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International Year
of Natural Fibres
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The IYNF Coordination Unit at FAO has prepared a range of information materials for use by partners and the general public in celebrating the Year. Downloads here...

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Why natural fibres?

A fashionable choice

Eco-conscious designers offer “carbon neutral” collections that strive for sustainability at every stage of their garments’ life cycle

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Katharine Hamnett
Environmental and health concerns are behind the boom in organic cotton

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.

Fashion collections also feature organic wool, produced by sheep that have not been exposed to pesticide dips, and “cruelty-free” wild silk, which is harvested – unlike most silk – after the moths have left their cocoons.

Environmental and health concerns are also behind the boom in organic cotton, which is grown using biological methods of pest control and without chemical fertilizers or genetically modified seed, and processed without chemical dyes and formaldehyde. In 2007, organic cotton was being grown on almost 50 000 ha of farmland in 22 countries, and production was estimated at almost 60 000 tonnes. Mainstream fashion designers and clothing companies are introducing organic cotton into jeans and sportswear, and global retail sales of organic cotton clothing and home textiles were reportedly worth more than $3 billion in 2008.

The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) sets strict standards on chemicals permitted in processing, on waste water treatment, packaging material and technical quality parameters, on factory working conditions and on residue testing. Get GOTS... – www.global-standard.org/

Sustainable fashion intersects with the “fair trade” movement, which offers producers in developing countries higher prices for their natural fibres and promotes social and environmental standards in fibre processing. Fair trade fashion pioneers are working with organic cotton producers’ cooperatives in Mali, hand-weavers groups in Bangladesh and Nepal, and alpaca producers in Peru.

A major UK chain store launched in 2007 a fair trade range of clothing that uses cotton “ethically sourced” from farmers in the Gujarat region of India. It has since sold almost 5 million garments and doubled sales in the first six months of 2008.

Another dimension of sustainable fashion is concern for the working conditions of employees in textile and garment factories, which are often associated with long working hours, exposure to hazardous chemicals used in bleaching and dyeing, and the scourge of child labour. The recently approved Global Organic Textile Standard (above), widely accepted by manufacturers, retailers and brand dealers, includes a series of “minimum social criteria” for textile processing, including a prohibition on the use of child labour, workers’ freedom of association and right to collective bargaining, safe and hygienic working conditions, and “living wages”.

International Year of Natural Fibres 2009 – www.naturalfibres2009.org