How Sustainable Are Jute Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
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It might surprise some that jute is second only to cotton as the most produced plant fiber. One reason is probably that the material is often known as burlap and is more commonly used for industrial bagging and wrapping. However, as the search for sustainable textile alternatives intensifies, jute fibers are steadily gathering attention for being a sustainable fashion staple. Still, we had to ask: How sustainable are jute fabrics?
Jute is generally a sustainable fabric. This material is made with cellulose fibers from jute plants—a low-input, fast-growing, relatively high-yield crop with carbon sequestration potential. Jute production may be low on synthetic chemical usage. Also, jute fabrics are durable and degradable.
In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of jute fabrics used for clothing and household items. Then, we will evaluate their sustainability, potential, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable products made with jute fabrics.
Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Jute Fabrics
Jute fabrics are generally considered sustainable, mainly because they are durable and biodegradable. The jute crop, which provides raw materials for jute fabrics, requires little input in irrigation water, land, and agrochemicals while typically producing a high yield of exceptionally long fibers. Conventional processing of jute fibers is free of harmful synthetic chemicals.
“Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”Oxford Dictionary
To understand the sustainability of jute fabrics, we must assess their life-cycle and each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method for evaluating the environmental impacts of products and materials. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. So, let’s have a look at the LCA of canvas fabrics!
In this article, we’ll use the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA, examining the five stages of the life-cycle of clothes and bedding made with jute fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments.
|The life-cycle stages of jute fabrics||Each stage’s sustainability|
|Sourcing of jute fabrics||Sourcing jute fibers from jute plants to make jute fabrics is generally sustainable. Jute plants sequester carbon, helping to mitigate the climate crisis. Little fertilizer, pesticide, and irrigation water are needed for jute cultivation, yet plants grow rapidly to impressive heights, providing one of nature’s longest fibers. The high fiber yield means cultivated land is efficiently used.|
|Manufacturing of jute fabrics||Manufacturing jute fabrics can be sustainable, mainly because most processes during the conventional processing of jute fiber are fundamentally mechanical and free of added chemicals. However, the fabric finishing treatments, especially to make jute fibers suitable for garment making, might involve harmful synthetic substances, resulting in more adverse environmental impacts.|
|Transporting of jute fabrics||Transporting jute fabrics is generally unsustainable. It can be a carbon-intensive life-cycle stage for clothing and household items made with jute fibers due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Jute fabrics typically travel from fields (where jute plants are grown) to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills.|
|Usage of jute fabrics||Using jute fabrics is generally sustainable. The fiber is strong, meaning the clothing and household items made with jute fabric can last long before a replacement is needed.|
|End-of-life of jute fabrics||The end-of-life stage for jute fabric is generally sustainable. Jute fabrics are made with natural cellulose fibers, resulting in the material being biodegradable and compostable.|
Overall, we can say that jute fabrics are fairly sustainable. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, whether a pair of espadrilles or a rug, depends on more specific factors, including:
- the sourcing of fibers from jute plants
- the type of energy used in manufacturing and usage
- the distance and mode of transportation
Let’s dive deeper into each life-cycle stage and find out how you can buy jute fabrics more sustainably.
How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Jute Fibers for Jute Fabrics
Sourcing jute fibers from jute plants to make jute fabrics is generally sustainable. Jute plants sequester carbon, helping to mitigate the climate crisis. Little fertilizer, pesticide, and irrigation water are needed for jute cultivation, yet plants grow rapidly to impressive heights, providing one of nature’s longest fibers. The high fiber yield means cultivated land is efficiently used.
What Raw Materials Are Used for Jute Fabrics
- The tossa jute plant of the Corchorus olitorius species has fibers of the highest quality among all the jute species. Yet Corchorus olitorius is hard to cultivate.
- The white jute plant of the Corchorus capsularis provides fibers of inferior quality but is easier to grow than the tossa jute plant.
- The Mesta jute plant is a hybrid of white and tossa jute. It’s grown in areas where the climate isn’t suitable for either white or tossa jute.
Once the stem fibers (bast fibers) are extracted, they can be woven into yarn in a (mostly) mechanical process.
The mechanical process sets jute (and other natural cellulose fibers, including cotton, linen, hemp, and ramie) apart from regenerated cellulose fibers, such as rayon, acetate, and cupro, which are made in chemical processes.
In the following section, we’ll discuss cultivating jute plants to extract cellulose fibers for manufacturing jute fabrics.
How Do the Raw Materials Sourced for Jute Fabrics Impact the Environment
Sourcing jute fibers from jute plants—the main raw materials used in jute fabrics—is generally sustainable. This is thanks to jute plants being a fast-growing, low-input, and high-yield crop, as well as having a strong carbon sequestration potential.
- The carbon sequestration of the jute crop
- As jute plants grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. In doing so, they act as a carbon sink, taking greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere and helping to mitigate the climate crisis.
- According to FAO statistics, an acre of jute plants consumes about 6.7 tons of carbon dioxide and releases about 5 tons of oxygen.
- A beneficial low-input fiber crop
- Jute is an annual crop taking about 120 days to grow. In comparison with other fiber crops, the growing season of jute is longer than hemp (70-90 days) and flax (100 days) but shorter than cotton (150 to 180 days).
- Jute is a fast-growing plant. An average jute plant will reach heights of 8-13 feet when ready for harvesting, providing one of the longest natural fibers used in textiles.
- The average jute fiber yield per year per acre is 0.9 tons.
- Average fiber yield can be achieved without excessive pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.
- Jute plants are traditionally grown in areas with high natural rainfalls meaning little irrigation is needed.
- Jute plants can be grown in the same rotation system together with the rice crop, where the former enhances the soil for the latter.
Where Are the Raw Materials for Jute Fabrics Usually Sourced From
Jute is native to the Indian subcontinent. These plants do well in hot, humid climates that have monsoon seasons.
Currently, the majority of jute cultivation happens in India and Bangladesh. Outside the Indian subcontinent, jute is also grown in China and Brazil.
In India—the world’s largest grower of jute—farmers often exceed the recommended doses of chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and/or manures in order to obtain higher yields.
Excessive usage of agrochemicals has several environmental impacts, including:
- ground and water contamination caused by agricultural runoff,
- elevated carbon emissions due to high fossil-based energy demand for making synthetic chemicals,
- eutrophication caused by excessive animal manure used as fertilizer, and
- harmful algae blooms and “dead zones” in streams, rivers, and lakes due to extreme nutrient loads.
How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Jute Fabrics
Manufacturing jute fabrics can be sustainable, mainly because most processes during the conventional processing of jute fiber are fundamentally mechanical and free of added chemicals. However, the fabric finishing treatments, especially to make jute fibers suitable for garment making, might involve harmful synthetic substances, resulting in more adverse environmental impacts.
How Sustainably Are Jute Fabrics Generally Manufactured
The typical manufacturing process of jute fabrics includes these steps:
- Extract cellulose fibers from the jute plant: The jute stems are usually harvested when the flowers have been shed but before the plants’ seed pods are fully mature. This is the time when the fibers are strong but not too coarse. The cut stems are then retted and broken to pull the fibrous threads out.
- Retting is a process that separates the fibers and the gum (sticky materials that glue the fibers together). There are three main jute retting methods, of which biological retting is the most common.
- Biological retting is done by soaking the jute stems in bodies of water like a pond or a stream for 10 to 30 days, during which time bacterial action breaks down the gummy tissues surrounding the fibers.
- Chemical retting uses chemicals, including chelators and sodium, to dissolve the lignin—the gummy material surrounding and gluing jute fibers together. Using chemicals can reduce the retting time down to 48 hours.
- Mechanical retting is done by a special machine that helps reduce the total time required.
- After the retting is complete, the stalks are broken by beating the root ends so that the fiber strands can be pulled out.
- Retting is a process that separates the fibers and the gum (sticky materials that glue the fibers together). There are three main jute retting methods, of which biological retting is the most common.
- Process the jute fibers into jute yarns: The degummed jute fibers are washed, dried, sorted, graded, and baled for shipping to mills. At the mills, fibers are turned into yarns via a series of mechanical steps as follows:
- softening (using water, oil, and emulsifiers)
- Finish the jute yarns: The jute yarns undergo further processes to meet the requirements of the final fabrics. These include some or all of the following treatments:
- bleaching the jute yarns,
- dyeing the jute yarns,
- treating the jute yarns with caustic soda to improve crimp, softness, pliability, and appearance, and/or
- blending the jute yarns with other yarns, both synthetic and natural.
- Make the jute fabrics: The finished products can be made by weaving, knitting, twisting, cording, sewing, or braiding the yarns.
Let’s now dive into a few key sustainable issues of this life-cycle stage:
Manufacturing Jute Fabrics Can Be Energy-Intensive
Producing jute fabrics from jute fibers can be energy-intensive because energy is required to run various machines, such as the spinning and carding machines.
If plant harvesting and fiber extracting are done by machinery, energy is also needed to run machines that cut, scrape, and break the jute stalks.
According to the Ecoinvent 3 database, the cumulative energy demand (CED) for producing 1kg of jute textile yarns averages 126,55 MJ. The breakdown for fiber and yarn production is as follows:
- The CED for the production of jute fibers averages 29,55 MJ/kg.
- The CED for the production of jute yarns averages 97 MG/kg.
According to a comparative life-cycle assessment, the energy demand for jute yarn production is much lower than cotton (about 30%) and slightly lower than kenaf (about 98%). Cotton and kenaf are two other yarns made with cellulose fibers from plants.
It is important to note that high energy usage in manufacturing leads to elevated carbon emissions if the energy generation depends heavily on fossil fuels.
The Environmental Impacts of Retting Varies Depending on the Methods
Each retting process used in jute manufacturing has pros and cons, and their environmental impacts are varied.
- Biological retting doesn’t require (costly) chemicals or extra machines (and power to run them) but contributes toward greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. According to a life-cycle assessment, the biological retting of one kilogram of raw jute releases 0,0183 kg of methane—the second most significant contributor to the climate crisis and a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
- Chemical retting speeds up the process and guarantees the highest quality of fibers. However, harmful chemicals can cause further damage to the waterway if waste is disposed of without proper treatment.
- Mechanical retting also speeds up the process and somewhat reduces methane emissions.
Biological retting is the most common method for jute fibers, largely because of the low cost of this method compared to the other methods.
Manufacturing Jute Fabrics Sometimes Involves Toxic Synthetic Chemicals
Other treatments that can involve synthetic chemicals are softening, bleaching, and dyeing.
There are risks of these chemicals leaking into the waterways and the air if waste disposal isn’t handled properly. These chemicals can also hinder jute fabrics’ biodegradability and end-of-life options.
On the other hand, organic jute manufacturers forego harmful synthetic chemicals and/or replace them with natural and/or low-impact ones (for example, for dyeing purposes).
Where Are Jute Fabrics Usually Manufactured
Most of the world’s jute is produced in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Other Asian countries producing jute fabrics are China, Thailand, Myanmar, and Bhutan.
One of the main sustainability issues with producing jute fabrics in these countries is the dependency on fossil fuels for energy generation. According to the Our World In Data, the renewable energy shares in jute-producing countries are relatively low:
- India: 9.31% renewable energy
- Bangladesh: 0.65% renewable energy
- Pakistan: 10.62% renewable energy
- China: 14.95% renewable energy
- Thailand: 7.11% renewable energy
(There is no data available for Myanmar and Bhutan.)
- Jute production (cradle-to-gate) has a global warming impact (GWP) of 5,515 kg CO2 eq/kg textile, which is less than 25% of cotton textile’s GWP.
- Jute production (cradle-to-gate) has a human toxicity impact of 1,924 kg 1,4-DB eq/kg textile, which is less than 20% of cotton textile’s human toxicity.
- Jute production (cradle-to-gate) has a freshwater toxicity impact of 1,353 kg 1,4-DB eq/kg textile, which is less than 3% of cotton textile’s freshwater toxicity.
- Jute production (cradle-to-gate) has an acidification impact of 41 kg SO2 eq/kg textile, which is less than 25% of cotton textile’s acidification impact.
Jute production (cradle-to-gate) has a eutrophication impact of 14.93 kg PO4 eq/kg textile, which is about 21% of cotton textile’s acidification impact.
How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Jute Fabrics
Transporting jute fabrics is generally unsustainable. It can be a carbon-intensive life-cycle stage for clothing and household items made with jute fibers due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Jute fabrics typically travel from fields (where jute plants are grown) to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills.
For example, in the life-cycle of jute clothes, transportation typically occurs:
- from fields where jute plants are grown to the jute fiber and fabrics manufacturing location(s),
- from the jute fabric manufacturing location to sorting centers and/or physical shops,
- from sorting centers and/or physical shops to the consumer’s home, and
- from the consumer’s home to the centers for recycling and/or disposal.
Traveling Distances of Jute Fabrics Vary Depending on the Supply Chain
It is not uncommon for natural cellulose fabrics like jute fabrics to have their supply chain spreading globally, meaning that crop cultivation, fiber production, fabric spinning, and clothes manufacturing might happen in various towns, countries, or even continents.
Here are some scenarios for transporting jute fabrics:
- Jute fibers are harvested from fields in India and shipped to factories in Bangladesh. Jute clothes and household items are then sold primarily to the American market.
- Farmers grow jute plants in Pakistan to be sourced and transported to a manufacturer in India. Final pieces of jute clothes are then shipped to Europe to sell to consumers.
- Manufacturers in China source jute fibers from various locations locally as well as internationally from Brazil. They make the fibers into shopping bags and sell them to supermarkets worldwide.
You can reduce the transportation carbon footprint by choosing jute fabrics that travel a shorter distance from the fields and are made closer to your home.
The Carbon Footprint of Transporting Jute Fabrics Depends Largely on the Vehicle of Transportation
During its life-cycle, a piece of jute clothing can be transported using various types of vehicles, including:
- large container ships
- freight trains
- long-distance trucks
- short-distance delivering vans
There are also various types of transportation vehicles used that have different carbon footprint impacts:
- Large container ships are generally the most carbon-efficient option for international transportation of goods, while planes are the heaviest carbon emitter.
Large container ships emit, per unit of weight and distance, half as much carbon dioxide as a train and one-fifth and one-fiftieth as much as a truck and a plane (respectively).
- Deliveries made by planes—for example, to fulfill fast shipping options for clothing—are the mode of transportation with the highest carbon footprint.
As a consumer, you can choose not to pick the fast delivery option when ordering jute clothing items and accessories to reduce the carbon footprint of your order.
How Sustainable Is the Usage of Jute Fabrics
Using jute fabrics is generally sustainable. The fiber is strong, which means clothing and household items made with jute fabric can last for a long time before a replacement is needed.
Jute is a strong natural fiber: Its tensile strength varies from 393-800 MPa. In comparison, according to the same study, cotton has a tensile strength ranging from 287 to 597 MPa. Generally, jute fibers are considered stronger than cotton.
Thanks to its strength, clothing and household items made with jute fibers can last for a long time. Using a strong and durable material like jute is sustainable because you don’t need to replace it too frequently (thus, there is no need for more resources to make a new one).
Jute is a natural fiber. Thus, clothes made with jute fabrics or a blend of jute and other natural fibers don’t shed microplastics into the environment while being used and washed, like in the case of items made with polyester or nylon.
It is important to note that usage is an energy-intensive stage in the life-cycle of textile products. Washing, drying, and ironing (the usage phase) often account for a high share of energy consumption in the life-cycle of clothing.
The washing, drying, and ironing requirements for jute fabrics vary depending on the manufacturing techniques and the presence of other fibers. However, modifying some laundering habits would generally reduce the environmental impacts of using jute clothes and household items. Possible changes include:
- wash jute fabrics less often,
- switch to line drying instead of using tumble driers,
- do cold washes with appropriate detergents, and
- use energy-efficient washing machines.
How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Jute Fabrics
The end-of-life stage for jute fabric is generally sustainable. Jute fabrics are made with natural cellulose fibers, resulting in the material being biodegradable and compostable.
Fabrics made with 100% jute fibers are biodegradable. At the end of the fabric’s life, there are three available options:
It takes one to four months for jute fabrics to decompose in the ground. In contrast, it takes hundreds of years for most synthetic-based textiles to start breaking down.
How Circular Are Products Made of Jute Fabrics
In the textile industry, a circular economy is designed to keep products and materials in use for as long as possible, especially through reusing and recycling. It also covers regenerating natural systems that support the industry and reducing polluted waste released into such systems.
“The circular economy is a systems solution framework that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution.”Ellen MacArthur Foundation
How Can You Buy Jute Fabrics More Sustainably
The key to sustainably buying jute products is to check on relevant environmental and original certifications.
- Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): A globally-recognized certification system that ensures a certain threshold of organic content has been met. It covers manufacturing, packaging, labeling, transportation, and distribution (but not what happens in the fields where crops are grown).
- OEKO-TEX® Standard 100: OEKO-TEX® labels aim to ensure that products pose no risk to human health (i.e. containing banned chemicals).
Some certifications that are signaling brands’ efforts toward lowered environmental impacts and a circular economy are:
- B Corp Certification: The label B Corp is a certification reserved for for-profit companies. Certified holders are assessed on their social and environmental impacts.
- Cradle2Cradle certification: Cradle2Cradle provides a standardized approach to material circularity. It assesses whether products have been suitably designed and made with the circular economy in mind covering five critical categories: material health, material reuse, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.
Where to Buy Sustainable Jute Fabrics
Jute is a relatively rough fiber, which means it isn’t well-suited to make fabrics that are in direct contact with the skin, except for footwear, such as from sustainable brands like Toms or Gumbies. Manufacturing apparel applications with jute fibers often involves further (chemical) treatments of jute fiber to blend with other fibers like wool, cotton, rayon, and polyester.
For sustainable jute clothing and household items, you want to look for the following:
- certified organic, both during the growing stage and the other stages in the life-cycle
- mechanically or biologically degummed
- blended with other natural, organic fibers
If you search for sustainable jute manufacturers, make sure they are transparent about the following:
- energy usage (volume and source) in manufacturing
- chemical usage and disposal treatments in manufacturing
As a consumer, you can look for these indicators when buying clothing items made with jute fabrics.
Why Is It Important to Buy Products Made of More Sustainable Fabrics
It is important to buy products made of more sustainable fabrics because a sustainable textile industry has a lower carbon footprint, helps save natural resources, and is better for forests, animals, and humans.
Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Your Carbon Footprint
The production of clothing and footwear is estimated to contribute 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions – more than all international flights and shipping combined. If the fashion industry were a country, it would be the fourth largest emitter of carbon dioxide.
One way to reduce the carbon footprint of the clothes you buy is to opt for sustainable fabrics. Sustainable fabrics, which are often made with natural or recycled fibers, have relatively low carbon footprints compared to petroleum-based fabrics. For example, organic cotton made in the US has a carbon footprint of 2.35 kg CO2 (per ton of spun fiber) – a quarter of polyester’s carbon footprint.
Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Demand For Natural Resources and Waste Management
The textile industry uses water and land to grow cotton and other fibers. It is estimated that 79 billion cubic meters of water were used for the sector worldwide in 2015. For example, producing a single cotton t-shirt requires as much water as one person drinks for 2.5 years (2,700 liters of fresh water).
Worse yet, the textile economy is vastly more linear than circular: the largest amount of resources used in clothes ended up in landfill (instead of being recycled to remake clothes). According to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation,
- Less than 3% of materials used in the textile economy in 2015 came from recycled sources.
- In other words, more than 97% of resources used in making clothes are newly extracted.
When clothing items are disposed of within a short period of time – under a year in the case of half of the fast fashion clothes – the natural systems that provide raw materials for fabrics don’t have enough time to recover and regenerate, which could lead to ecological breakdown.
Sustainable fabrics are made with less water and emissions while lasting longer:
- Because they are durable, you don’t need to buy new clothes too often.
- Thus, you help reduce the pressure to extract more resources for making new items.
Similarly, making and consuming sustainable fabrics made with recycled materials reduces the demand for virgin materials while helping tackle waste management.
Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Sustainable Management of Forests
Sustainable plant-based fabrics are made with raw materials from forests and plantations that are sustainably managed, such as complying with FSC standards.
When you buy sustainable plant-based fabrics, you discourage unsustainable forestry practices like illegal logging. You can help reduce deforestation, biodiversity loss, and the effect of climate change.
Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Animals
The fashion industry is rife with animal mistreatment when it comes to making animal-based fabrics like wool or silk. Every year, billions of animals suffer and die for clothing and accessories.
Buying sustainable vegan alternatives can help to reduce the pressure on raising more and more animals to meet the demand for animal-based fabrics while sacrificing their well-being and lives.
Suppose you have to buy fabrics made with, for example, wool or silk; make sure you only choose brands committed to cruelty-free products. In that case, you help advocate better treatments for animals raised within the textile industry.
Using Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Textile Workers
Recent statistics from UNICEF estimated as many as 170 million child laborers worldwide, many of whom were engaged in some form of work in the textile industry. They don’t get paid minimum wages and often work long hours.
When you buy sustainable fabrics from brands transparent about the working conditions at their factories, you discourage the use of child labor and help promote better working conditions for textile workers.
Jute fabrics are generally sustainable materials made with natural cellulose fibers in a mechanical (and possibly chemical-free) process.
To make using jute fabrics even more sustainable, follow these steps:
- Buy second-hand, recycled, or upcycled jute products.
- While using jute clothing and household items, maximize the number of wears between washes, and keep them as long as possible.
- At the end-of-life of your jute products, upcycle the material to extend its usage and arrange for it to be recycled or properly disposed of.
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