Bed Bath & Beyond, JCPenney, Others To Pay $1.3M For Trying To Pass Off Rayon As “Bamboo”

Four national retailers will be paying a hefty tab at the register after federal regulators say they continued to deceptively mislabel rayon products as “bamboo,” despite being warned five years ago that this practice violated the law.

The Federal Trade Commission today announced that it had reached deals in which Nordstrom, Bed Bath & Beyond, Backcountry.com and JCPenney will pay a total of $1.3 million in order to settle allegations the retailers falsely labeled rayon products as being entirely made of bamboo.

Under the court orders, Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. will pay $500,000; Nordstrom, Inc. will pay $360,000; JCPenney Company, Inc. will pay $290,000; and Backcountry.com LLC will pay $150,000 for the alleged violations of the FTC Act and the agency’s Textile Rules.

Rayon is the generic name for a type of regenerated or manufactured fiber made from the plant source cellulose. The process of converting the plant material into clothing or other fabric includes hazardous chemicals, and the resulting fiber is rayon and not cotton, wood or bamboo fiber.

According to the FTC’s complaints, the companies allegedly broke the law when they continued to misrepresent and mislabel products as simply being bamboo despite the fact the material was chemically processed into rayon.

The FTC previously sent warning letters to each of the retailers in 2010, notifying them that legal action could be taken if they didn’t stop the allegedly deceptive marketing of rayon products.

In the case of Bed Bath & Beyond, the FTC alleges in its complaint [PDF] that the company mislabeled items sold at stores, online and through its subsidiary Buy Buy Baby, including swaddle blanks and bamboo napkins.

For example, in advertisements for the “Little Bamboo 3-Pack Muslin Wrap,” Bed Bath & Beyond claims that the product is a “100% bamboo muslin wrap,” listing the fiber content as 100% bamboo. The FTC alleges these ads contained factually inaccurate information and misled consumers.

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Nordstrom markets several apparel items, such as dresses, socks and tank tops, with large, prominently placed bamboo claims, often in the product titles, according to the complaint [PDF] against the retailer.

In one example, the FTC points to the company’s private-label “Bamboo Blend Over The Knee Socks,” which are described as “fine-guage socks blended with oh-so-soft bamboo fibers.” While the retailer later goes on to admit that the product is actually 78% rayon from bamboo, the FTC believes the size and location of the disclaimer is not likely to be noticed or understood by shoppers.

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The FTC also took notice of JCPenney’s marketing of its private-label brands such as Stafford. The company routinely made claims online that the products made under these labels were omposed entirely of bamboo.

As with Nordstrom’s marketing, JC Penney prominently uses the word bamboo in product names and descriptions.

For example, JCPenney markets and sells a “300tc Bamboo Set of 2 Pillow Shams” and describes them as “pillow shams made of irresistibly soft bamboo.” Yet, at the bottom of the product advertisement, the retailer lists the fiber content as “Viscose bamboo,” which is rayon.

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Finally, in the case of backcountry.com – an online specialty retailer that sells clothing and outdoor recreation gear – the FTC alleges the company falsely claims that the fiber in many of its products are bamboo.

A t-shirt sold by the company is described online as a “blend of bamboo and polyester [that] dries quickly while reducing ecological footprint,” but the fiber is actually polyester and rayon.

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In addition to paying penalties, the FTC’s proposed order prohibits the companies from failing to properly identify the fiber content when labeling and advertising any textiles containing manufactured fibers.

To ensure that customers aren’t duped into purchasing products that are mislabeled as bamboo, the FTC has created a guide for retailers called How to Avoid Bamboo-zling Your Buyers, while customers can read up on the issue in a separate notice.