days in air.
The primary risk of toxic poisoning is to viscose factory workers. Fortunately the incidence is so rare there are no documented cases for 2009. Cotton presents a substantially higher risk to workers - between 1 and 2 million toxic poisoning incidents requiring hospital visits each year.
Furthermore, the release of toxic chemicals into the environment is pale compared to cotton production which requires chemical applications of fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides and defoliants.

3) "Thereís also no evidence that rayon made from bamboo retains the antimicrobial properties of the bamboo plant"
That's true, but again it's a little misleading. The ture part is that the properties of the bamboo plant are not what makes bamboo fibers antimicrobial. Viscose products generally exhibit antimicrobial properties, that's why they are commonly used for the batting and padding in wound dressings, bandaids and other medical waddings, so it's fair to say the resulting fabric has some antimicrobial properties, it's not fair to say they are a result of the source plant.
Saying bamboo yarns maintain the same antimicrobial properties as the plant in the field would be like concluding wool sweaters are moth proof... because moths don't eat sheep!
The bottom line:
Based on the calls we have been getting the FTC has confused more than it has clarified. The article has a negative tone which leaves consumers feeling they have been tricked or mislead by purveyors of bamboo products. It fails to quantify it's statements, or draw any meaningful comparisons to help the consumer understand the differences between vicsose from bamboo and other common fibers that may be used for the same purposes.
Consumers purchase bamboo products because of 2 things: bamboo's record as a sustainable, eco friendly source material and 2) the comfortable, silky soft and absorbent nature of fabrics made by processing bamboo through viscosing.
Lets clarify some details:
Bamboo is one of the most sustainable and ecologically friendly fiber sources available. Bamboo grows quickly without heavy tilling, fertilizing, the use of herbicides or pesticides, or copious quantities of water needed to grow cotton. The natural environment is left in tact is as much as sustainable production does not kill off bugs, birds and other wildlife that lives in bamboo groves.

Increased bamboo demand has also led to increased biodiversity as lands used for other low value crops are being reclaimed for bamboo groves.
Bamboo is also one of the greatest resources for cleaning up air. Each acre of bamboo grove annually removes 60 tons of carbon dioxide from the air, and returns 45 tons of oxygen. That's 35% better than forest lands and 12x better than lands used for cotton production. Furthermore, the carbon bamboo removes from the air is often retained for use in building materials, not so hemp or cotton where the majority of the biomass is waste which returns much of the carbon to the atmosphere in the form of CO2 as the waste decays in water and soil.

There are some arguments that increased demand will cause forest lands to be claimed for bamboo production and that fertilizers will be used to increase yields however these are hypothetical arguments -- there is no evidence that demand is exceeding supply or increasing yields with fertilizers is economically viable.
Eco Friendly - Yes! The combination of environmentally friendly cultivation and clean viscose processing makes bamboo based fiber among the most eco friendly available. Fiber sources like cotton and hemp have considerably larger eco footprint than bamboo based fibers.
Unscrupulous do vendors exist. Companies that promote features anti-bacterial, bamboo-kun, or any other magical or too good to be true properties are probably misleading you. Companies that substitute wood based rayons are out there too. It's not just importers, few if any retailers perform any due diligence on their suppliers, so in many cases the bandits are linked together in the supply chain.
Here are a few tips for buyers:
If you source your fabrics or yarns from domestic producers vendors who produce in the USA or Canada - they are closer to the process and are more likely to be able to verify the content of the fabric. You will also have additional comfort in knowing the final finishing process are cleaner in the US and Canada than in other countries. If you vendor cannot identify the mill source, they probably have no idea as to whether the fabric is what they say it is.
If you're buying cut pieces the roll tags and stamps are not supplied to you, so getting source information is difficult. Don't be afraid to ask your vendor to fax you a roll tag -- if they can't then there's no way they can realistically verify what they are selling. the A quick (not foolproof) way to determine where your bamboo fabrics may have come from is to check whether the fabric is "Open Width" meaning they have been slit open and re-rolled on a tube equal to the advertised fabric width, or "Tubular" (meaning the fabric is in a closed tube 1/2 the advertised with of the fabric). Fleece, interlock, jersey, french terry and jersey made in the USA and Canada is typically delivered "Tubular" , while Chinese imports are typically "Open Width". You can't use this test on fabrics with special surface finishes (prints, laminations, sherpa & velour) it's a little tougher as these must be opened in order to finish the fabrics.
Content Tags:
70% Viscose from Bamboo
30% Organic Cotton
70% viscose de bambou
30% coton organique
70% Rayon from Bamboo
30% Organic Cotton
70% rayonne de bambou
30% coton organique
70% Modal from Bamboo
30% Organic Cotton
70% modal de bambou
30% coton organique

Your products are made in the USA, but where is your
bamboo grown?

Our bamboo is grown on USDA certified organic farms/plantations in China. Our fiber processing and is done in India, and final yarn spinning in India and Canada. We use India and Canada to achieve the highest quality yarns and because textile processing is well regulated with respect to the environment in both countries ( China is coming up to speed however environmental regulation is lax and all textile processing in China is not as clean as it could be)

After importing the fiber and or yarn, Wazoodle knits and finishes our fabrics in Canada.

I have read that they are clear cutting old growth forest in China to make way for more bamboo farms. Is that true?

There is no evidence that this is happening, infact the use of bamboo for fiber, paper and building materials reduces the need to cut forests. According to Greenpeace (verify) , 2007 the forest area in China grew by 12.84 million acres or the equivalent of nearly 2.3 billion trees and is forecast to grow at that rate for the next several years under China's . The National Forest Restoration Program.

We have heard that there is more than one type of fiber from bamboo. If that is true, what are the different types and do you use all of them? If not, which types do you use?

There are two types of fiber extracted from bamboo. The first is pure fibers which are long, stringy and too brittle to be used for knitting and weaving. Mechanically separated fibers are used in builting materials, furniture construction and coarse fabrics like mats, animal bedding, and insulation. The second type is ciscose, a fiber made by mashing and regenerating the cellulose from bamboo into silky fibers. Viscose from bamboo is the fiber that we use.

What chemicals are used in the processing of your bamboo viscose and are they hazardous?

The main chemical used in the processing is sodium hydroxide, also known as caustic soda. Caustic soda is one of the most widely used chemicals in the world. It is used in food production, household detergents, and in the production of all types of cotton fiber - including organic cottons. Caustic soda is approved for use on Organic cotton processing under the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). Sodium hydroxide poses no enviromental hazard when used in the viscose process.
Our fiber supplier in China has confirmed to us that the fiber they produce is produced in a 'closed loop' system where 100% of the sodium hydroxide and 74% of the carbon disulphide is recovered and recycled for further use.

Some other manufacturers of viscose from bamboo clothing say their apparel is Oeko Tex 100 certified,Are your products certified to the Oeko Tex 100 Standard?

The Oeko Tex 100 certification can be secured at any stage, fiber production, yarn, fabrics, and finished goods. The test and certification confirms a product is free of all known chemicals at levels that may be harmful to babies.

Most natural and white colored products made from viscose of bamboo should pass Oeko Tex 100. While Wazoodle bamboo fabrics are certified, the standard requires any product made with our fabrics be certified again by the garment manufacturer. This may sound silly, but this is how virtually all standards get protected from getting watered down as the materials are further processed.

Because of the processing, should viscose from bamboo still be considered "green"?

The production of viscose from bamboo can and should be improved. R&D is underway to improve the process. Hopefully, a process similar to lyocel using organic solvents will someday be the standard for bamboo production. In the meantime, to discount all of the known positives of bamboo because it is not the darkest shade of green or 100% eco-friendly would be as bad of a decision as saying that organic cotton is not green or eco-friendly because of the amount of water used to grow it or because caustic soda is used in the processing.

Some facts to consider about the greenness of bamboo would be:

Bamboo is grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers
Bamboo requires no irrigation
Bamboo rarely needs replanting
Bamboo grows rapidly and can be harvested in 3-5 years
Bamboo produces 35% more oxygen that an equivalent stand of trees
Bamboo is a critical element in the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere
Bamboo is an excellent soil erosion inhibitor
Additionally, bamboo fabric is breathable, thermal regulating, wicks moisture better than polyester performance fabrics, will resist odor and is absorbent and fast drying keeping you dryer and more comfortable than any cotton or polyester fabrics.

Why do some bamboo fabrics not always feel as soft as other bamboo fabrics?

The first possibility would be that the fiber that was used is the mechanically produced variety, which does not produce a soft fabric, as opposed to the chemically produced type, which produces a very soft fabric.

In addition, even if the fiber was of the chemically produced variety, other factors can dramatically impact the softness of the finished fabric, as they can with any fiber. The type of yarn, open end or ring spun is a major contributing factor to how a fabric feels. Ring spinning causes the fibers to lay down in a parallel fashion, where open end yarns tend to have more fibers that have exposed ends, making that yarn less soft to the touch than ring spun.

Finally, during wet processing (the scouring/bleaching/dyeing and finishing process) many variables exist. Some of those could certainly result in a change in the hand on the fabric. A ph level that is too high, temperatures exceeding the limits of the fiber, any surface applications such as anti-curling agents, flame retardants, softeners, etc.; any of these could impact the look and the feel of the finished fabric.

Is bamboo organically grown?

Yes, our viscose from bamboo comes from bamboo that is Certified Organic and you can see our certifications and read about them here on our website. The farm where the bamboo is grown is certified by the OCIA and the bamboo crops are certified by the USDA organic seal.

Hope this helps!
Wazoodle Fabrics