A November 2015 Beds.org review found that most of the top-selling pillows on Amazon featured bamboo. However, on reading the descriptions for individual pillows, some said the covers of the pillows contained “bamboo rayon” (or viscose) or “Rayon from bamboo,” while others just said “bamboo.” So, what is the distinction? What is the difference between bamboo and rayon from bamboo? And are the ones labeled “bamboo” really rayon?
First, bamboo itself is a natural product, a woody grass which grows in dense thickets to tree size. Parts of Asia have forests of bamboo. This plant has been used for thousands of years for building material, fuel, fibers, tools and many other uses, even food.
Bamboo grows so well and regenerates so quickly that it really doen’t need fertilizers. It is also so resistant to microbes, molds and other destructive organisms that it does not need pesticides. And anyone who has seen bamboo take over a plot of ground will testify that growing bamboo does not require herbicides. For these reasons, bamboo itself is billed as a “green” product, consumer safe and environmentally friendly.
When it comes to fabrics, the question is why is it sometimes called “bamboo”? And other times called “rayon”? And what does this mean for the consumer?
Textile fibers are generally classified as natural or synthetic. In a way, rayon is both. The actual substance, cellulose, is made by plants, and the source used in rayon is wood, whether from trees or from bamboo. But the cellulose is extracted from the wood, liquified and extruded as fibers, sheets, or blocks. Sheets of extruded cellulose are called cellophane, blocks are called celluloid, and fibers are called rayon (or viscose). So rayon can be classified as artificial, a natural substance re-formed in a synthetic process.
Here is where the subject of bamboo gets tacky. Bamboo fibers can be extracted by a process similar to producing hemp fibers or linen. This can take a long time and is generally more expensive than making rayon.
The real benefit of rayon is its texture and feel, which is very much like silk. However, the process of making rayon is generally not a “green” process. Harsh chemicals are used to extract and liquify the cellulose, hardly environmentally kind.
“But what about the benefits of bamboo?” someone asks. “Isn’t bamboo anti-microbial? Isn’t it anti-fungal?” The original bamboo fibers are just that. But cellulose is the only surviving ingredient of bamboo in the rayon. The plant’s antibiotic properties are lost in the process.
I have traced the question of “Bamboo or rayon?” at least as far back as 2007. In October 2009, the Federal Trade Commission settled with a company charged with claiming that rayon made from bamboo was “green” and had the health benefits of natural bamboo.
The FTC has also issued bulletins on the subject: How to Avoid Bamboozling Your Customers to manufacturers, and ‘Bamboo’ Fabrics to consumers.
The FTC has also published rules and guidelines pertaining to “all environmental marketing claims” and The Textile Products Identification Act (TPIA). In the TPIA, mattress covers are exempt (except for “green” claims).
They have also taken action against retailers (such as Amazon, Wal Mart and JC Penney) and manufacturers (such as The M Group, Inc. and Pure Bamboo, LLC) several times since 2009, including December 2015.
Natural bamboo fibers are rarely used in textiles of any kind. One textile products manufacturer, Patagonia, says that they don’t use natural bamboo fibers, because they already use hemp, and they do not use nylon and rayon because of the envronmental consequences of the manufacturing processes..
I have learned to question whether “bamboo” in a mattress or pillow cover is the natural fiber or rayon. Now I’m inclined to believe that it is rayon unless specifically stated as drawn-out natural fibers. Though the law does not apply to mattresses, it still applies to pillows. The International Sleep Products Association has a Manual of Labeling Laws for its members, which has been updated in 2015.
As to why, after all the FTC and Canadian government actions, several product descriptions state “bamboo” and not “bamboo rayon,” I think the fault lies first with copywriters who may not understand the distinction or the law, then with companies who do not verify the accuracy of the product descriptions.
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