Why natural fibres?
A responsible choice
By choosing natural fibres, we can contribute to the economies of developing countries and help fight hunger and rural poverty
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.
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.
Almost all natural fibres are produced by agriculture, and the major part is harvested in the developing world. For example, more than 60% of the world's cotton is grown in China, India and Pakistan. In Asia, cotton is cultivated mainly by small farmers and its sale provides the primary source of income of some 100 million rural households.
In West and Central Africa, cotton is grown on an estimated 1.5 to 2 million small farms. At least 10 million people work in the region's cotton sector, and raw cotton makes up about 50% of exports from Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Togo. Cotton is Mozambique's second most important export, is grown by some 300 000 rural families, and provides work for 20 000 people along the supply chain.
In India and Bangladesh, an estimated 4 million marginal farmers earn their living – and support 20 million dependents – from the cultivation of jute, used in sacks, carpets, rugs and curtains. Competition from synthetic fibres has eroded demand for jute over recent decades and, in the wake of recession, reduced orders from Europe and the Middle East could cut jute exports by 20% in 2009.
Silk is another important industry in Asia. Raising silkworms generates income for some 700 000 farm households in India, while silk processing provide jobs for 20 000 weaving families in Thailand and about 1 million textile workers in China. Orders of Indian silk goods from Europe and the USA are reported to have declined by almost 50% in 2008-09.
Each year, developing countries produce around 500 000 tonnes of coconut fibre – or coir – mainly for export to developed countries for use in rope, nets, brushes, doormats, mattresses and insulation panels. In Sri Lanka, the single largest supplier of brown coir fibre to the world market, coir goods account for 6% of agricultural exports, while 500 000 people are employed in small-scale coir factories in southern India.
Across the globe in Tanzania, government and private industry have been working to revive once-booming demand for sisal fibre, extracted from the sisal agave and used in twine, paper, bricks and reinforced plastic panels in automobiles. Sisal cultivation and processing in Tanzania directly employs 120 000 people and the sisal industry benefits an estimated 2.1 million people. However, the global slowdown has cut demand for sisal, forced a 30% cut in prices, and led to mounting job losses.