The second most produced and consumed natural fibre in the world behind cotton, jute grows mainly in India and Bangladesh, the two largest producing countries. India would be number 1 in terms of quantity, Bangladesh would win the honours in terms of quality.
It is estimated that more than 30 million people depend, directly or indirectly, on the jute industry. Unfortunately, it pays little and suffers from competition from synthetic materials. Good news, in recent years, we have seen various initiatives to promote the innovative potential of this fibre and its new applications.
Often mixed with other fibres such as hemp, cotton or flax, jute is mainly used for the manufacture of bags, biodegradable geotextile, ropes and carpets.
Although the word “hemp” is translated as “cannabis” in Latin, it is important to know that they are distinct plants. To differentiate them, we speak of textile hemp, industrial or agricultural hemp. This plant has a very low THC content (hallucinogenic substance), less than 0.3% depending on the country, compared with cannabis (or recreational hemp) which may contain 10-20 or even 40%. Another important difference is that the plant that produces textile hemp can be up to 5 metres high, while the stem of recreational or therapeutic hemp remains rather low.
That being said, let’s talk hemp!
Hemp is one of the first plants domesticated by humans in Asia, about 9000 years B.C. In addition to its virtues in pharmacology, it is first used for the many domestic uses of its oil: for painting and varnish, oil lamps, soap and the leather industry. Hemp is also very important in the manufacture of ropes and sails for the civil and military Navy. In 1492, 80 tons of hemp sails and ropes helped Christopher Columbus reach the New World (America). Also, the masterpieces of great masters of painting such as Velãzquez, Rambrandt and Van Gogh were executed on woven fabrics made of hemp. Finally, I will let you guess what fiber was used to make the first flag of the USA as well as for the first “jeans” of Levi Strauss! In fact, in 1850, about 80% of all world textiles were produced in hemp.
There are many reasons for this: hemp textiles are practically impossible to use, they are resistant to heat, humidity, light (UV), insects, as well as being antibacterial and exceptionally strong. The cultivation of hemp is also 100% ecological, not requiring any herbicide, pesticide or fertilizer, in addition to its water requirements, 10 times less than cotton.
In addition to the oils and texiles, the paper and the development of its manufacturing techniques also mark the history of hemp. Two interesting examples: it was on hemp paper that the first book in Europe was printed, the Gutenberg Bible in 1455, as well as the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776.
Towards 1850 the decline of hemp begins. I would say that three factors contributed greatly to his downfall. Wood, which is gradually replacing hemp in paper production, is the result of the rise of oil and the influence of North America, which has no shortage of forests. The mechanization of cotton crops while that of hemp is always done manually. And propaganda against the cultivation of hemp (cannabis), helped by the strong cotton lobby, which culminates in the prohibition of hemp cultivation in several producing countries around the world.
Today, we are witnessing the “rehabilitation” of hemp cultivation, particularly in Europe and Canada. Even the Americans of some States have regained the right to cultivate agricultural hemp since 2014. In 2016, China was the largest hemp producer with 45,000 ha of cultivated land, followed by Europe with 33,000 ha and Canada with 31,000 ha. In Europe, it’s in France that it happens! More of the half of European production comes from its land where it grew close to 128 000 tonnes of hemp in 2017.
Evidence that hemp production is back on track, the EIHA, the European Industrial Hemp Association, is evaluating the possibility of increasing the land occupied by hemp by 300% by 2025-30!
We are rediscovering the many qualities of hemp, its environmental virtues and its various applications. These have always been known uses, but also new ones, recently developed, particularly in the field of construction, food and composite materials. There are more than 300 hemp-derived products currently in the world.
Finally, it was more than time to admit that it was no longer possible to do without such an extraordinary plant, a plant that can both treat, feed, clothe and house the human being.
Today, of all natural fibers, animal or vegetable, cotton is by far the most widespread with a production that varies around 25 400 000 tonnes per year. China, India and USA are the largest producers, the latter being the largest exporter with 40% of its production.
In Europe, production is concentrated in Greece (80%) and Spain (20%). Italy withdrew from this market in 1991 and Portugal followed in 1996.
Unfortunately, this fiber leaves an increasingly obvious ecological footprint, which will undoubtedly have very long-term consequences on our planet.
Here are some amazing but recognized facts:
• Cotton production requires a lot of water. For 1 kg of cotton, we need 5260 litres of water. To produce 1 T-shirt, we spent 25 000 litres of water and produced 5.2 kg of CO2. As much as to make 27 km of airplane!
• Cotton production accounts for 3-4% of cultivated land but consumes 1/4 of pesticides produced worldwide. Pesticides obviously ” extremely dangerous ” according to WHO.
• Heavy metals such as lead and chromium, which are highly toxic, are still used to dye cotton.
Far be it from me to go on a crusade against the cotton lobby or even burn all my clothes. But by doing research for this site precisely, I learned a lot of things. I already knew that cotton was not buddy-buddy with the environment, but not at this point. As far as I am concerned, I find it difficult to recognize these facts and not try to be more vigilant in the future. Especially since there are more and more interesting alternatives regardless of the meaning of our thinking. Products made of organic fair trade cotton, others made of recycled cotton, new fabrics created from fibers with properties similar to those of cotton, and what about magnificent materials such as linen, timeless, hemp that is trying to take its place, bamboo that dares to break into the market or why not coconut? There is no lack of choice, it’s up to you!