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India aims to revive Jute- its flagging industry by expanding into fashion

Flagging Industry

A hunt for an environmentally friendly material is always on. The world is trying its best to keep down carbon footprints and reduce pollution. New age materials are being developed that can replace the current largest non-biodegradable waste- plastics. One proposed solution has been to turn to natural raw materials. The scenario is the same with fabrics. As one of the largest producers of jute in the world – India has been giving its all to rebrand the fibre as being worth much more than just fit for gunny bags.

Jute is growing in popularity worldwide as the demand for alternatives to plastic soars, with experts predicting the now bag industry alone will be worth more than $3bn by 2024 and India is desperate to capitalize and expand on this consumer shift and seize the opportunity to revive its flagging industry by promoting jute as the fabric of sustainable future, with the government issuing mandates like all grains and 20 per cent of sugar should be packed in jute sacks, to increase domestic demand. Nearly all of the world’s jute is grown in West Bengal in India or in Bangladesh, because of the conducive humid climate and availability of cheap labour.

Not just this, jute has been making its way into the fashion industry as well. Acclaimed homegrown designers like Ashish Soni and Pawan Aswani are using jute blends for their fashion lines. The material’s appeal has been boosted by brands such as Dior making jute sandals and royalties such as the Duchess of Sussex wearing jute footwear and using hessian gift bags for guests attending her wedding to Prince Harry.

But Gouranga Kar, who heads the Central Research Institute for Jute and Allied Fibres has a different story to tell. “India can cater to global demand but for that two things are needed: upgrading the skills of the people to produce different types of products and upgrading the machinery,”. The country’s rundown mills and outdated farming practices do not match up with its current ambitions for fibre.

Of almost all the jute factories in West Bengal state, many are in dire states, some of which were set up in the 19th century mainly to produce coarse sacks for packing coffee and food grains and there has been little change to machinery and production methods since. Hundreds of barefoot workers labour in a vast dingy hall covered in fine, fibrous dust across eight-hour shifts, 24 hours a day is what production looks like at present. “Jute has a potentially huge international market,” says jute company president Supriya Das, “If the machines are high-tech we can produce good yarn. For diversified end-use, the quality of the fibre has to improve. The industry won’t be viable unless we introduce value-added products like decorative items and rugs.”

Kar further elaborates that India’s scientists have developed high yielding varieties of jute to tap this renewed interest, but unskilled labour and outdated farming practices meant this had yet to translate into economic returns which is a major concern for the industry. Then came the pandemic The coronavirus pandemic thwarted hopes of restoring the industry as several mills shut down amidst lockdown caused labour and raw material shortages.

Environmentalists insist on tapping jute’s vast economic and green potential, particularly as consumers voice concerns about fast fashion and more countries introduce legislation to ban single-use plastic. Every part of the jute plant can be used: the outer layer for the fibre, the woody stem for paper pulp, and the leaves can be cooked and eaten. The UN Environment Programme has said the planet is “drowning in plastic pollution”, with about 300 million tonnes of plastic waste produced every year. As per the data from the 2018-19 report by the Central Pollution Control Board India generates 3.3 million metric tonnes of plastic waste annually.

“One hectare [2.47 acres] of jute plant can soak up to nearly 15 tonnes of carbon dioxide and discharge 11 tonnes of oxygen during a season, thereby reducing greenhouse effects,” estimates Swati Singh Sambyal, sustainability and circular economy expert based in New Delhi. According to a recent report by Research and Markets, the global jute bag market reached a value of $2.07bn in 2020 and is projected to touch $3.1bn by 2024 as consumers look for alternatives to single-use plastic. So, Jute has a great future and it can bring a lot of valuable foreign exchange to the country so the government must focus on this sector. Factory bosses are hopeful that if authorities invest, they can rebrand and reboot jute for the 21st century.

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