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Feds claim 'bamboo' fabric was really rayon

When you buy sheets, blankets or clothing made from “eco-friendly bamboo” you assume you’re getting what’s on the label – not fabric woven from rayon. But the Federal Trade Commission claims four national retailers did just that, even after they were warned to stop.

Last week, Amazon.com, Macy’s, Sears and Leon Max (which does business as Max Studio), agreed to pay civil penalties totaling $1.26 million to settle federal charges that they labeled and advertised textile products made of bamboo fibers that were actually rayon.

“When attempting to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers, companies need to ensure they don’t cross the line into misleading labeling and advertising,” said Charles Harwood, acting director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.  “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.”

The varying penalty amounts, Sears and its Kmart subsidiaries ($475,000), Amazon ($455,000), Macy’s ($250,000), and Leon Max ($80,000), were based on the amount of items sold as well as how long the companies continued to sell mislabeled products after being warned to stop by the FTC in early 2010.

The four companies did not admit doing anything wrong. But under the settlement agreement they’ll be required to ensure that the labels and ads for the bamboo textiles they sell from now on accurately indicate their fiber content.  The FTC will monitor the firms to make sure this is done.

“We cooperated with the FTC in reaching this settlement in lieu of pursuing further litigation,” said Howard Riefs, a spokesperson for Sears Holdings Corp. in a statement to NBCNews.com. “We continue to take these regulations seriously.”

Amazon.com, Macy’s and Leon Max did not respond to our request for a comment.

The misconception about bamboo fiber
Fabric made from bamboo may not be as “green” as you think.

“There is no reason to go out of your way to buy bamboo fibers,” said Linda Greer, director of the Clean by Design program at the National Resources Defense Council. “While bamboo is environmentally friendly, it takes a lot of chemical processing to create those fibers. This undermines the redeeming natural qualities of bamboo.”

The FTC’s fact sheet on ‘Bamboo’ fabrics explains that there is “no evidence” to back up claims that rayon made from bamboo retains the antimicrobial properties of the bamboo plant. Even when bamboo is used to create the rayon, “no traits of the original plant are left in the finished product.”

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Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter or visit The ConsumerMan website.