With initiatives promoting ‘green buildings’ and ‘sustainable environments', engineers have been thrust into the ‘natural materials’ spotlight. Engineers have responded by using natural instead of synthetic fibers, or combinations of different types of natural and synthetic fibers, to meet design requirements in many different applications. Now that natural fiber markets are growing and their number of uses is expanding, it is time to move toward sustaining the small-scale and cottage industries that produce the fibers.

There has long been an interest in the use of natural fibers for engineering applications, from ancient engineers who used papyrus to retain soil, to modern engineers who use cotton fiber in foam insulation. Today, interest in natural fibers has soared with global demand for more efficient and less expensive environmentally friendly products. A variety of natural fibers have appeared in many unlikely places. For example, kenaf, hemp, flax, jute, coir, and sisal fibers can be found in car door panels, seat backs, and dashboards. Hardwood, softwood, rice hull, kenaf, and coir fibers can be found in foamed composite decking, siding, and window blinds. Coir erosion control mats are being used to revegetate burned slopes in Spain, and natural jute products are being used for slope protection and quarry restoration in Hong Kong.

A natural fiber that has played a historically significant role around the world is coir fiber. Coir is the fibrous material that is extracted from the husk of coconuts, which grow extensively in tropical areas of the world, such as India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines. Coir fiber can be used directly in products, such as erosion control blankets, or spun into yarn that can later be woven into products, such as rope or carpets. India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand are the largest producers of coir fiber, which is imported by more than 20 countries around the world, including Germany, the US, and China. Countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, and the US also directly import coir yarn from producers such as India, Sri Lanka, and Belgium for the manufacture of value-added products. India is the largest exporter of coir products in the world, with products reaching more than 43 different countries.

In India, coir fiber, yarn, and their products are produced primarily in the southwestern state of Kerala, where coir has been a major industry for many centuries. Here, coir is traditionally processed in four labor-intensive steps: retting of husks, extraction of the fiber, formation of yarn, and weaving. The retting process involves soaking the green coconuts in brackish water for 8-10 months to loosen the fiber from the husk. This work, performed by both men and women, requires workers to stand waist-deep in water. Fiber extraction is traditionally done by beating retted husks with wooden mallets. This work, which is performed almost exclusively by women, requires workers to sit in a squat position for countless hours in swampy backwaters. Once the fibers are removed from the shell, they are spun into yarn, either by hand or using a spinning wheel. Although mechanical devices are often used, they require workers, who are mostly women, to walk forward and backward continuously. The yarn can be twisted to form a stronger yarn, which can be used as an intermediate or final product, or woven by hand or machine, typically by men, to produce value-added products.

The coir industry globally connects those who use coir products to those who produce the coir fiber, yarn, and associated products. The ‘users’ include those involved with the design and selection of coir products, such as engineers, contractors, and government regulators. They are connected to coir factories in India through exporters, buying agents, or the manufacturers themselves. Although users can directly contact manufacturers in India, exporters and buying agents play a key role in connecting users to smaller, independent manufacturers to meet user supply needs at a lower price. In these cottage industries, those who work in the home to process coir fiber into yarn are typically at the mercy of agents or middlemen for their work and wages. Agents supply the fiber in the morning and buy back the completed yarn at the end of the day, often at agreed prices that are far less than minimum wages.

Natural fiber industries will continue to be important globally, which will only lead to the strengthening of ties between users and producers. Because the producers often include those most marginalized by society, users need to be aware of how the products are produced, what conditions they are produced in, and the relative wellbeing of the producers. In the coir industry in Kerala, for example, the status of women workers in cottage industries has only gone backwards with increasing global competition. Engineers must step forward and raise these issues to help those that are powerless.

[1] Jennifer Smith is a research fellow and Shobha Bhatia is a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Syracuse University.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(05)71193-7