For thousands of years, natural fibres have been at the core of the textile industry. From cloth, to paper and building materials, natural fibres were always the base material. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, natural fibres are substances produced by plants and animals that can be spun into filaments or thread. Natural fibres originate from either plant fibres, such as coir, cotton and flax, or animal fibres such as camel hair, alpaca wool, and cashmere. As a completely renewable resource, natural fibres provide many benefits both to the environment and to those involved in the market that they create.
Over the last 50 years, natural fibres have started to become displaced by synthetic, man-made materials such as polyester, acrylic and nylon. These materials are much cheaper and easier to manufacture in bulk, and easily create uniform colors, lengths and strengths of materials that can be adjusted according to specific requirements. The production of synthetic materials, however, is a strong contributor to carbon emissions and waste. According to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, it is estimated that every person in the world is responsible for 19.8 tons of carbon dioxide emissions in their lifetime, simply because of the clothes on their back that include synthetic fibres.
Unlike synthetic fibres, natural fibres not only come from the environment, but also benefit it. These fibres are renewable, carbon neutral, biodegradable and also produce waste that is either organic or can be used to generate electricity or make ecological housing material.
The onset of synthetic materials has not only been destructive towards the environment, it has also had a negative economic impact on those whose livelihoods depend on the production and processing of natural fibres. In an effort to raise global awareness of the “importance of natural fibres not only to producers and industry, but also to consumers and the environment,” the United Nations designated 2009 as the International Year of Natural Fibres. The year brought global attention to the important role that natural fibres play in alleviating food insecurity and poverty by allowing small-scale farmers a place in the international textile market.
According to the UN, natural fibres provide a multitude of human and environmental health as well as economic benefits. Each fibre has its own purpose in manufacturing, and provides better quality and more sustainable textiles than synthetic materials.
Natural fibres in clothing allow fabric to breathe, reducing the risk of skin rashes and allergic reactions, and also insulate the wearer against hot and cold temperatures. These fibres can also replace synthetics in industrial materials, for example, in home insulation panels. Insulation made from wool or hemp rather than fiberglass draw moisture away from walls and timber, and are safer because wool is naturally fire resistant.
According to the Australian Aid Global Education program, roughly 30 million tons of natural fibres are produced annually worldwide. Many small-scale farmers rely on this production process for their livelihoods and food security. Because synthetic fibres are taking over the textile industry, these farmers are suffering. Approximately 25 million tons of cotton is produced each year, but for the past 50 years the price of cotton has been driven down due to technological change and competition from artificial materials. Inexpensive synthetic materials drive small-scale farmers out of the textile market, because they cannot compete with the low prices.
Synthetic materials, while inexpensive to produce, can cause more harm to the environment and economy than they do good. In order to improve food security, the livelihoods of impoverished people, and the health of the global community, the shift back to natural fibres must be made.
To read more about natural fibres, please see: Where Would You Like to See More Agricultural Funding?, International Year of Natural Fibres, and 15 Natural Fibres.
Leah Baines is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.
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