Why natural fibres?
Five good reasons...
The International Year will raise awareness of their importance not only to producers and industry, but to consumers and the environment
Each year, farmers harvest around 35 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. Unlike natural fibres harvested by farmers, commonly used synthetic fibres are mass produced from petrochemicals to uniform strengths, lengths and colours, 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 fibre production and processing. That is why the International Year of Natural Fibres 2009 aims at raising global awareness of the importance of natural fibres not only to producers and industry, but also to consumers and the environment.
So, in 2009, why choose natural fibres?
Natural fibres are a healthy choice
Most people know natural fibres 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 fibres used in mattresses have natural resistance to fungus and mites. Hemp fibre has antibacterial properties, and studies show that linen is the most hygienic textile for hospital bed sheets.
Natural fibres are a responsible choice
Natural fibres 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 fibres we boost the sector's contribution to economic growth and help fight hunger and rural poverty.
Natural fibres 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 fibres are a renewable resource. Growing one tonne of jute fibre requires less than 10% of the energy used for the production of polypropylene. Natural fibres are carbon neutral. Processing produces residues that can be used in biocomposites for building houses or to generate electricity. At the end of their life cycle, natural fibres are 100% biodegradable.
Natural fibres are a high-tech choice
Natural fibres 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 tonnes of natural fibres a year to reinforce thermoplastic panels. India has developed composite boards made from coconut fibre 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 fibres are a fashionable choice
Natural fibres 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 fibre 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.
Contact us to get involved:
International Year of Natural Fibres
Trade and Markets Division
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Viale delle Terme di Caracalla
00153 Rome, Italy
Fax: +39 06 57054495