How Sustainable Are Ramie Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

How Sustainable Are Ramie Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

By
Quynh Nguyen

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The Chinese nettle, from which ramie fabrics are made, is one of the oldest fiber crops. Yet, the material has only been traded in small quantities beyond the borders of the few places where these nettle species grow. In the search for sustainable textile alternatives, this linen-like fiber is gathering attention for being an environmentally friendly choice. So, we had to ask: How sustainable are ramie fabrics?

Ramie is generally a sustainable fabric. This material is made with natural cellulose fibers from the Chinese nettle plant—a low-input, repeated-yield crop with carbon sequestration potential. Clothing items made with ramie are very durable thanks to the fiber’s strength and ability to hold shape.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of ramie fabrics used for clothes and bed covers. Then, we will evaluate its sustainability, potential, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable products made with ramie fabrics.

Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Ramie Fabrics

Ramie fabrics are generally considered sustainable, mainly because they are durable and biodegradable. Ramie’s raw materials come from a low-input, repeated-yield crop. However, manufacturing ramie fabrics demands a lot of energy and often involves synthetic chemicals. 

The Common Objective’s Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres ranked ramie as a class C fiber, which is the middle point of their sustainability scale. Other similarly ranked fibers are conventional linen and conventional hemp

“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 ramie 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 ramie fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments

The life-cycle stages of ramie fabricsEach stage’s sustainability
Sourcing of ramie fabricsSourcing ramie fibers from Chinese nettle plants to make ramie fabrics is generally sustainable. This plant-based source of fibers is quickly and easily renewable. Also, the ramie crop takes little input and provides a repeating fiber yield through the years. Last but not least, growing Chinese nettle plants for ramie fibers has climate benefits via carbon sequestration. 
Manufacturing of ramie fabricsManufacturing ramie fabrics is generally unsustainable. Extracting the stem fibers from Chinese nettle plants is often chemical-intensive. Also, the mechanical processes used in ramie manufacturing demand a lot of energy.
Transporting of ramie fabricsTransporting of ramie fabrics is generally unsustainable. It can be a carbon-intensive life-cycle stage for clothing items made with ramie fibers due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Ramie fabrics typically travel from fields (where Chinese nettle plants are grown) to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s homes before going to recycling centers or landfills.
Usage of ramie fabricsUsing ramie fabrics is generally sustainable. This fiber is strong, which means clothing items made with ramie fabric can last for a long time before a replacement is needed. 
End-of-life of ramie fabricsThe end-of-life stage for ramie fabric is generally sustainable. Ramie fabrics are made with natural cellulose fibers, resulting in the material being biodegradable and compostable. 

Overall, we can say that ramie fabrics are fairly sustainable. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, like a swimsuit, a dress, or a bed cover, depends on more specific factors, including: 

  • the sourcing of fibers from the Chinese nettle plant
  • the manufacturing processes, especially the degumming step 
  • 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 ramie fabrics more sustainably. 

How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Ramie Fibers for Ramie Fabrics

Sourcing ramie fibers from Chinese nettle plants to make ramie fabrics is generally sustainable. This plant-based source of fibers is quickly and easily renewable. Also, the ramie crop takes little input and provides a repeating fiber yield through the years. Last but not least, growing Chinese nettle plants for ramie fibers has climate benefits via carbon sequestration. 

What Raw Materials Are Used for Ramie Fabrics

Ramie fabric—also known as grass linen, rhea, and grass cloth—is made with natural cellulose fibers extracted from the stem of the Boehmeria nivea plant. This species, together with the common nettle and the Himalayan stinging nettle, belongs to the nettle family Urticaceae. Boehmeria nivea is thus commonly known as Chinese nettle or, occasionally, Chinese grass. 

Once the stem fibers (bast fibers) are extracted, they can be woven into yarn in a (mostly) mechanical process. 

The mechanical process sets ramie (and other natural cellulose fibers, including cotton, linen, and hemp) 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 Chinese nettle plants to extract cellulose fibers for manufacturing ramie fabrics. 

How Do the Raw Materials Sourced for Ramie Fabrics Impact the Environment

Sourcing Chinese nettle plants, the main raw materials used in ramie fabrics, is generally sustainable. This is thanks to the Chinese nettle being a low-input and high-yield crop, as well as it having a strong carbon sequestration potential and low input (water and agrochemical) requirements.

  • The carbon sequestration of the ramie crop
    • As Chinese nettle 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
    • For example, according to a study, the long-term cultivation of perennial ramie crops (up to 20 years) can accelerate carbon sequestration of the subtropical upland soil while improving its organic content. 

Where Are the Raw Materials for Ramie Fabrics Usually Sourced From

Chinese grass or Chinese nettle plants can grow in various soils and climates, but the optimal conditions to make them thrive are well-drained sandy soil and warm, moist climates

Most of the world’s ramie cultivation happens in China (over 90%). In countries like Brazil, India, the Philippines, Taiwan, and France, ramie plants are also cultivated for fibers, yet the volumes are smaller, mostly just enough to cater to domestic markets. 

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Ramie Fabrics

Manufacturing ramie fabrics is generally unsustainable. Extracting the stem fibers from the Chinese nettle plants is often chemical-intensive. Also, the mechanical processes used in ramie manufacturing demand a lot of energy.

How Sustainably Are Ramie Fabrics Generally Manufactured

The typical manufacturing process of ramie fabrics includes these steps: 

  1. Extract cellulose fibers from the Chinese nettle plant: As soon as the plant matures, the stems are cut, the ribbons are stripped, and the fibers are extracted. Ramie fiber extraction involves its own two steps:
    1. Decorticating: mechanically removing the outer bark, the central woody core, and part of the gums and waxes of the bast 
    2. Degumming: removing the gums, which accounts for about 25-30% of the extracted fibers, via one or a combination of the following ramie degumming methods:
      • chemical methods 
      • enzymatic methods 
      • microbial methods
  1. Process fibers into yarns: the degummed fibers are turned into yarns via a series of mechanical steps as follows:
    1. sorting the fibers into long, medium, and short lengths, which are spun separately or together (in the case of medium and short fibers) 
    2. combing or carding the sorted ramie fibers
    3. blending the combed or carded ramie fibers with other natural or synthetic fibers (if used) 
    4. spinning the fibers, wet or dry, using one of the established spinning systems for other fibers, depending on the properties of the fibers, for example:
      • jute system, 
      • silk system, or 
      • cotton system.
  1. Finish the yarns using further processes to turn the threads into the final fabrics, including:
    1. bleaching
    2. dyeing 
    3. washing
    4. drying
    5. weaving

Let’s now dive into a few key sustainable issues of this life-cycle stage: 

Degumming Ramie Fibers Can Be Chemical-Intensive 

Unlike other bast fibers like linen and hemp, which can be degummed without added chemicals and water (aka dew retting), large-scaled manufactured ramie fibers often undergo a chemical-intensive degumming process. This is because the pectineus substances in ramie are more difficult to remove or break down. 

The gums of ramie consist of araban and xylans. These substances are insoluble in water but soluble in alkaline solutions. Thus, caustic soda (or sodium hydroxide NaOH) is generally used for the ramie degumming process. Handling caustic soda has certain health risks, including damage to the skin and eyes. 

An acid, such as acetic acid or sulphuric acid, is also used to remove any excess alkali after the gums are dissolved. After the separation, ramie fibers are often treated with extra chemicals to achieve a certain level of softness. 

Here is an example of the chemicals used in degumming ramie fibers (100kg): 

  • 20.25 kg sodium hydroxide
  • 11 kg sulphuric acid
  • 2.4 kg hypochlorous
  • 1.4 kg degumming agent

In this example, 60 kg degummed ramie fibers would be obtained from the 100 kg raw fibers. 

Unfortunately, as a consequence of the chemical degumming process, the wastewater from ramie manufacturing usually has a high pH value, high contents of chemical oxygen demand (COD), and biochemical oxygen demand (BOD)

The treatment of such wastewater requires extra chemicals and electricity. 

Furthermore, left untreated or improperly treated, the toxic ramie manufacturing wastewater causes freshwater pollution and ground acidification

It is important to note that there are more environmentally friendly degumming methods that sidestep the harsh chemicals and the high temperatures in chemical gumming. These include: 

  • Enzymatic degumming: relying on natural enzymes to break down the pectin 
  • Microbial degumming: using microorganisms, such as bacteria, to dissolve the sticky gums 

However, large-scale manufacturers generally do not use these methods because enzymatic degumming and microbial degumming tend to work slower than chemical degumming. 

Manufacturing Ramie Fabrics Is Energy-Intensive 

Producing ramie fabrics from Chinese nettle fibers is generally energy-intensive because energy is required to run various machines, including the loom and the carding/combing machine.

If plant harvesting and fiber extracting are done by machinery, energy is also needed to run machines that cut, peel, beat, or break the ramie stalks

High energy usage in manufacturing leads to elevated carbon emissions if the energy generation depends heavily on fossil fuels. 

Where Are Ramie Fabrics Usually Manufactured

China is the main producer of ramie and exporter of ramie fabrics. The country accounts for the lion’s share of the production and the (little) international trading of the material. 

Ramie fabrics are also produced in other countries such as Taiwan, India, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and Brazil, though outputs tend to be much smaller in these locations. 

One of the main sustainability issues with producing ramie fabrics in China and most other ramie-producing countries is the dependency on fossil fuels for energy generation. Except for Brazil, the renewable energy shares in ramie-producing countries are relatively low

  • China: 14.95% renewable energy
  • Taiwan: 3.04 % renewable energy
  • India: 9.31% renewable energy
  • The Philippines: 10.9% renewable energy
  • South Korea: 3.72% renewable energy
  • Brazil: 46.22% renewable energy

Renewable energy (including solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass) potentially reduces carbon emissions at this stage. Ramie clothes made in locations with a relatively higher renewable energy share, such as Brazil, are likely to have a lower manufacturing carbon footprint. 

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Ramie Fabrics

Transporting ramie fabrics is generally unsustainable. It can be a carbon-intensive life-cycle stage for clothing items made with ramie fibers due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Ramie fabrics typically travel from fields (where Chinese nettle 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 ramie clothes, transportation typically occurs: 

  • from fields where ramie plants are grown to the ramie fiber and fabrics manufacturing location(s),
  • from the ramie clothing 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 Ramie Fabrics Vary Depending on the Supply Chain

It is not uncommon for natural cellulose fabrics like ramie 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 ramie fabrics: 

  • Farmers grow Chinese nettle in China to be sourced and transported to a manufacturer in China. Final pieces of ramie clothes are then shipped to the US to sell to consumers.
  • Ramie fibers are harvested from fields in France and shipped to factories in Brazil. Ramie clothes are then sold primarily to the American market.
  • Manufacturers in India source Chinese nettle fibers from the Philippines and transport the raw material to factories in India to turn into clothes and bed covers before selling them to consumers around the world. 

You can reduce the transportation carbon footprint by choosing ramie fabrics that travel a shorter distance from the fields and are made closer to your home.

The Carbon Footprint of Transporting Ramie Fabrics Depends Largely on the Vehicle of Transportation 

During its life-cycle, a piece of ramie clothing can be transported using various types of vehicles, including: 

  • large container ships 
  • planes 
  • freight trains 
  • long-distance trucks 
  • short-distance delivering vans 

There are also various types of transportation vehicles used that have different carbon footprint impacts: 

As a consumer, you can choose not to pick the fast delivery option when ordering canvas clothing items and accessories to reduce the carbon footprint of your order.

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Ramie Fabrics

Using ramie fabrics is generally sustainable. The fiber is strong, which means clothing items made with ramie fabric can last for a long time before a replacement is needed. 

Ramie is a very strong natural fiber: Its tensile strength varies from 220–938 MPa, with an increase in strength when wet. In comparison, according to the same study, cotton has a tensile strength from 287 to 597 MPa. Generally, ramie fibers are considered stronger than cotton or silk

Besides its strength, ramie is known for its ability to hold shape. Thus, clothes made with ramie fibers can last for a long time. Using a strong and durable material like canvas 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). 

Because ramie is a natural fiber, clothes made with ramie fabrics or a blend of ramie 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 ramie 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 ramie clothes and household items. Possible changes include:

  • wash ramie 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 Ramie Fabrics

The end-of-life stage for ramie fabric is generally sustainable. Ramie fabrics are made with natural cellulose fibers, resulting in the material being biodegradable and compostable. 

Fabrics made with 100% ramie fibers are biodegradable. At the end of the fabric’s life, there are three available options: 

  • composting
  • incineration
  • landfilling

It takes six to twenty-four months for ramie fabrics to decompose. In contrast, it takes hundreds of years for most synthetic-based textiles to start breaking down. 

How Circular Are Products Made of Ramie 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

As a whole, the textile industry is almost linear: 97% of the input is new resource.

Like other bast fibers such as hemp and linen, ramie textile waste can be recycled via physical and chemical methods, depending on whether the materials are pure ramie or a blend. 

How Can You Buy Ramie Fabrics More Sustainably

The key to sustainably buying ramie 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 Ramie Fabrics 

As we have established throughout the life-cycle assessment, not all ramie clothes are made equally, even though ramie fabrics are generally sustainable. 

For sustainable ramie, you want to look for: 

  • certified organic, both during the growing stage and the other stages in the life-cycle 
  • enzymatically or biologically degummed
  • colored with natural dyes 

If you search for sustainable ramie manufacturers, make sure they are transparent about the following:

  • energy usage (volume and source) in manufacturing 
  • chemical usage and disposal treatments in manufacturing 

We put together a small list of brands using a more sustainable variety of ramie fabrics to assist you with the efforts. This list is in alphabetical order. 

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 the 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 the 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 hemp or hemp. 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, hemp or hemp; 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.

Final Thoughts

Ramie fabrics are generally sustainable materials made with natural cellulose fibers in a mechanical (and possibly chemical-free) process. 

To make using ramie fabrics even more sustainable, follow these steps:

  1. Buy second-hand, recycled, or upcycled ramie products.
  2. While using ramie clothing items, maximize the number of wears between washes, and keep them as long as possible.
  3. At the end-of-life of your ramie products, upcycle the material to extend its usage and arrange for it to be recycled or properly disposed of.

Stay impactful,



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