When thinking about versatile sustainable fabrics, jute is often one of the first materials at the top of the list.
The fibre has long been used for creating furniture pieces like rugs and carpets, but in recent years it has been reimagined to become a sustainable fashion staple too.
So, what’s the reason for its rising popularity in the fashion world?
Is jute sustainable, and how does it compare to other renewable fabrics?
Here’s all you need to know about the sustainability of jute, including whether it can be recycled and how many natural resources it consumes!
What is jute?
Jute might not be as well known as cotton but jute is actually one of the most common fabrics produced today.
Jute is a type of plant belonging to the Corchorus genus. Jute is in the same family as cotton, cacao and okra.
The jute plant is grown and harvested for its stem fibres, which are eventually woven into a textile fabric. The biggest producers of jute fibre are India, China and Bangladesh.
Jute fabric has been used to craft textiles as far back as 5,000 years ago, with the Indian subcontinent being the first civilisation to use the fibre for clothing.
If the name jute doesn’t really ring a bell, you probably know about the fabric as ‘burlap’ instead – jute is actually the name of the plant we derive this fibre from.
How is jute fabric made?
The jute fabric is made by soaking the jute plant stems in water, stripping the core fibre, then blending the fibres together. Once this is done, the fibres are spun and woven into a fabric.
This isn’t too dissimilar to the way sustainable bamboo can be grown and harvested. However, unless it’s organic bamboo, the industry tends to use more chemicals during the processing part.
The finished yarn is tough and durable, with a rustic coarse look and a signature roughness. This makes jute fabric the perfect material for a wide variety of household items, such as curtains, rugs, and lampshades.
Since burlap is not only incredibly durable but also quite flexible, it makes for a great material for creating tote bags, sustainable backpacks, and handbags, as well as clothing items when mixed with cotton to make it a little softer.
Is jute sustainable and how does it impact the environment?
So, what is the environmental impact of the material, from harvesting to end-of-life disposal? Is jute fabric sustainable, or at least more eco-friendly than cotton, the only fabric surpassing it in usage?
Let’s start our analysis with how the jute plant is grown.
Jute is an incredibly efficient plant to grow, reaching maturity in just four to six months. A great trait for a truly renewable resource, which is shared by the likes of bamboo too.
In addition, the plant’s efficient fast growth also means that jute crops will require a lot less land for cultivation. This results in lower levels of deforestation and habitat disruption.
As the plant thrives in humid, tropical areas without the need for fertilisers and pesticides, jute can easily be grown in an organic way. Jute is also a much less polluting crop than conventional cotton, known for its negative impact on soil degradation and water pollution.
In fact, jute production has been associated with improved soil health and fertility, as the crop grows best with natural rainfall meaning little irrigation is needed. This leads to much less water usage than both conventional and organic cotton!
When it comes to the processing stage of production, jute fabric is not very resource-intensive. The simple processing of soaking in water, stripping and weaving, without the need for chemicals, make jute production really efficient.
There’s also a case for jute helping with carbon offsetting initiatives. The jute plant, like all other plants and trees, absorbs carbon dioxide and releases oxygen in return, at a rate that is actually faster than trees. Although some tree crops, such as the highly sustainable cork tree, can absorb carbon dioxide over many decades as they don’t need to be cut down for the material to be harvested.
According to some estimates, one hectare of jute plants can absorb around 15 tons of carbon dioxide and release 11 tonnes of oxygen, all during just a single harvest season! This could potentially be an excellent nature-based solution to climate change.
So, is jute sustainable?
Looking at the entire production process, and especially the cultivation stage, we can safely say that jute is one of the most sustainable natural fibres around.
Is jute recyclable or biodegradable?
Ok, so jute is a sustainable crop, but what about when it comes to the end of a jute product’s life?
The good news for the environment is that jute is recyclable and biodegradable.
Jute is a completely natural fibre that doesn’t require any chemical treatment during production. As it’s 100% chemical-free and made from natural materials, pure jute is a recyclable and biodegradable fabric. In the right conditions, jute will naturally bio-degrade in one to two years.
Still, it might not be as simple as this and it doesn’t necessarily mean that all burlap products are recyclable or biodegradable. Make sure you look at the fine print to see if jute has been blended with any other treated fabric.
For example, jute clothes are likely to be blended with conventional cotton, polyester, and acrylic to enhance texture and durability, all of which can impact its biodegradable properties.
Blended yarns are quite common in jute products overall, so your best bet will be to check with the manufacturer to ensure you can dispose of your burlap clothes sustainably.
Are there any downsides to using jute fabric?
Even though jute is sustainable and free of the many environmental downsides of materials like conventional cotton, silk, and of course synthetics, that doesn’t necessarily mean everything about its production is eco-friendly.
Jute clothing is still quite niche. Due to the complexity of creating flexible and smooth jute fabric for everyday clothes, the fabric is always going to be blended with textiles that are not as sustainable.
Jute bags, on the other hand, are either made of 100% jute fabric or blended with cotton. So as long as you’re choosing an organic cotton blend, you’ll be guaranteed a recyclable and sustainable product.
There’s also the water usage factor. Although jute plants don’t require irrigation and are a lot less ‘thirsty’ than crops like cotton, there’s often no guarantee that your burlap has been grown 100% naturally.
Rainfall-grown plants like jute rely on the predictability of weather, so depending on where the crop is grown, producers might choose to irrigate instead.
Fortunately, most jute manufacturers will be transparent about their cultivation process, so look out for a GOTS or equal certification to ensure your jute has been grown sustainably!
So, is jute fabric a sustainable option?
Thanks to its natural carbon offsetting properties, biodegradability, and soil-enhancing effects, jute is definitely a fabric you should keep an eye on if you’re looking to invest in durable and sustainable household items.
Jute is recyclable, versatile, and incredibly unique — now we just have to wait for jute clothing to become more mainstream, and see just how sustainable the fabric can be when given time to shine!
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I’m the Creator and Editor of Tiny Eco Home Life. I write and publish information about more sustainable, environmentally friendly living in and around the home. Alongside this website, I love spending time in the natural world, living a simple life and spending time with my young family (Murphy the dog!) I round up my thoughts and recent blogs on the Eco Life Newsletter.