Why Natural Fibers?

“Free your mind from toxic thoughts and your clothes from toxic chemicals” – Jitin Anand

Why Should You Care About Natural Fibers?

Natural fibers can be defined as bio-based fibers or fibers from vegetable and animal origin. This includes all natural cellulosic fibers like cotton, jute, sisal, coir, flax, hemp, abaca, ramie, etc. and protein based fibers such as wool and silk. Excluded here are mineral fibers such as asbestos that occur naturally but are not bio based. Asbestos containing products are not considered sustainable due to the well-known health risk, that resulted in prohibition of its use in many countries. On the other hand, there are man-made cellulose fibers such as viscose-rayon and cellulose acetate, that are produced with chemical procedures from pulped wood or other sources (cotton, bamboo). Similarly, regenerated (soybean) protein, polymer fiber (bio-polyester, PHA, PLA) and chitosan fiber are examples of semi-synthetic products that are based on renewable resources.

Each year, farmers harvest around 35 million tons of natural fibers from a wide range of plants and animals – from sheep, rabbits, goats, camels and alpacas, from cotton bolls, abaca and sisal leaves and coconut husks, and from the stalks of jute, hemp, flax and ramie plants. Those fibers form fabrics, ropes and twines that have been fundamental to society since the dawn of civilization.

But over the past half century, natural fibers have been displaced in our clothing, household furnishings, industries and agriculture by man-made fibers with names like acrylic, nylon, polyester and polypropylene. The success of synthetics is due mainly to cost. Unlike natural fibers harvested by farmers, commonly used synthetic fibers are mass produced from petrochemicals to uniform strengths, lengths and colors, easily customized to specific applications.

Relentless competition from synthetics and the current global economic downturn impact the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on natural fiber production and processing. That is why UN assigned 2009 as International Year of Natural Fibers aiming to raise global awareness of the importance of natural fibers not only to producers and industry, but also to consumers and the environment.

Natural fibers are a healthy choice

Most people know natural fibers provide natural ventilation. That is why a cotton T-shirt feels so comfortable on a hot day – and why sweat-suits used for weight reduction are 100% synthetic. Wool garments act as insulators against both cold and heat – Bedouins wear thin wool to keep themselves cool. Coconut fibers used in mattresses have natural resistance to fungus and mites. Hemp fiber has antibacterial properties, and studies show that linen is the most hygienic textile for hospital bed sheets.

Natural fibers are a responsible choice

Natural fibers are of major economic importance to many developing countries and vital to the livelihoods and food security of millions of small-scale farmers and processors. They include 10 million people in the cotton sector in West and Central Africa, 4 million small-scale jute farmers in Bangladesh and India, one million silk industry workers in China, and 120 000 alpaca herding families in the Andes. By choosing natural fibers we boost the sector’s contribution to economic growth and help fight hunger and rural poverty. 

Natural fires are a sustainable choice

The emerging “green” economy is based on energy efficiency, renewable feed stocks in polymer products, industrial processes that reduce carbon emissions and recyclable materials. Natural fibers are a renewable resource. Growing one ton of jute fiber requires less than 10% of the energy used for the production of polypropylene. Natural fibers are carbon neutral. Processing produces residues that can be used in bio composites for building houses or to generate electricity. At the end of their life cycle, natural fibers are 100% biodegradable. 

Natural fibers are a high-tech choice

Natural fibers have good mechanical strength, low weight and low cost. That has made them particularly attractive to the automobile industry. In Europe, car makers are using an estimated 80 000 tons of natural fibers a year to reinforce thermoplastic panels. India has developed composite boards made from coconut fiber that are more resistant to rotting than teak. Brazil is making roofing material reinforced with sisal. In Europe, hemp wastes are used in cement, and China used hemp-based construction materials for the 2008 Olympics.

Natural fibers are a fashionable choice

Natural fibers are at the heart of an eco-fashion or “sustainable clothing” movement that seeks to create garments that are sustainable at every stage of their life cycle, from production to disposal. Natural fiber producers, textile manufacturers and the clothing industry need to be aware of, and respond to, the opportunities provided by growing demand for organic cotton and wool, for recyclable and biodegradable fabrics, and for “fair trade” practices that offer producers higher prices and protect textile industry workers.

Increased customer demand for sustainable textiles and advances in technology may well increase the amount of natural fibers used. Fibers that in the past were not considered suitable for clothing can now be used. Treating jute with caustic soda, for example, improves its crimp and softness, which allows it to be spun with wool. Modern processing systems allow jute to be successfully blended with cotton. Technological developments make it possible to spin a yarn which is 3 parts kapok and 2 parts cotton and there are now techniques available to make kapok non-flammable.

Geo-textiles are another area with an increased demand for natural fibers. Geo-textiles are used to protect soil from erosion and strengthen earthworks, encouraging the growth of plants.

Surprisingly, the largest area of growth in the use of natural fibers is in the automotive industry. Plant fibers are attractive to car makers as they are light and mechanically strong, and plant fiber composites can be used instead of fiberglass to reinforce components. Molding them into shape uses less energy than molding fiberglass, which can considerably reduce production costs. The cars also weigh less and cost less to run. In addition, car seats padded with coconut fiber are more comfortable to use than those filled with plastic foam.

However, it is unlikely that synthetic fibers will ever be completely replaced by natural fibers. Synthetic fibers can be produced cheaply and in large amounts. They are easy to customize and can be made in any length, crimp or diameter. And many consumers find it more important that the clothes they wear are cheap and easy to care for rather than comfortable and sustainable.

Synthetic fibers come with lots of chemicals on them and can be toxic too. Read my articles to learn more.

We might not be able to stop using synthetic fiber totally, but we can restrict them. For our and planet earth’s good.



image courtesy: researchgate.net

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