Natural alternatives to cotton...

World production of other plant-fibre crops for textile use declined sharply as a result of advances in cotton production and the development of synthetic fibres. But promising things are emerging.

Heldor Netocny / Panos Pictures


A thornless variety has been produced in India, making its cultivation economically viable, especially for small-scale farmers. Bamboo is arguably one of the world’s best sustainable resources. It is fast-growing and drought-resistant, sending up new shoots after harvest without a need for replanting. It can be processed in four to five years, unlike traditional hardwoods. Bamboo takes in nearly five times the amount of greenhouse gases, and produces 35 per cent more oxygen, than an equivalent stand of trees. It sequesters excess nitrogen and helps to mitigate water pollution. It does not require chemical pesticides or fertilizers, and is less prone to allergic reaction. Processors claim its fibre is softer than the softest cotton, is antibacterial and draws moisture away from skin. It is now possible to convert raw bamboo into more conventional lumber and plywood – a potentially sustainable replacement for wood. There is however eco-scepticsm about bamboo as a ‘saviour’ crop.

Heldor Netocny / Panos Pictures


Another old fibre crop producing a stiffer, more brittle textile and requiring chemical processing to remove gums and pectins. Grown predominantly in China, Egypt, Philippines, India, South Korea and Thailand. Production in recent years has declined steadily, but export demand increases during cotton shortages.


Can be grown without the use of herbicides or insecticides, since its natural oils don’t appeal to pests. Hemp helps clean the soil by bonding heavy metals to the fibre, and its deep roots aerate the soil; left in the field, the leaves add organic matter. Little or no irrigation is needed. Hemp is increasingly used for textiles, including carpets and apparel, and in building materials – although industrial processing is still in its early days. Hemp is stronger than cotton. Fabrics made from hemp are naturally resistant to UV light, mould and mildew. Hemp can also be used to produce alternative fuels, including biodiesel and ethanol.

Heldor Netocny / Panos Pictures


Jute makes a wonderful tree-free paper. The separated bark can be used to produce pulps with properties similar to wood pulp; processing uses fewer chemicals. The main centres of production for jute and allied fibres of kenaf, roselle, ramie and sunn hemp are India, Bangladesh, China and Thailand. Decreasing pulp supplies, and the demand for alternative crops to replace tobacco and cotton in the US, could bring increasing interest in kenaf production. Seagrass, sisal, coir and allied fibres are natural plant fibres that are 100-per-cent biodegradable and recyclable. But they are coarser, more inflexible, prone to fibre shed, and have decreased strength when wet. They can be air-blown for added softness. More suitable for use in flooring, industrial-strength rope, packaging, netting, industrial yarn, and canvas; these are cheap fibres to produce and have strength and brittleness. Sisal pulp has high tear-resistance and physical properties superior to softwood pulp, and can cost-effectively replace it in commodity papers.

Heldor Netocny / Panos Pictures


An old fibre crop from the flax plant, one of the earth’s earliest natural fibres to be made into cloth, grown mainly in the Mediterranean region. Production has lagged because textile-processing inventions have been inefficient for linen. Expense of production limits use but, grown by smallholders, linen is an expandable export during drought and damage to other crops.