Manufacturers eager to cash in on green consumer trends know that the word "bamboo" is immediately understood as a greener alternative to cotton. The problem is, many of the sheets and shirts that claim they're made from bamboo are actually rayon, according to an alert from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The alert notes that "the soft "bamboo" fabrics on the market today are rayon. They are made using toxic chemicals in a process that releases pollutants into the air." Bamboo has been touted as a great ecological improvement over wood and cotton, for everything from flooring to kitchenware to clothing and textiles. The plant is the fastest growing in the world, and can be harvested in just three to five years. Bamboo is also hardy, and, unlike cotton, requires no pesticides or insecticides and minimal water to grow.
But the process of turning bamboo fiber to clothing is a lot more polluting, in most cases, than manufacturers have let on. Most are using chemical processing—particularly sodium hydroxide—to turn the fiber into rayon. The process turns the woody fiber into the super-soft fabric buyers associate with bamboo, but it also requires carbon disulfide and bleaching to achieve—all chemicals linked to serious health problems. A more eco-friendly process is the mechanical one—breaking the woody part down and using natural enzymes to create a mass that can be spun into yarn, similar to the methods used for creating flax or hemp linen. But few manufacturers offer this option. As the FTC writes, "extracting bamboo fibers is expensive and time-consuming, and textiles made just from bamboo fiber don't feel silky smooth." The FTC is calling on manufacturers to back their products with scientific tests and analyses, to assure shoppers that they are made of actual bamboo fiber.