Image Credit: Khamir
Anyone could be forgiven if the words “fashion” and “farming” conjure up two very different images in their mind. After all, one about trends, catwalks and brands, the other soil, tractors and the land. Actually, the two sectors are much more interconnected than many remember. Despite the growth in popularity of semi-synthetic materials such as rayon, and completely synthetic ones like polyester, just under a third of the fibers in our clothes and textiles are still grown, harvested, or sheared on farms.
Cultivating natural fibers creates rural employment opportunities around the world, providing income to an estimated 200 million people—that’s 2 to 3% of the global population.
But the industry isn’t without its problems. While we’ve talked about the environmental issues with rayon and polyester before, being natural doesn’t always mean that something is good for the planet… or the people who grow it, for that matter. Fiber farmers are right at the end of an infamously complex supply chain, and many fashion brands know a very small amount, if anything, about how their raw materials are farmed. This means that farmers and farm workers often bear the true cost of the fashion industry’s search for ever cheaper production.
Take cotton, for instance. An ongoing inquiry into farms in the Xinjiang region of China has recently estimated that 20% of the world’s cotton comes from Xinjiang and carries a risk of being produced by the forced labor of the Uyghur ethnic minority. The resource-intensive crop species can also create water stress in rural areas when poorly managed, while the chemicals involved have been linked to health problems including cancer.
Brands are on the lookout for alternatives. But new fiber formulas that focus too heavily on technology (think Hermès new lab-grown mushroom leather handbag, for example) cut the livelihoods of these rural workers completely out of the equation, and forgo the potential positives of regenerative farming.
The good news is that more research into plant-based textiles is already resulting in alternative solutions. This new wave of innovation in bio-fibers is dedicated to creating sustainable agricultural practices in the countries that most need them.
While these materials have a lot of potential, the value brought back to the local communities will depend on how they are manufactured and scaled. If managed responsibly and used in combination, they could stop the kind of unprecedented demand for one raw material that often leads to exploitation of both people and natural resources. Instead, they set a blueprint for a diversity of farm-to-fiber systems that bring real benefits to both the farmers and the soil.
Desi cotton comes from species of the plant indigenous to India. While indigenous varieties once represented all cotton grown in the country, this changed with the country’s colonization and industrialization. The coarse, short-staple native species were replaced by American cotton, which produced a smoother textile. Today, 93% of cotton grown in the country is a genetically modified American variety called Bt cotton, the seeds for which were predominantly sold by the U.S.-based private company Monsanto. In 2018 the company was bought by the German pharmaceutical company Bayer AG and the name “Monsanto” was dropped from branding seeds. As well as being more water-intensive, the introduction of GM seeds also caused a spike in farmer suicides due to debt after borrowing money to finance the transition.
Today, indigenous cottons can cause problems in modern industrial spinning systems due to their higher content of shortfibers, and as a consequence, desi cotton fabrics can be difficult to find. One of the more commercially available varieties is Kala cotton, originally known as Wagad cotton, which is native to the Kutch region of India. Accustomed to growing in a dry, desert environment, it is entirely rain-fed and grows without the use of pesticides or fertilizers.
Organic farming organization Satvik and social enterprise Khamir set out to revive Kala cotton, working across the supply chain with farmers, ginners, spinners and weavers in Kutch. After years of experimentation, they are now producing a handwoven textile with a linen-like feel. Not only is the material helping to revive the diminishing art of weaving this variety of cotton, but it is providing an alternative for agricultural workers that leaves much less of an impact on the planet. It is already being used in Henri London’s lightweight shirts, and Pico’s handwoven towels.
Himalayan Nettle Fiber
The use of nettles for clothing dates back thousands of years. Local communities in Nepal and India have long been processing, weaving and knitting nettles by hand to make bags and even shawls, sold through social enterprises such as Peoli.
Now, thanks to new innovations in the way the plant can be processed, this coarse bast fiber is making a comeback as a viable material for the fashion industry. One company dedicated to making nettle commercially available is Himalayan Wild Fibers, which works collaboratively with locals living in the surrounding Nepalese mountains who farm on these steep, sloping terrains. Here, the wild nettle plants have shoots that grow up to three meters high in a year. Harvesting the vertical stalks of the plant does much the same as pruning any bush or tree—it removes old growth to make room for new shoots to spring up. These help the plant to absorb more CO2 and encourage its roots to grow deeper too.
The local farmers are able to forage the nettles in the off-season, and Himalayan Wild Fibers commits to paying them a fair price for the work, providing a year-round income, and reinvesting its finances into a local non-profit organization dedicated to the support and development of Himalayan communities. The stalks are processed in Kathmandu, furthering the humble nettle fiber’s potential to benefit its country of origin throughout its production.
Currently, Himalayan Wild Fibers only sells the resulting product as a raw material that still needs to be spun and woven. It has, however, partnered with various mills across Italy and the U.S. who have successfully made yarn, knits, and even denim out of it. Hopefully, a brand soon picks it up for a sustainable fashion collection that you can buy.
Hemp is naturally regenerative, meaning it restores nutrients into the soil where it is grown, making it a popular choice for rotation with food crops. It also on average requires less water than cotton.
Its growing popularity in the apparel market could be good news for both farmers and their lands; doubling up as an extra income stream and creating a supply of natural fertilizer. However, the main barriers to scaling up hemp textiles are legislation and processing facilities. While the fiber was once widely used to make both clothing and homeware, its production in countries where it grows in the wild including the U.S and India nearly disappeared when commercial hemp cultivation was outlawed in the U.S under pressure from DuPont and companies seeking to expand the production of synthetic fibers, and later in India too. As a consequence, various wild-growing species faced extinction too. Although cultivating industrial hemp has since been legalized under the 0.3% law, much time has been lost in breeding locally adapted seed stock and developing technologies to commercialise the fiber.
A particularly interesting use of hemp comes once again from the Himalayas, where the plants still grow naturally in abundance. Here, the Himalayan Hemp Cooperative works with farmers to forage the wild fibers, and teams up with local women to process them. Meanwhile, Canvaloop, a fiber producer in Gujarat, has developed a proprietary process to cottonize wild hemp and turn it into jeans. There is certainly a lot of potential here, but its social success will depend on responsible foraging and keeping the financial benefit within the local communities.
Pineapple Leaf Fiber
Pineapple leaves have been widely touted for their potential in the sustainable fashion space. Certified B Corporation Ananas Anam claims that approximately 13 million tons of waste are generated globally from producing the fruit each year, and repurposing this into fiber can be doubly beneficial. It opens up a new income stream for farmers while creating textiles that need no extra natural resources from the land.
Ananas Anam works directly with farming cooperatives in the Philippines to make its Piñatex pineapple leather. It purchases leaves that would otherwise be discarded or burned, in turn helping local farmers to amplify their earnings from the seasonal fruit harvest. The fibers are cleaned and processed with a corn-based polylactic acid (PLA) in the Philippines to create a felt-like fabric which forms the base of all Piñatex products, before being shipped to mills in Spain and Italy for specialized finishing. The addition PLA means that the resulting fabric can only partially break down under industrial conditions – however, any residual leaf biomass from the production is used as a natural fertilizer in a step towards creating a closed-loop system.
The leather alternative is already being widely used by brands around the world, appearing in U.S.-based Jo-Anne Vernay’s statement red heels and New Zealand brand Duffle&Co’s crossbody bag among many others. However, researchers tested it and other vegan, plant-based leathers and found them to be less resilient and long-lasting than real leather.
There is plenty of untapped potential for pineapple leaf fiber in Bangladesh too, where the fruit is extensively farmed. The leaf could be blended with other fibers such as cotton or silk to make a finer fabric.
Abacá (Banana Fiber)
Banana fiber, also known as abacá, has been used by rural communities to create textiles for generations. The adoption of this practice by fashion could provide an alternative income stream for farmers in the regions where they naturally grow.
One recent scalable use is Bananatex, a durable canvas-like fabric developed by Swiss bag brand QWSTION, who work with farmers in the Philippines. It uses abacá grown through an approach that mixes agriculture and forestry in an effort to revive former areas of the Philippine jungle which have depleted soil quality after being used for palm plantations. The fiber is obtained by harvesting the stalks once a year, allowing the plant to fully regenerate in between. It is processed in Taipei, Taiwan, and finishing treatments with a low environmental impact such as natural wax allow it to remain biodegradable.
Beyond Bananatex, the fibers of the abacá and banana plants have been used to create silk-like fabrics too. But non-organic banana farming is notorious for the amount of agrochemicals used and growing the same crop year after year on the same land is bad news for the soil. So, it’s really about the farming practices with this one, and banana-based textiles require plenty of research before purchasing to make sure they really are as sustainable as they sound.
The growing popularity of Instagram-worthy basket bags might be one of the reasons farmers in Haiti, Kenya and Tanzania are placing hopes on sisal. This hardy plant requires little water and is one of the most resistant to drought, making it a safe fallback for agricultural workers who live in hot, dry parts of the world. As African countries begin to feel the very real effects of climate change, sisal offers an alternative to conventional crops, which can be tricky to sustain in such arid conditions.
In the past, sisal has not been profitable for small-scale farmers to grow due to the time and labor-intensive process of extracting the fiber from the plant. Yet projects such as the FAO’s Future Fibers Initiative set out to increase demand for this fiber ten years ago by supporting independent farmers in its cultivation. Thanks to innovation in processing techniques, many are now recognizing its potential once again. One particular success story is that of Kenyan innovator Alex Odundo, who invented two machines that allow small-scale farmers and village groups to process sisal independently, making it much easier for them to sell.
The fiber is used not only to make ropes and twine, but woven into baskets and bags by women’s enterprises too. Sisal has even made its way into the luxury fashion space with contemporary brand Cesta Collective, who produce their whimsical basket bags in collaboration with artisan enterprises in Rwanda.
Desserto’s Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez use the prickly pear cactus to create a plant-based leather. The Mexican duo partners with local farmers across five ranches in the states of Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí, Mexico, where the prickly pear is a native species. This means that it finds itself naturally at home in the soil conditions and doesn’t require any extra water beyond rainfall.
The farming process itself is key to the cactus’ planet-positive properties. Rather than harvesting the whole plant and restarting from scratch each year, only the mature leaves are harvested, before being cleaned, mashed, and dried naturally under the sun by the team. The plant is left undamaged and able to continue reproducing for around eight years, making the whole process less energy-intensive. Meanwhile, the cactuses themselves have an amazing capacity to capture carbon from the atmosphere. Desserto claims that its 14-acre farm absorbs 8,100 tons of it each year.
Desserto trains its partners in organic growing, harvesting and processing techniques to improve the quality of their yield. It helps its farmers achieve organic certification, in turn increasing the value of the crop by up to ten times. The farmers sell half of the processed plant to the local food industry, helping the farmers boost their income, while the rest goes into making Desserto leather through a patented process, one that they claim is done without toxic chemicals, phthalates and PVC. Unfortunately, their claim to be non-toxic was disproven by a study done in early 2021 that picked up on five restricted substances in the final product, including butanone oxime, toluene, free isocyanate, a fungicide called folpet, and traces of a phthalate plasticiser.
The resulting material, now commercially available, is described as “partially biodegradable”—but the company has not released information about what exactly the cactus is blended with and will not allow brands to share that information either. If we had to take a guess, it would be polyurethane, which is what most non-toxic vegan leathers are made with. We’ve reached out to Desserto and will update this post if they respond.
Agraloop BioFibre was developed as a holistic solution to agricultural residues: the remaining part of plants left once the desired crop has been harvested. It aims to take waste from hemp, flax, wheat, rice, corn, pineapple leaves, banana trunks and more, turning them into a new natural textile.
According to Circular Systems, the parent company behind Agraloop, over one million acres of oilseed flax and hemp waste is burned in North America per year. Meanwhile in India, this applies to 32 million tons of rice straw. Whether burned or left to rot, said waste contributes to the release of gases including methane into the air. The practice of burning this stubble has also been outlawed in India since 1981, yet the process continues. In the absence of an alternative way for farmers to clear their fields, Agraloop could be a solution.
The company’s current yarns and fabrics are made by blending these residues with organic cotton or TENCEL Lyocell to create finer, silky fabrics. The resulting material is surprisingly glamorous for something made from farming waste, used in a gown worn by former Vogue India editor-at-large turned sustainable fashion activist Bandana Tewari to the 2019 Global Change Awards. It is currently at the stage of early commercialization — so far you can buy Circular Systems products from H&M’s Conscious Collection — but the startup has partnered with mills in Portugal, Italy and Turkey to scale up its production.
Ugandan bark cloth has been produced in the country for thousands of years, earning it a place on the UNESCO representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Made from the permanently renewable bark of the African Mutuba fig tree, it can be harvested without causing any harm. Its creation is an ancient craft of the Baganda people from southern Uganda.
Bark cloth has particular potential when it comes to agroforestry, a traditional and inherently balanced approach to agriculture in which trees are cultivated in harmony with a variety of other crops. Having fig trees on farms provides sun coverage for other crops and stops soil erosion, while capturing carbon from the atmosphere and improving soil health too.
BarkTex, in collaboration with the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, has set out to revive and preserve this inherently sustainable craft, providing employment for hundreds of local farmers and craftspeople. It collaborates with small-scale family farmers from Uganda to source the bark, which is developed into fiber using traditional, low energy processes by women who live nearby. It is already possible to purchase in large quantities for commercial use, and bark cloth is already in use by some designers.