The market for flax and hemp fibres is shrinking so much that the disappearance of just one party in the manufacturing chain could threaten many other parties in this industry. The report 'Markets for fibre crops in EU and China' contains an analysis of the opportunities and threats in the international fibre crop market by researchers from Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research. Fibre crops are an important source for the textile and other industries and offer a sustainable alternative to synthetic fibres.
Europe and China need each other if the cultivation of fibre crops such as flax and hemp is to remain economically viable, according to European and Chinese researchers, who are collaborating in the project FIBRA. The mechanised cultivation, harvesting and processing of European flax and hemp fibres lead to very high quality fibres. Chinese growers who still produce traditional fibre crops such as hemp, kenaf and ramie, still almost entirely by manual labour, are giving up the cultivation as a result of severe competition. Yet the linen textile industry, which processes most of these fibres, has largely disappeared from Europe, having moved to China where wages are lower. This means that various interdependent links in the manufacturing chain are located too far apart for it to work effectively.
Textile production in low-wage countries
One of the obstacles facing the fibre industry is that wages differ too strongly worldwide, say the researchers. The textile production that relies on fibre processing is now starting to move to countries where labour costs are even lower. "This is worrying," researcher Jan van Dam says, “because the fibre industry is small and the manufacturing chain depends more and more on one-to-one contacts. If a link disappears, a large part of the chain is affected.”
Thousands of years of expertise in bio-based fibres
The trend described above immediately exposes another obstacle: the trade in natural fibres is gradually diminishing. For thousands of years, fibre crops have been cultivated, bred, refined and processed to produce clothing, yarns, rope and paper and, these days, car parts as well. This expertise threatens to be lost because bio-based fibres are often being replaced by cheaper but less sustainable synthetic fibres. Another important point is that other crops such as subsidised energy crops are often more profitable for the growers than traditional fibre crops. The present price of petroleum makes it impossible to compete with petrochemical synthetic fibres, but there is a niche market: the consumers who consciously choose sustainable, bio-based products.
Beyond niche market
While high-quality flax and hemp fibres are used in clothing, the lower-quality waste fibres can go to manufacturing, for example, construction and composite materials. However, this is a niche market too – for environmentally aware consumers who prefer to use sustainable materials originating from plants. The price of these materials is higher than that of competing products. "It would be worthwhile identifying niche markets in the short term," Van Dam believes, “but if a sustainable product is to succeed it is important for the sector to rise beyond the niche market status.”
Mechanisation in China necessary
The report 'Markets for fibre crops in EU and China' contains several recommendations for expanding the market. Mechanised cultivation and processing of fibre crops in China is important for raising the quality of fibres and for ensuring that prices remain competitive in relation to new low-wage countries. This does not necessarily constitute a threat to European chain parties; on the contrary, it is a chance for them to sell their know-how, skills and machinery in China.