You’ve all heard it. Most of you have likely bought it. Guaranteed, you’ve seen advertising or marketing or TV ads promoting this amazing ‘bamboo fabric’ or bamboo ‘fibre’ product or the like.

Well guess what? These ads are all misleading. Yep, that’s right. Every single time you hear or see any product referring to fibre or fabric made of bamboo, it’s false and misleading advertising.

Don’t misunderstand me, bamboo itself is still one of the planet’s most sustainable ‘wood’ products (it’s actually grass, not wood). When you see it in solid form, if you can see the grain and knock it against something solid and it makes a thud, chances are the sustainability is well intact. Even the fabrics derived originally from bamboo have preferable sustainability characteristics (bio-based not petro-based) and have created today’s microfiber chemical free cleaning industry. So why all this fuss? Well it all comes down to the term ‘bamboo fibre.’

In 2010, the US Fair Trade Commission (FTC) ruled that the process required to turn bamboo into a soft textile uses extensive chemical processing, a process that releases significant pollutants into the air, and where eventually the raw bamboo’s chemical composition turns into synthetic rayon.

In January 2013, Macy’s, Amazon, Sears (including Kmart), and Leon Max were fined a combined $1.26 million for selling clothing labelled as being made from bamboo when they were actually rayon.

Then late last December, the FTC again charged retailers for allegedly mislabelling rayon products as eco-friendly bamboo, violating the Textile Products Identification Act. This time they fined Bed Bath & Beyond (not related to Bed Bath & Beyond here), J.C. Penney, Nordstrom and $2 million over their bamboo claims.

Settlements with department store J.C. Penney and also involved the fact that they had made claims their bamboo products had antimicrobial properties, which is a common claim in Australian markets. The FTC stated that while bamboo itself may have antimicrobial properties, there is no evidence rayon made from bamboo derived cellulose retains these properties.

Charles Harwood, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection has been quoted as saying “if a textile is made of rayon, sellers need to say that, even if bamboo was used somewhere along the line in the production process.”

So when you see something called a bamboo sock, towel, tampon or pyjamas (and don’t even get me started on bamboo pillows), you know its false advertising (ACCC take note!)

Rayon viscose (sometimes called rayon, sometimes viscose or in  a more modern form, microfibre) was the world’s first synthetic fibre. It was first called ‘artificial silk’ or ‘art silk’ and was first commercially produced in 1898 in France. The source of the raw material in rayon is not petrochemical as are most other polymers today, but natural cellulose. The cellulose can be derived from any plant source, but processing and extracting the cellulose requires high water, energy and chemical use with high air and water pollution emissions.

But how bad (or good) is it overall? Well, it turns out that it does have some preferable characteristics especially compared to cotton.

A 2010 peer reviewed LCA analysis by Utrecht University that compared a number of different viscose products by Lenzing, a German company, with cotton, PET and polypropylene, found that the four viscose products they studied offered important benefits for reducing fossil fuel and climate change potential as well as toxicity impacts, water use, and land use. Cotton was identified as the least preferred choice overall due to its high ecotoxicity impacts, eutrophication, water use, land use, and relatively low land use efficiencies.

The single weighted eco-point scores normalised against cotton with no weighting of the various environmental impacts showed the following ranking (high scores are worse than low scores):

  • Cotton (US and China): 100
  • PET fibre (EU): 9
  • Viscose (Asia): 8
  • Polypropylene (EU): 6
  • Viscose (Austria): 2-3

Interestingly, technologically the Asian viscose plant compared to the Austrian sources was by far the most technologically modern and advanced plant. The reasons it performs so much worse than other viscose seems to be its dirty coal fired power sources, poor pollution emissions control and import of Australian eucalypt wood as a cellulose source. The western European sourced fibres used a much larger source of natural gas derived energy and hence were cleaner in their environmental emissions. Obviously this picture would change if different impacts were weighted, which in this example they were not.

The moral of the story? Bamboo fibre sourced cellulose based rayon/viscose fibres (that’s a mouthful, yes) can be more ecologically benign than other alternatives. It is known by a variety of names including rayon, viscose, microfibre or known by brands such as Tencel, Modal, Lyocell.

Just don’t call it bamboo.