9 Plant-Based Fashion Materials That Help Farmers and Rural Communities

9 Plant-Based Fashion Materials That Help Farmers and Rural Communities

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Image Credit: Khamir

Anyone might be forgiven if the phrases “trend” and “farming” conjure up two very totally different photographs of their thoughts. After all, one about traits, catwalks and types,the opposite soil, tractors and the land. Actually, the 2 sectors are far more interconnected than many bear in mind. Despite the expansion in recognition of semi-synthetic supplies comparable to rayon, and utterly artificial ones like polyester, just under a third of the fibers in our garments and textiles are nonetheless grown, harvested, or sheared on farms. 

Cultivating pure fibers creates rural employment alternatives world wide, offering earnings to an estimated 200 million people—that’s 2 to three% of the worldwide inhabitants.

But the trade isn’t with out its issues. While we’ve talked concerning the environmental points with rayon and polyester earlier than, being pure doesn’t all the time imply that one thing is nice for the planet… or the individuals who develop it, for that matter. Fiber farmers are proper on the finish of an infamously advanced provide chain, and plenty of trend manufacturers know a really small quantity, if something, about how their uncooked supplies are farmed. This signifies that farmers and farm staff usually bear the true price of the style trade’s seek for ever cheaper manufacturing.

Take cotton, for example. An ongoing inquiry into farms within the Xinjiang area of China has lately estimated that 20% of the world’s cotton comes from Xinjiang and carries a threat of being produced by the compelled labor of the Uyghur ethnic minority. The resource-intensive crop species may create water stress in rural areas when poorly managed, whereas the chemicals concerned have been linked to well being issues including cancer.

Brands are looking out for options. But new fiber formulation that focus too closely on know-how (suppose Hermès new lab-grown mushroom leather handbag, for instance) reduce the livelihoods of those rural staff utterly out of the equation, and forgo the potential positives of regenerative farming.

The excellent news is that extra analysis into plant-based textiles is already leading to various options. This new wave of innovation in bio-fibers is devoted to creating sustainable agricultural practices within the international locations that almost all want them.

While these supplies have numerous potential, the worth introduced again to the native communities will depend upon how they’re manufactured and scaled. If managed responsibly and utilized in mixture, they may cease the type of unprecedented demand for one uncooked materials that often leads to exploitation of each individuals and pure assets. Instead, they set a blueprint for a variety of farm-to-fiber programs that carry actual advantages to each the farmers and the soil.  

Desi Cotton

Desi cotton comes from species of the plant indigenous to India. While indigenous varieties as soon as represented all cotton grown within the nation, this modified with the nation’s colonization and industrialization. The coarse, short-staple native species have been changed by American cotton, which produced a smoother textile. Today, 93% of cotton grown within the nation is a genetically modified American selection known as Bt cotton, the seeds for which have been predominantly bought by the U.S.-based non-public firm Monsanto. In 2018 the corporate was purchased by the German pharmaceutical firmBayer AG and the identify “Monsanto” was dropped from branding seeds. As effectively as being extra water-intensive,the introduction of GM seeds additionally precipitated a spike in farmer suicides as a consequence of debt after borrowing cash to finance the transition.

Today, indigenous cottons can cause problems in fashionable industrial spinning programs as a consequence of their increased content material of shortfibers, and as a consequence, desi cotton materials might be tough to search out. One of the extra commercially out there varieties is Kala cotton, initially generally known as Wagad cotton, which is native to the Kutch area of India. Accustomed to rising in a dry, desert surroundings, it’s totally rain-fed and grows with out the usage of pesticides or fertilizers.

Organic farming group Satvik and social enterprise Khamir got down to revive Kala cotton, working throughout the availability chain with farmers, ginners, spinners and weavers in Kutch. After years of experimentation, they’re now producing a handwoven textile with a linen-like really feel. Not solely is the fabric serving to to revive the diminishing artwork of weaving this number of cotton, however it’s offering another for agricultural staff that leaves a lot much less of an influence on the planet. It is already being utilized in Henri London’s light-weight shirts, and Pico’s handwoven towels.

Himalayan Nettle Fiber

The use of nettles for clothes dates again thousands of years. Local communities in Nepal and India have lengthy been processing, weaving and knitting nettles by hand to make luggage and even shawls, bought via social enterprises comparable to Peoli.

Now, due to new improvements in the way in which the plant might be processed, this coarse bast fiber is making a comeback as a viable materials for the style trade. One firm devoted to creating nettle commercially out there is Himalayan Wild Fibers, which works collaboratively with locals dwelling within the surrounding Nepalese mountains who farm on these steep, sloping terrains. Here, the wild nettle crops have shoots that develop as much as three meters excessive in a yr. Harvesting the vertical stalks of the plant does a lot the identical as pruning any bush or tree—it removes outdated progress to make room for brand spanking new shoots to spring up. These assist the plant to soak up extra CO2 and encourage its roots to develop deeper too.

The native farmers are capable of forage the nettles within the low season, and Himalayan Wild Fiberscommits to paying them a good value for the work, offering a year-round earnings, and reinvesting its funds into an area non-profit group devoted to the help and improvement of Himalayan communities. The stalks are processed in Kathmandu,furthering the standard nettle fiber’s potential to profit its nation of origin all through its manufacturing. 

Currently, Himalayan Wild Fibers solely sells the ensuing product as a uncooked materials that also must be spun and woven. It has, nevertheless, partnered with varied mills throughout Italy and the U.S. who’ve efficiently made yarn, knits, and even denim out of it. Hopefully, a model quickly picks it up for a sustainable trend assortment that you could purchase. 


Hemp is of course regenerative, which means it restores vitamins into the soil the place it’s grown, making it a preferred selection for rotation with meals crops. It additionally on common requires less water than cotton. 

Its rising recognition within the attire market might be excellent news for each farmers and their lands; doubling up as an additional earnings stream and making a provide of pure fertilizer. However, the primary boundaries to scaling up hemp textiles are laws and processing amenities. While the fiber was as soon as broadly used to make each clothes and homeware, its manufacturing in international locations the place it grows within the wild together with the united statesand India almost disappeared when industrial hemp cultivation was outlawed within the U.S below strain from DuPont and firms in search of to broaden the manufacturing of artificial fibers, and later in India too. As a consequence, varied wild-growing species confronted extinction too. Although cultivating industrial hemp has since been legalized below the 0.3% law, a lot time has been misplaced in breeding domestically tailored seed inventory and creating applied sciences to commercialise the fiber.

A very attention-grabbing use of hemp comes as soon as once more from the Himalayas, the place the crops nonetheless develop naturally in abundance. Here, the Himalayan Hemp Cooperative works with farmers to forage the wild fibers, and groups up with native girls to course of them. Meanwhile, Canvaloop, a fiber producer in Gujarat, has developed a proprietary course of to cottonize wild hemp and switch it into denims. There is actually numerous potential right here, however its social success will depend upon accountable foraging and conserving the monetary profit throughout the native communities. 

Pineapple Leaf Fiber

Pineapple leaves have been broadly touted for his or her potential within the sustainable trend house. Certified B Corporation Ananas Anam claims that roughly 13 million tons of waste are generated globally from producing the fruit every year, and repurposing this into fiber might be doubly useful. It opens up a brand new earnings stream for farmers whereas creating textiles that want no additional pure assets from the land. 

Ananas Anam works straight with farming cooperatives within the Philippines to make its Piñatex pineapple leather-based. It purchases leaves that will in any other case be discarded or burned, in flip serving to native farmers to amplify their earnings from the seasonal fruit harvest.The fibers are cleaned and processed with a corn-based polylactic acid (PLA) within the Philippines to create a felt-like material which kinds the bottom of all Piñatex merchandise, earlier than being shipped to mills in Spain and Italy for specialised ending. The addition PLA signifies that the ensuing material can solely partially break down below industrial situations – nevertheless, any residual leaf biomass from the manufacturing is used as a pure fertilizer in a step in direction of making a closed-loop system.

The leather-based various is already being broadly utilized by manufacturers world wide, showing in U.S.-based Jo-Anne Vernay’s assertion pink heels and New Zealand model Duffle&Co’s crossbody bagamongst many others. However, researchers tested it and other vegan, plant-based leathers and located them to be much less resilient and long-lasting than actual leather-based.

There is loads of untapped potential for pineapple leaf fiber in Bangladesh too, the place the fruit is extensively farmed. The leaf might be blended with different fibers comparable to cotton or silk to make a finer material.

READ MORE: If There Are So Many Great Vegan Leather Alternatives, Why Don’t Brands Use Them? 

Abacá (Banana Fiber)

Banana fiber, also called abacá, has been utilized by rural communities to create textiles for generations. The adoption of this apply by trend may present another earnings stream for farmers within the areas the place they naturally develop.  

One latest scalable use is Bananatex, a sturdy canvas-like material developed by Swiss bag model QWSTION, who work with farmers within the Philippines. It makes use of abacá grown via an method that mixes agriculture and forestry in an effort to revive former areas of the Philippine jungle which have depleted soil high quality after getting used for palm plantations. The fiber is obtained by harvesting the stalks yearly, permitting the plant to completely regenerate in between. It is processed in Taipei, Taiwan, and ending remedies with a low environmental influence comparable to pure wax permit it to stay biodegradable.

Beyond Bananatex, the fibers of the abacá and banana crops have been used to create silk-like materials too. But non-organic banana farming is infamous for the amount of agrochemicals used and rising the identical crop yr after yr on the identical land is dangerous information for the soil. So, it’s actually concerning the farming practices with this one, and banana-based textiles require loads of analysis earlier than buying to ensure they are surely as sustainable as they sound.


The rising recognition of Instagram-worthy basket luggage is likely to be one of many causes farmers in Haiti, Kenya and Tanzania are putting hopes on sisal. This hardy plant requires little water and is likely one of the most immune to drought, making it a secure fallback for agricultural staff who reside in sizzling, dry components of the world. As African international locations start to really feel the very actual results of local weather change, sisal affords a substitute for standard crops, which might be difficult to maintain in such arid situations. 

In the previous, sisal has not been worthwhile for small-scale farmers to develop because of the time and labor-intensive technique of extracting the fiber from the plant. Yet initiatives such because the FAO’s Future Fibers Initiative got down to improve demand for this fiber ten years in the past by supporting impartial farmers in its cultivation. Thanks to innovation in processing methods, many at the moment are recognizing its potential as soon as once more. One specific success story is that of Kenyan innovator Alex Odundo, who invented two machines that permit small-scale farmers and village teams to course of sisal independently, making it a lot simpler for them to promote.

The fiber is used not solely to make ropes and wire, however woven into baskets and luggage by girls’s enterprises too. Sisal has even made its approach into the posh trend house with up to date model Cesta Collective, who produce their whimsical basket luggage in collaboration with artisan enterprises in Rwanda.

Cactus Leather

Desserto’s Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez use the prickly pear cactus to create a plant-based leather-based. The Mexican duo companions with native farmers throughout 5 ranches within the states of Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí, Mexico, the place the prickly pear is a local species. This signifies that it finds itself naturally at dwelling within the soil situations and doesn’t require any additional water past rainfall.

The farming course of itself is essential to the cactus’ planet-positive properties. Rather than harvesting the entire plant and restarting from scratch every year, solely the mature leaves are harvested, earlier than being cleaned, mashed, and dried naturally below the solar by the staff. The plant is left undamaged and capable of proceed reproducing for round eight years, making the entire course of much less energy-intensive. Meanwhile, the cactuses themselves have an incredible capability to seize carbon from the ambiance. Desserto claims that its 14-acre farm absorbs 8,100 tons of it every year.

Desserto trains its companions in natural rising, harvesting and processing methods to enhance the standard of their yield. It helps its farmers obtain natural certification, in flip rising the worth of the crop by as much as ten times. The farmers promote half of the processed plant to the native meals trade, serving to the farmers increase their earnings, whereas the remaining goes into making Desserto leather-based via a patented course of, one which they declare is finished with out poisonous chemical compounds, phthalates and PVC. Unfortunately, their declare to be non-toxic was disproven by a study done in early 2021 that picked up on 5 restricted substances within the ultimate product, together with butanone oxime, toluene, free isocyanate, a fungicide known as folpet, and traces of a phthalate plasticiser.

The ensuing materials, now commercially out there, is described as “partially biodegradable”—however the firm has not launched details about what precisely the cactus is mixed with and won’t permit manufacturers to share that data both. If we needed to take a guess, it will be polyurethane, which is what most non-toxic vegan leathers are made with. We’ve reached out to Desserto and can replace this submit in the event that they reply.  


Agraloop BioFibre was developed as a holistic answer to agricultural residues: the remaining a part of crops left as soon as the specified crop has been harvested. It goals to take waste from hemp, flax, wheat, rice, corn, pineapple leaves, banana trunks and extra, turning them into a brand new pure textile.

According to Circular Systems, the guardian firm behind Agraloop, over one million acres of oilseed flax and hemp waste is burned in North America per yr. Meanwhile in India, this is applicable to 32 million tons of rice straw. Whether burned or left to rot, stated waste contributes to the discharge of gases together with methane into the air. The apply of burning this stubble has additionally been outlawed in India since 1981, but the method continues. In the absence of another approach for farmers to clear their fields, Agraloop might be an answer. 

The firm’s present yarns and materials are made by mixing these residues with natural cotton or TENCEL Lyocell to create finer, silky materials. The ensuing materials is surprisingly glamorous for one thing made out of farming waste, utilized in a robe worn by former Vogue India editor-at-large turned sustainable trend activist Bandana Tewari to the 2019 Global Change Awards. It is presently on the stage of early commercialization — up to now you should buy Circular Systems merchandise from H&M’s Conscious Collection — however the startup has partnered with mills in Portugal, Italy and Turkey to scale up its manufacturing. 

Bark Cloth

Ugandan bark material has been produced within the nation for hundreds of years, incomes it a spot on the UNESCO consultant listing of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Made from the completely renewable bark of the African Mutuba fig tree, it may be harvested with out inflicting any hurt. Its creation is an historical craft of the Baganda individuals from southern Uganda.

Bark material has specific potential in terms of agroforestry, a conventional and inherently balanced method to agriculture through which bushes are cultivated in concord with a wide range of different crops. Having fig bushes on farms gives solar protection for different crops and stops soil erosion, whereas capturing carbon from the ambiance and bettering soil well being too.

BarkTex, in collaboration with the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, has got down to revive and protect this inherently sustainable craft, offering employment for a whole bunch of native farmers and craftspeople. It collaborates with small-scale household farmers from Uganda to supply the bark, which is developed into fiber utilizing conventional, low power processes by girls who reside close by. It is already possible to purchase in giant portions for industrial use,and bark material is already in use by some designers.