The Nature Bag
The products sold by online store Nature Bags aren’t made from hemp, or organic cotton, like many of the eco-friendly products on the sustainable marketplace.
Instead, they are made using a fiber from a perennial vine, that grows naturally in Laos. In 2004, Bill Newbrough, an American from Iowa, was visiting Laos when he was given a bag by a local as a souvenir. On returning home, he discovered it was “unusually strong” while using it to carry tools for repairing the roof on his home. It took months for Newbrough to track down the communities that made the bags: the Khmu tribes live in remote villages all over northern Laos. An artisan skill passed down through generations, the bags served a practical purpose for harvesting and daily activities.
“The bags have a history extending as far back as 5,000 years,” explains Newbrough. “The bags served as an essential survival tool for an indigenous culture dependent upon the gathering of food, medicine and fiber in mountainside jungles.”
Most Khmu villages are so isolated they have few opportunities to earn an income, and Newbrough decided to launch the Lao JungleVine Production Promotion Company, to give the tribes a platform to sell their handicrafts.
“The products are sold in around 200 boutiques across 20 countries,” explains Newbrough. “Most often, the artisans say they spend their income on rice, clothing and school supplies for their kids.”
Newbrough is keen to promote the eco-friendly, natural fiber products as part of the solution to mitigate climate change, via minimizing human carbon footprint. He adds although there are numerous other reusable bags in the market, “virtually all” are made from cotton which, unless organic, is one of the worst fibers for the environment. Cotton bags should be used 131 times in order to be more eco-friendly than plastic bags.
Natural fiber products have grown in popularity, particularly hemp, which was legalized in the US in 2018. It’s a resilient crop that is naturally resistant to most pests, and it absorbs CO2 while it grows. It also needs around half as much land and water as cotton to grow.
Using hemp’s popularity as a springboard, Nature Bag is capitalizing on the demand for eco-friendly materials. The organization has also expanded into cleaning equipment, as well as bath and body products, but in order to stay competitive, Newbrough says it is Nature Bag’s root ethos that sets it apart.
A woman from a Khmu tribe weaving the bags
“We link an ancient primitive culture and its handmade products with the global marketplace. We empower women in a man-dominated society by giving them income opportunities, and thus reduce rural poverty.
“Not only that but we give income-producing work that provides alternatives to commercial agricultural work, where dangerous chemicals are frequently used inappropriately causing injury and occasional death.”
Over the years, Newbrough’s organization, which now runs alongside the a non-profit called the JungleVine Foundation, has worked with around 1,000 artisans in 40 villages, who have made more than 35,000 products.
But Newbrough’s ambitions don’t stop there. “We want to be the dominant player in the natural fiber and the reusable bag industries. We would like to see JungleVine fiber widely used in support cables, chains, body armament and fabrics such as upholstery, carpet and draperies.
“We would like to see a Nature Bag in use on every block everywhere in the world.