FTC Fines Major Retailers for Falsely Labeling Rayon Textiles as ‘Bamboo’

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CC BY 2.0 Flickr user annieo76

On Dec. 9, the Federal Trade Commission announced complaints and proposed court orders barring BackCountry.com LLC, Bed Bath & Beyond Inc., J.C. Penney Co. Inc. and Nordstrom Inc. from mislabeling and advertising rayon textiles as made of “bamboo,” and requiring them to pay civil penalties totaling $1.3 million. The agency also sent letters to other unspecified retailers, asking them to help protect consumers from deceptive “bamboo” claims by checking inventories and making certain that rayon textile products have appropriate labeling.

The FTC has long had “bamboo” on its radar. Many textiles containing rayon continue to be labeled as “bamboo” or as containing “bamboo fiber,” and, as a result, are marketed as “sustainable,” “eco-friendly,” or naturally “antimicrobial.”

They are not, the FTC says.

In fact, as the agency points out in literature on “’bamboo’ fabrics” available at its website, most textiles labeled as “bamboo” are rayon, which is a type of fiber manufactured from cellulose, typically made using environmentally toxic chemicals in a process that emits hazardous pollutants into the air. While different plants, including bamboo, can be used as a source material to create rayon, there is no trace of the original plant in the finished rayon product.

In 2009, the agency settled bamboo-related complaints against four apparel and textile companies. False claims included that products made with rayon from bamboo contained “100% bamboo fiber,” were more eco-friendly than comparable goods, and retained the bamboo plant’s inherent antimicrobial properties.

That same year, the FTC issued guidance for manufacturers and retailers of clothing, linens, or other textile products, titled “How to Avoid Bamboozling Your Customers.” The agency advised, “If your product isn’t made directly from bamboo fiber, it can’t be called bamboo,” but must be described as either rayon (or viscose), or “rayon made from bamboo.”

The most recent complaints allege the four companies were warned to stop labeling and advertising rayon textile products as “bamboo” in 2010, along with 74 other retailers—yet they continued to do so. Under the court orders settling the FTC’s most recent charges, Bed Bath & Beyond will pay $500,000; Nordstrom will pay $360,000; J.C. Penney will pay $290,000; and Backcountry.com will pay $150,000 for allegedly violating the FTC Act and the agency’s Textile Rules.

“It’s misleading to call bamboo that has been chemically processed into rayon simply ‘bamboo,’” explained Jessica Rich, Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection. “With consumers in the midst of their holiday shopping, it’s important for them to know that textiles marketed as environmentally friendly alternatives may not be as ‘green’ as they were led to believe.”

The Commission charged the companies with violating the Textile Act and the Textile Rules and with violating Section 5(m)(1)(B) of the FTC Act by falsely and deceptively selling the mislabeled products, despite knowing that doing so was illegal and could subject them to civil penalties. Mislabeled items included women’s apparel, men’s socks and infant products. Several of the falsely labeled “bamboo” products also were said to have antimicrobial properties inherent to the bamboo plant.

This latest FTC action follows on the heels of a September warning to providers of environmental seals and certifications, as well as 32 businesses using those seals, alerting them to the agency’s concerns that the seals could be considered deceptive and may not comply with the FTC’s environmental marketing guidelines.

Although the FTC’s recent enforcement actions involve textile products that were deceptively marketed as containing bamboo, the same green marketing rules apply to manufacturers and retailers of mattresses and sleep product accessories that make any kind of eco-friendly or environmental marketing claims–regardless of whether they involve bamboo or some other material. To avoid violating the law and being forced to pay large penalties like those imposed this week, marketers making eco-friendly claims should consult with legal counsel familiar with the FTC’s revised “Green Guides” for the use of environmental marketing claims, to confirm whether their claims are lawful.

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