Natural Fibres: Benefiting the Environment and Improving Food Security One Organism at a Time

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By Leah Baines 

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.

This Bolivian woman is using cotton and other natural fibres to weave a hammock. (Photo credit: American Museum of Natural History)

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.