CONSCIOUS FASHION - Is Hemp The Future of Sustainable Fashion?

17th August 2020

Hemp fabric has been around for centuries and existed much before recorded history. It has been in use widely from the Neolithic age right down to the 19th century when cotton became cheaper due to plantations in the US.

As late as 1920, 80% of all clothing had some mix of hemp. Apart from fabric for clothing, Cannabis sativa is also used to make paper, newsprint, ropes, food products, and should it contain a high level of THC, marijuana. Unfortunately, it is the mind-altering drug which has been much publicised in popular culture, and the other uses of the hemp plant, chiefly as fabric, forgotten.

As climate change has become an urgent issue, hemp clothing has begun to reemerge as the future of sustainable fashion.

Why The Fashion World Is Moving Towards Hemp

The Curse of Synthetic Fibers

Till the 1920s, hemp fabric was popular. Its decline coincided with the increasing use of automobiles or more accurately with oil production as the byproducts of oil refineries are a variety of synthetic yarns such as polyester, nylon, acrylic. Their most important advantage is they are inexpensive and can be produced in enormous quantities.

What made polyester really appealing is it does not get wrinkled quickly and it does not need ironing as frequently as cotton. The complex molecular structure does not allow it to absorb water, and hence it dries easily, too.

But compared to hemp, the synthetic fabric has a severe downside – it is not biodegradable. In an era of fast fashion, when many discard clothes after a month's use, the widespread utilization of polyester has led to environmental distress that rivals plastics.

Polyester manufacture also requires a vast amount of energy, which takes its toll due to greenhouse gases. As consumers become more conscious of the carbon footprint they generate, the fashion industry is moving towards natural fabrics that do not destroy the delicate ecosystem we inhabit.

The Cotton vs. Hemp Debate

It is impossible to save the planet and use synthetic yarn on a large scale at the same time. This leaves us with two natural fabrics, hemp and cotton.

But cotton, though natural and a near-perfect material in every sense, is not really sustainable. We take a look at why hemp scores over cotton:

The Rampant Use Of Pesticides

Cotton is only grown on 2.5% of total agricultural land. But it accounts for almost 23% of all pesticides used worldwide. In the US, 50% of all pesticide use is on cotton plantations. Over time these pesticides penetrate the deeper levels of soil and poison the groundwater supply. Due to rain, it runs off the land into rivers and ultimately ends up being a danger to aquatic life.

Since pests develop immunity to these chemicals, stronger and more robust variants have to be continually manufactured. Needless to mention that most of these pose a severe health hazard to humans. They are carcinogenic and spread rapidly into the body through our food supply.

Most of this is because the cotton plant is particularly susceptible to a large variety of pests from bollworms and aphids to spider mites. In all, there are over fifty different types of insects which like to feed off the cotton plant.

On the other hand, the hemp plant requires very little use of pesticides. The natural oils present in hemp act as an insect repellant. Weeds also do not proliferate on hemp fields due to the presence of cannabinoids.

Another interesting fact – hemp plants can be grown closer together, which makes it easy to spray them with fewer chemicals in order to keep them healthy.

The Extensive Use Of Fertilisers

You might ask at this point why not use organic cotton cultivated without the use of pesticides. The answer lies in the fact that rarely do we find cotton plants growing in the wild.

It is not a hardy plant and very inefficient at extracting nutrients from the soil. To make them grow swiftly, cotton farms use vast quantities of fertilizers. Synthetic fertilizers are toxic when used without caution. They leach into groundwater and end up in waterways. The manufacture of fertilizer requires industrial plants which emit vast amounts of greenhouse gases.

On the other hand, hemp grows almost anywhere and is exceedingly robust. It grows abundantly in the wild on nearly every continent. The use of fertiliser is minimal, which results in a limited impact on natural resources. There is no doubt that hemp scores hugely over cotton in this respect!

Cotton Requires A Lot Of Water

Modern agriculture uses a lot of water through irrigation, but crops like cotton are the biggest offenders. It requires 2.7 tons of water to grow enough cotton for making a shirt. It is a mind-boggling number considering that an average person drinks this amount in 18 months. Your wardrobe and furnishings required enough water to last your family a lifetime!

Of course, not all of this is used in the fields but also to process cotton into yarn and weaving. Hemp needs water but only half as much. That too is a lot of water, but at least it is far less than what we need for cotton. Every little bit helps when it comes to saving the planet and our future!

In a nutshell, hemp needs half as much water, has a 300% greater yield per hectare, require very little pesticides and fertilisers, the crop matures quickly, and being sturdy can be grown on almost any type of soil – clay, loam, silt, and even peat.

Is Hemp Fashionable Enough?

The biggest doubt among consumers is that hemp is not fashionable or trendy enough.

Of course, that is because the fabric is commonly associated with making sacks and ropes. No one would like to wear clothes which are shapeless and itchy. This is, however, a colossal misnomer; nig-name labels such as Armani and Calvin Klein have already thrown their hat into the ring and are pushing the use of hemp. If you cannot afford upmarket labels, look no further than Levi's. The iconic blue denim manufacturer has launched the well-thread Collection made of hemp.

Denim manufacture requires an astounding 4,000 billion gallons of water annually. With its commitment to sustainable practices, Levi's has led the way. Footwear brands such as Nike and Patagonia have hemp shoes on offer. The advantage of hemp is that with every wash, it becomes softer, unlike cotton that loses its texture. It is also able to maintain its shape longer and is better at sweat absorption.

Last Thoughts

It took a long time for governments and the public to realise that there are two distinct varieties of the Cannabis sativa plant. Hemp production does not mean giving a green signal to a gateway drug!

In the last couple of years, the popularity of hemp clothing has begun to take off. Though it is far from being mass-market, consumer attitudes are changing.

With ice caps melting, sea levels rising, and the ecosystem in danger of collapse, new innovations are needed: what used to be can no longer be the way we proceed forward. By wearing hemp, a sustainable and versatile fabric, you are not only dressed in trendy attire but are an aware consumer with a well-informed outlook!

Author Bio: Vishal Vivek is the CEO and Co-Founder at Hemp Foundation. 

The Hemp Foundation’s mission is to fight Global warming, plastic pollution, deforestation, wild species extinction through the promotion of hemp in the fashion industry and at the same time provide jobs to marginalized communities of artisans and farmers in rural Himalayan villages and give them global reach.

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