Why would the big bad Federal Trade Commission go after a small business rather than a big retailer for violating consumer protection laws prohibiting false green product claims?
The FTC recently charged four sellers of clothing and other textile products with “bamboozling” consumers by deceptively labeling and advertising goods as being made of bamboo fiber, when they are made of rayon. Major retailers could be next, and it would be wise for them to check the shorts, sheets and socks they sell for claims of “environmentally responsible bamboo.”
I noticed in the FTC announcement that only The M Group (bamboosa.com), one of the four companies named, had not settled its case with the FTC. Bamboosa, which markets itself with the slogan, “Soft on You, Easy on the Earth!” has online sales, plus also offers retail products at 153 stores in 37 states. Wondering why they were still fighting, I wrote one of the company owners.
Morris Saintsing, principal of The M Group, said, “We started this company to try to bring some textile jobs back to this little town we are in (Andrews, S.C.) and by the end of this year we will have 40 full-time employees. We make a great product and will continue to do so while supporting our employees, our vendors, our customers, and our community.”
Saintsing said, “We don’t know why the FTC went on this witch hunt, or who pushed them to do it. We do know that the loudest objections to the success of bamboo have come from the cotton industry.”
He named more than a dozen major U.S. retailers and apparel manufacturers that he claims are marketing the same products in the same way.
He explains Bamboosa’s situation by stating, “With our upstream suppliers calling it ‘bamboo fiber’ how would we know they were using the wrong terminology? The fiber is ‘rayon from bamboo’ or ‘viscose from bamboo’. So, it is a ‘fiber from bamboo’ but not ‘bamboo fiber’. That’s a pretty fine line.”
I asked advertising professor Deborah Morrison of the University of Oregon for her opinion on who holds responsibility for validating supplier claims. She is a co-founder of the Greenwashing Index.
Morrison said, “Those brand managers and marketers using green claims should make every effort to substantiate information and, simply put, tell the truth. Relying on other people’s claims isn’t substantiation. If they do not, they not only fail their own brand and face fines or regulatory action, they add to increasing “green noise.”
The Dirty Truth About Bamboo in Fabric
In the 1990s, bamboo had a surge in demand from flooring and furniture products, but increasingly it appears as a garment fabric. Thanks to the green wave of 2006, bamboo has become a hot new fashion trend, and is found in a myriad of goods including shorts, socks, T-shirts, bath towels, baby gear and bed sheets. Often these products are priced at a 20-30 percent premium for their perceived environmentally beneficial qualities.
Bamboo is considered sustainable because it may be harvested without chemicals, and may re-grow quickly like a weed. That’s where the true green of bamboo ends. To break down the stringy material to a liquid and then a fabric for sewing requires a chemical process – the same used in creating rayon. The bamboo cellulose is treated with sodium hydroxide, also known as caustic soda. The material is then combined with carbon disulfide to yield viscose, which looks like honey.
According to the EPA, “several epidemiological studies of occupational exposures are available for carbon disulfide, which consistently point to peripheral neurotoxicity as a sensitive effect of long-term exposure in humans.” What’s peripheral neurotoxicity? Damage to the human nervous system and/or brain.
Chinese rayon manufacturer Hangzhou Xintong Textiles Co. Ltd. promotes “production from natural environmental protection” and prominently features a singing dandelion, but there is no mention of any steps the company has taken to protect their workers from long-term exposure to harmful chemicals.
I recently spoke about greenwashing at a sustainability workshop for the American Apparel and Footwear Association, along with FTC attorney Melinda Claybaugh. Workshop participants were told by Claybaugh the agency needed more research before issuing new green guides for environmental marketing claims, but signaled they were quite aware of companies violating the Textiles Act on the bamboo vs. rayon issue.
Many global fiber producers, yarn spinners and fabric millers also use the term “bamboo fiber.” Tenbro, a Shanghai-based company with a Commack, New York customer center, sells its product through its Web site which says, “Tenbro organic bamboo fiber was 100 percent made from bamboo selected from non-polluted region in Sichuan Provice, China.” A non-polluted region? Is that possible?
Tenbro also claims “organic bamboo fiber is biodegradable textile material. It can be 100 percent biodegraded in soil by microorganism and sunshine. The decomposition process doesn’t cause any pollution to environment.”
When was the last time you threw your old clothes out in the backyard compost bin and watched them biodegrade? Beyond the rayon vs. bamboo claim, the biodegradability claim is another complaint by the FTC. Even the outdated FTC green guides to environmental marketing claims from the early 1990s clarified what it takes to use the word “biodegradable” on products.
Another Chinese supplier, Tanboocel, has embraced the green movement with the slogan, “Nature to life. Green to fashion.”
Some suppliers even post a certificate online showing the bamboo was grown organically. But if a fabric or piece of clothing is labeled “organic,” the reference is only to the crop, not any other part of the manufacturing process.
This appears to fit the “masking” criteria definition for the EnviroMedia Greenwashing Index: when a company makes certain green claims to divert attention from some other environmental story that isn’t so positive.
Congressman Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) recently remarked on the challenge of authenticity in green certifications from other countries.
“Because there are no common agreements or generally accepted definitions relating to the meaning of many of these (green marketing) words, and since consumers are being bombarded by so many of these claims and certifications, there is legitimate concern that some consumers are basing their purchasing decisions on misleading and, in some cases, even deceptive labels,” Rush said.
The FTC’s recent enforcement action is a warning bell to companies who claim ignorance about the environmental record of their supply chain. Clearly there is a need for authenticity in the form of global certifications, green marketing standards and consumer education on product sustainability.
Bamboosa hopes to resolve their FTC case without having to go to trial next year. As for their green marketing, Saintsing says, “The only change that I see in our marketing is to make sure that we are abundantly clear that our product is viscose (fiber) from bamboo.”
Kevin Tuerff is CEO of Green Canary Sustainability Consulting and cofounder of EnviroMedia Social Marketing.