For India, jute could be the fabric of the future. Amid a global push to reduce the use of plastic for environmental reasons, India is promoting jute as a material for reusable shopping bags, home furnishings, clothing, even diapers and women’s sanitary pads.
Extracted from the bark of a tall, reedy plant, jute requires less water than cotton and almost no pesticides, absorbs more carbon dioxide for its size than most trees, and is totally biodegradable. The Indian jute industry sees a potentially huge market in countries like the US which have introduced regulations against plastic bags and foam products.
Nearly all of the world’s jute is grown and milled in Kolkata and neighboring Bangladesh, where the climate is right and labor is cheap. The Indian jute industry employs 4,00,000 mill workers and supports an estimated four million families.
Companies are already supplying jute for use as geotextiles — a net-like material used by civil engineers to stabilize loose soil for road construction. The hope is that the growing interest in jute as a consumer product in India and abroad will help stimulate innovation. Scientists have been experimenting with bacteria to quicken the extraction of jute and improve the quality of fibers to yield softer fabrics. A special digital printing technique could allow jute to replace plastic in banners and advertisements.