Fabric from nettles. Where’s the sting?

Connie Heathfield, Energy and Sustainability Consultant, JRP Solutions

Posted on 27 September 2021.

According to a research paper published in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment in 2020, impacts from the fashion industry include over 92 million tonnes of waste produced pa,  and 1.5 trillion litres of water consumed, alongside chemical pollution and high levels of CO2 emissions.

Global textile production annually contributes more to GHG emissions leading to climate change impacts than international aviation and shipping combined.

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It might seem counter intuitive that a natural fibre like cotton is actually a massive contributor to this issue, but the carbon footprint of cotton is extraordinarily high: between 2 and 4 tonnes of CO2 per hectare. Cotton’s most prominent environmental impacts result from the use of agrochemicals (especially pesticides), the conversion of habitat to agricultural use and the consumption of water. More than half of global cotton production – 57 per cent – takes place in areas under high or extreme water stress, according to data compiled by the World Resources Institute.  Only 30 per cent of the cotton produced comes from ‘rain-fed’ farming.  The rest relies on irrigation, mainly wasteful flood irrigation.

A close up of a plantDescription automatically generated with medium confidenceWhat about nettles (Urtica Dioica) as a more sustainable alternative? It’s one of the oldest known fibre crops, does not require pesticides or herbicides to grow and it can be harvested up to 6 times in a good year, making it a high-yield, low maintenance crop.

But what makes nettles more sustainable than commonly used fibres?

1. Nettles are resistant plants that can grow in varying conditions. This means that they can be grown near to productions sites, thus reducing transport emissions.

2. Nettles can be incorporated into mixed-crop farming to reduce excess fertilizer, as they thrive in over-fertilized areas. Using the nettle crop to create fibre is a safe way of removing the excess fertilizer without creating waste.

3. Nettle growing and fibre production is a lot less resource intensive that commonly used fibres. For example, nettles require a fraction of the water that goes into cotton.

4. Nettle fibres are biodegradable, unlike fibres made up of petroleum-based fibres such as nylon.

 

Nettle fibres can be produced 100% sustainably, and makes incredibly strong fabric, making it a promising natural option for apparel. However, extraction and production of the fibre requires lengthy and complicated processes. This makes the fibre more expensive than traditionally used fibres, which is why it has been deemed not economically viable in the past. Cross-breeding experiments, dating back to 1927, have improved the fibre content of the plants, improving profitability. In addition, mixing the fibre with wool has also proven to improve fabric quality and yield. Whilst these advances are promising, further improvements are needed, particularly within the UK, for nettle fibres to reach their potential in the textile industry.

So, with all the environmental concerns around synthetic, petroleum-based fibres, like acrylic, polyester, nylon and spandex (microplastic pollution, made from carbon-intensive non-renewable resources, uses harmful chemicals, including carcinogens) the race to find sustainable, natural alternatives for fibre and fabric is on.

The use of nettles in textile production is one of many examples of innovative solutions to unsustainable practice. Plastic free, low resource alternatives are a must for decarbonising the fashion industry, alongside thorough behaviour and infrastructure changes. 

JRP Solutions is part of a unique collaboration, Net Zero for Fashion, which supports the fashion industry to find sustainable solutions to their challenges.  If you would like to find out how we can support your organisation, email George.richards@jrpsolutions.com.