Why natural fibres?

Each year, farmers harvest million tonnes of natural fibres 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 fibres form fabrics, ropes and twines that have been fundamental to society since the dawn of civilization.

But over the past half century, natural fibres have been displaced in our clothing, household furnishings, industries and agriculture by man-made fibres with names like acrylic, nylon, polyester and polypropylene. The success of synthetics is due mainly to cost. 

Relentless competition from synthetics and the current global economic downturn impact the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on natural fibre production and processing. That is why the International Year of Natural Fibres 2009 aimed at raising global awareness of the importance of natural fibres not only to producers and industry, but also to consumers and the environment.

Five good reasons...

1. A healthy choice

Natural fibre textiles absorb perspiration and release it into the air, a process called "wicking" that creates natural ventilation. Because of their more compact molecular structure, synthetic fibres cannot capture air and "breathe" in the same way.

Natural fibres are a healthier choice also for many industrial products. Europe’s car industry is replacing glass fibres in plastic car panels with flax fibres, which reduces skin and respiratory irritation. Home insulation batts made from wool or hemp draw moisture away from walls and timber, are reusable and can be installed without need for protective clothing (wool insulation is also naturally fire resistan

2. A responsible choice

Natural fibres production, processing and export are vital to the economies of many developing countries and the livelihoods of millions of small-scale farmers and low-wage workers. Almost all natural fibres are produced by agriculture, and the major part is harvested in the developing world.

Today, many of those economies and livelihoods are under threat: the global financial crisis has reduced demand for natural fibres as processors, manufacturers and consumers suspend purchasing decisions or look to cheaper synthetic alternatives.


Flax fibre mats are used in car doors

3. A sustainable choice

Natural fibres will play a key role in the emerging “green” economy based on energy efficiency, the use of renewable feed stocks in polymer products, industrial processes that reduce carbon emissions and recyclable materials that minimize waste.

Natural fibres are a renewable resource, par excellence – they have been renewed by nature and human ingenuity for millennia. They are also carbon neutral: they absorb the same amount of carbon dioxide they produce. During processing, they generate mainly organic wastes and leave residues that can be used to generate electricity or make ecological housing material. And, at the end of their life cycle, they are 100% biodegradable.

A patented, high-tech process combines flax and carbon fibres

4. A high-tech choice

Natural fibres have instrinsic properties – mechanical strength, low weight and low cost – that have made them particularly attractive to the automobile industry. In Europe, car makers are using mats made from abaca, flax and hemp in press-moulded thermoplastic panels for door liners, parcel shelves, seat backs, engine shields and headrests.

Worldwide, the construction industry is moving to natural fibres for a range of products, including light structural walls, insulation materials, floor and wall coverings, and roofing. Among recent innovations are cement blocks reinforced with sisal fibre. 

5. A fashionable choice

Natural fibres are at the heart of a fashion movement that goes by various names: sustainable, green, uncycled, ethical, eco-, even eco-environmental. It focuses fashion on concern for the environment, the well-being of fibre producers and consumers, and the conditions of workers in the textile industry.

Young designers now offer “100% carbon neutral” collections that strive for sustainability at every stage of their garments’ life cycle – from production, processing and packaging to transportation, retailing and ultimate disposal. Preferred raw materials include age-old fibres such as flax and hemp, which can be grown without agrochemicals and produce garments that are durable, recyclable and biodegradable.