Bamboo: It’s not just for tiki huts anymore. Consumers are seeing more items, especially clothing and textiles, labeled or advertised as “bamboo.” But according to FTC lawsuits, Amazon.com, Leon Max, Macy’s, and Sears claimed that products were made of bamboo when they were really made of rayon. In addition, some bamboo wannabes were promoted as environmentally friendly. But manufacturing rayon — even when it’s made from bamboo — is far from a “green” process.
A little Fabric 411: Rayon is a man-made fiber created from cellulose found in plants and trees and processed with chemicals that give off hazardous air pollution. Any plant or tree can be used as the source of the cellulose, including bamboo, but the fiber that’s created is rayon.
According to the complaints, the national retailers claimed that rayon products were made of bamboo, a false statement the FTC says violated the Textile Act and accompanying Textile Rules, the federal regulations that require companies to give shoppers the straight story about what products are made of.
What kinds of practices attracted law enforcement attention? The FTC says Amazon falsely claimed that the fiber in some of its retail and private label baby bedding was “100% Organic Bamboo.” Leon Max, which sells products under the Max Studio name, sold a rayon top, but said it was an “eco-friendly” fabric comprised of “65% bamboo, 35% silk.” Macy’s marketed products made of rayon — like the 2(x)ist Contour Campus Pouch Brief — as “bamboo.” Some of Sears’ rayon sheet sets were marketed or advertised as “Pure Fiber 100% Bamboo," while others (for instance, the Ty Pennington Style Bamboo Sheet Set) claimed to contain “55% Bamboo/45% Cotton.”
As FTC watchers know, this isn’t the agency’s first “clothes call” with bamboo. In 2009, the agency sued other companies for selling rayon textiles labeled as bamboo and issued How to Avoid Bamboozling Your Customers, a to-the-point publication on complying with the law. The FTC followed up in 2010 with warning letters to 78 companies — including Amazon, Leon Max, Macy’s, and Sears — raising concerns that they were still mislabeling rayon products as bamboo. Despite receiving those letters, the companies continued to make claims the FTC says were deceptive.
To settle violations of the Textile Rules, Amazon has agreed to pay a $455,000 civil penalty, Leon Max will pay $80,000, Macy’s will pay $250,000, and Sears will pay $475,000. The orders bar future misrepresentations in the labeling and advertising of “bamboo” textiles.
As the law already allows, the orders specify that companies can get a “good faith” guarantee from a U.S. supplier that a product wasn’t mislabeled before it was sold. But that provision won’t apply if Amazon, Leon Max, Macy’s, or Sears should have known that merchandise was mislabeled — for example, if they get a future warning letter from the FTC. In addition, consistent with an Enforcement Policy Statement just announced by the FTC, the orders clarify that if the companies can’t get a good faith guarantee because the products are imported directly from a foreign supplier, they'll be liable only if they knew or should have known of the violation and don’t modify or embellish the claims the supplier provides or market the item as a private label product.
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