Melliand International 1/2023: Natural fibers...
Melliand International 1/2023

Natural fibers – possibilities and opportunities

(Source: Texoversum)
(Source: Texoversum)

Natural fibers have served humankind since time immemorial as an important raw material for many everyday items, whether as clothing, technical textile products or, in the case of cellulose fibers, as dietary fiber in our nutrition. While the very first textiles used by our ancestors were still mainly of animal origin, in the form of furs and pelts, plant fibers were increasingly discovered as a resource for a wide variety of applications. Following the example of nature, the different types of fibers were used according to their natural purpose, or according to their morphological and technological properties. Wool, for example, was and still is used mainly as clothing and as protection against the cold because of its flexible, insulating and warming properties, while the stiff, smooth and strong bast fibers such as flax or hemp were more suitable for use as ropes, nets or even bowstrings.

In today's industrial and consumer society, natural fibers are indispensable, despite competition from synthetic fibers – especially in the textile sector. Particularly in the course of the trend towards more sustainability, the interest and thus the demand for fiber products of natural origin is increasing. Many companies in the textile and clothing industry have admittedly adopted the motto "back to nature" in order to give their customers the good feeling that by consuming natural fiber products they are countering climate change by turning away from fossil raw materials. But why aren't far more textile products made from natural fibers being produced or used in terms of sustainability?

On one hand, the term "sustainability" is very strained and real sustainability effects are difficult to verify. On the other hand, the market demands constant availability of materials and products with high, preferably defined and long-lasting performance, at the lowest possible prices.

It is virtually in the nature of things, or rather of natural fibers and their production itself, that these cannot easily replace synthetic fibers – who would want to rely on a biodegradable seat belt?

The increasing demand for fibers, or rather the hunger for consumption, of a growing world population cannot be satisfied sustainably due to the scarcity of available agricultural land, problems such as competition for land with food production, weather risks and the inhomogeneous distribution of industrial infrastructures. Thus, there are also limits to the expansion of the largest cultivation and production structures to date, first and foremost the cotton industry, followed by jute, coconut, flax and wool production. In our textile world, natural fibers with their diverse properties and applications will continue to make an important contribution to our textile raw material supply in the future, but they alone will not save the environment and climate.

Natural fiber production, whether for paper and packaging raw materials, for technical products and textiles, or as a cellulose source for regenerated fibers, also devours resources and pollutes the environment, both during cultivation but also during their processing into products, not to mention the recycling problem.

Modern synthetic fibers are unbeatable in terms of their technological performance, their efficient and application-specific definable production and use options, as well as their durability and recycling potential.

However, synthetic fibers and natural fibers are not competitors – depending on the required product properties or application areas, both have their intended use, or can complement each other very well in the combination of their specific properties. Natural fibers do not emit microplastics and have inestimable advantages as renewable raw materials. From an application-specific point of view, these advantages lie primarily in their physiological properties, but also in their CO2 storage capacity and biodegradability.

Natural fibers are an offer from nature, whose synthesis performance we should honor by producing natural fibers in an environmentally compatible manner, allowing fair pricing to their agricultural producers, and processing them into products in which their natural potential and properties are brought to bear. The trend of wanting to use more and more natural fiber raw materials for an increasing number of consumer products unfortunately too often ends up in eco-marketing or even greenwashing. Only a change in our consumer behavior, long-term use and mindful handling of our natural resources is the key to greater sustainability.

Natural fibers deserve our appreciation – they are too valuable for throwaway products or fast fashion items.
Kai Nebel
Head of Sustainability
Recycling Research & Sustainabilty Representative
Texoversum, Reutlingen University
Reutlingen / Germany

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