Q: I’m just starting on my holiday gift shopping and I need a bit of guidance for one particular item. I thought my nephew, an environmental science major, might appreciate a bamboo fabric sheet set. Even though he’s a freshman and has only been away at college for a few months, I thought extra sheets and pillowcases might come in handy since god knows what they do in dormitories these days.

I’ve read that bamboo sheets are soft, strong and, most importantly, antibacterial.

But I’ve also heard a rumor that bamboo fabric isn’t actually bamboo fabric at all, but plain old rayon. How’s that possible? I certainly don’t want to bestow my beloved nephew with something that would offend his eco-sensibilities. I also don’t want to be known as the auntie who got bamboozled big time. Can you advise?

Stumped and trying to be sustainable,

Martha, St. Paul, Minn.

A: First off, as someone who graduated from college during this decade, I can tell you that I don’t think your nephew has already fashioned his only pair of sheets into a toga or set them ablaze in the quad. (If he has, I guess I wasn’t invited to the right parties.)

Secondly, both rumors you’ve heard about bamboo are true. Well ... supposedly. While bamboo itself is inherently antibacterial — not to mention rapidly renewable — the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced in August that bamboo-based textiles — towels, linens, clothing — are so heavily chemically treated that any trace of antibacterial bamboo fiber is eliminated. The result? You heard right; it’s rayon. And the FTC slapped four companies with charges of false advertising.

Here’s what the FTC has to say about the matter:

The companies falsely claim that their rayon clothing and other textile products are “100 percent bamboo fiber.” They market them under such names as “ecoKashmere,” “Pure Bamboo,” “Bamboo Comfort” and “BambooBaby.” Rayon is a man-made fiber created from the cellulose found in plants and trees and processed with a harsh toxic chemical that releases hazardous air pollutants. Any plant or tree could be used as the cellulose source — including bamboo — but the fiber that is created is rayon.

The complaints also allege that these four companies make a number of other “green” claims about their clothing and textile products, none of which are true or substantiated. All four companies claim their products retain the bamboo plant’s antimicrobial properties. The settling companies — Jonäno, Mad Mod, and Pure Bamboo — also claim that their products are made using environmentally friendly manufacturing processes, and both Pure Bamboo and Bamboosa make unqualified claims that their products are biodegradable, and that they will completely break down and return to the elements found in nature in a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal. Rayon products are not biodegradable because they will not break down in a reasonably short time after customary disposal. Most clothing and textiles are disposed of either by recycling or sending to a landfill. Neither method results in quick biodegradation.

Rayon also does not retain any natural antimicrobial properties of the bamboo plant. The rayon manufacturing process, which involves dissolving the plant source in harsh chemicals, eliminates any such natural properties of the bamboo plant.

Ouch. While this case of greenwash whistle blowing is still rather fresh and there’s a serious case of heated “who is bamboozling who?” going on, I think it’s safe to say that if your nephew is particularly eco-sensitive, you may want to ditch the bamboo sheets idea. It could be too controversial, and there’s nothing worse than drama over the holidays.

That’s not to say you should give up on bamboo entirely since this case only applies to bamboo textiles and not products like bamboo flooring. If this truly is a case of straight-out greenwashing like the FTC alleges, I bit hook, line and sinker. My bath towels stand as evidence. But to be honest, after reading arguments from both sides, the FTC and the manufacturers, the jury, for me at least, is still out.

If you’re still stuck on the sheets idea, but want to make a pass on bamboo, I’ll gladly make a recommendation: PB Teen sells guy-friendly (masculine colors and no frills) and dorm-ready (available in TwinXL) sheet sets from made 100 percent organic cotton percale. The fabrics have even received the heads-up from Oeko-Tex, the trusted source of eco-fabric approval. Organic cotton may not be as novel and hip as bamboo, but I think it’s worth a shot.

The PB Teen organic cotton sheets aren’t antibacterial so if you can’t get the germy dormitory image out of your head, why not just slip a few jumbo containers of hand sanitizer into your nephew’s stocking? Hmmm … bed sheets and hand sanitizer from Auntie — not too entirely creepy.

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Photo: Joi/Flickr 

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.