From the Source l Natural Rubber
In late 2016 we accepted an invitation from the World Agroforestry Institute to visit the rubber growing region of China in Xishuangbanna, Central South Western China, to observe the rubber cultivation process and learn more about the those that dedicate their lives to farming this natural resource.
Rubber is not something often thought of as being ‘natural.’ It’s not something we think of much at all, except perhaps when our car needs new tyres, or when the soles on our shoes wear through.
Yet in certain concentrated pockets around the globe, mostly in SE Asia and South America, collecting pure latex from rubber trees, the Hevea Brasiliensis, is a way of life and the primary source of income for thousands of families.
Rubber tapping is not an easy life. Days begin as early as 4am, with farmers making their way out to their plantations before daybreak when the latex sap is flowing most freely. Carefully and deliberately they gouge an angled cut into the tree’s bark, creating a new groove where the milky latex slowly accumulates, dripping down into small bowls strapped to the trees to be collected later in the morning.
Since the 1980s the number of rubber plantations in this part of the world has doubled in size every decade, largely driven by the growth of the Asian tyre industry. This demand drove prices for natural rubber higher and higher, bringing wealth and prosperity to traditionally poor areas and providing opportunities for farmers to invest in their own small cultivation operations.
The usage of natural rubber is closely linked with the demand for synthetic, petroleum derived rubber – as prices go up for one, manufacturers will switch to using the alternative.
All this came to a head in 2012, when natural rubber prices peaked around $6.20USD/KG, largely a result of record high oil prices driving a renewed demand for natural latex. Since this peak, however, oil prices have fallen dramatically and correspondingly, so too has the price of natural rubber, slashing the incomes of thousands of families to less than a quarter of what it once was.
Natural rubber has qualities that make it ideal for use in our sneakers – it’s a natural product that’s flexible, durable and ultimately biodegradable – however just as important to us is knowing that we’re supporting an industry that’s still largely dominated by small scale farmers making an honest living.