Hemp has been making a lot of noise lately. Already famous for its medicinal uses, the plant is developing an even wider fan-base owing to its use as the new cotton. The invention of hemp fabric has led to the creation of the hemp fibre industry that is producing a wide range of hemp fibre products. Today, we are living in a world where hemp clothing, accessories, and jewellery are common products.
Though hemp is still struggling to come out of the shadows of marijuana, the craze about the very different uses of the plant is elevating. This craze was motivated by the use of hemp oil for cancer treatment but researchers and manufacturers have discovered other practical aspects of our lives that can be dominated by hemp one of which is clothing.
As bizarre as this idea might sound to some of us, hemp has actually been used to produce durable textiles in massive quantities for thousands of years. The hemp plant was, in fact, one of the earliest plants to be spun into usable fibre about ten thousand years ago. However, owing to the ban on all things cannabis-related, the hemp textile industry burned to the ground.
And this defeat led to the rise of the crop that we today know to be synonymous with all kinds of household fabric—cotton. In the 19th century, cotton was declared as the king and has since been enjoying the reputation of being the world’s most favoured and primary fabric. As a matter of fact, industrialists expect cotton production to quadruple by the year 2050.
But the times are changing yet again. With hemp gaining popularity again, the hep textile industry is steadily rising. And counting in all the other environmental factors, it would make sense for everyone from manufacturers to consumers to make a shift to the more environment-friendly crop.
That’s right. Hemp is a more sustainable and eco-friendly crop than everyone’s beloved cotton. We don’t have anything against cotton. But we do have a lot of things for the environment. And our research has convinced us that in addition to augmented durability and comfort, hemp is a better crop for the environment. This article is to lay down the facts for you to think about why hemp should be your new fibre of choice.
What is hemp?
Hemp is the variety (or multiple varieties) of the cannabis sativa plant that is grown for industrial and commercial purposes. The majority of these purposes have revolved around medicine and food but the use of hemp as fibre for clothing is increasing. The hemp plant is a tall and thin variety of cannabis that grows to be between 5 to 15 feet in height.
It is the non-psychoactive variety of the cannabis plant and is therefore used for all purposes other than recreation. This is attributed to its chemical makeup which contains less than 1% of THC—the high causing component.
Today, hemp is spun into a fibre which is then used to weave clothes, curtains, ropes, carpets, shoes, towels, cordage, etc.
What is cotton?
Cotton is a soft, fluffy fibre that grows in a boll around the seeds of the cotton plant. It is also a fibre, feed, and food crop which is used to manufacture a wide variety of products such as apparels, towels, sheets, cooking oil, salad dressings etc. Similar to hemp, it is a very versatile plant which can cater to a plethora of needs.
India is the second largest producer of cotton in the world after China. The most common use of cotton is in apparels and other fabric-based items. Cotton has now become the de facto source for the majority of household fabric items. Almost half of all textiles in the world are made of cotton.
Hemp as an alternative to cotton
There is no rudiment need to project hemp as an alternative to cotton. It is fairly easy to have an arrangement where both equally-versatile crops exist next to each other and are used for similar or different purposes. However, the world is bigger than that and there are a lot of aspects that need to be considered.
The question of replacing cotton with hemp comes into the picture when both the plants are viewed from the point of view of their impact on the environment. Sure, cotton has been cultivated and used for centuries but the environment of the Earth has changed drastically and the need of the hour is to opt for a sustainable solution.
Proposing a solution for cotton includes implicit solutions to cater to each of the need that cotton serves at the moment. And as magical as it might sound, we have a solution in front of us—Hemp, the wonder resource. The hemp plant is easier to cultivate, is not harmful to the environment or the human body, and practically serve all the purposes that are being served by cotton right now.
To argue our case, we will lay down the facts of hemp cultivation in comparison to cotton cultivation and let you decide for yourself.
Viewing hemp and cotton plantation from the lens of the environment and others
Cotton: For every pound of cotton you want to produce, you require approximately 1400 gallons of water. Cotton is the largest user of water among all the agricultural commodities. It takes almost 2,700 litres of water to produce the cotton needed for one single t-shirt. Some areas of the world that produce cotton are running out of fresh water to feed to the plant. There have also been areas where cotton cultivation led to desertification.
Hemp: Hemp requires almost half the amount of water required by cotton to produce the same amount. Moreover, hemp is a stronger and more reliable plant that grows quickly. In the same amount of land, hemp can produce roughly 200%-250% more fibre than cotton.
Cotton: The amount of pesticides required to grow cotton is perhaps one of the biggest disadvantages to cotton cultivation. Though organic cotton cultivation is becoming a thing, the production of cotton currently takes up 25% of the world’s pesticide use. And these chemicals are not separated in any refinement process. They end up being observed by the human skin in the form of clothing.
Moreover, cotton cultivation severely damages the quality of the soil. And the runoff chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides from cotton fields contaminate the rivers, lakes, wetlands, etc.
Hemp: There is a reason behind labelling hemp as the all-natural, all-organic crop. It is that it does not require absolutely any pesticides or fertilizers to grow. The plant, in its growing nature, naturally competes with weeds and out powers their ability to sustain themselves.
Comfort and Longevity
Cotton: Yes, cotton is probably the most comfortable fabric you have known. But with prolonged use, the cotton fabric breaks down and thus wears out easily. When compared to hemp, its longevity is not as great as one might think.
Hemp: Hemp fibre is similar to cotton fibre that softens as one continues to use it. The difference, however, is that it is much stronger and durable than cotton fibre. Repeated washes do not break the hemp fibre down. Producing more hemp clothing will lead us to produce less clothing overall.
Cotton: One of the reasons why cotton gained everyone’s favouritism is because of its ability to allow the skin to breathe. Also, cotton is good at dispensing odour and sweat. This is definitely an advantage for cotton fabric especially over synthetic fabric which fails miserably at dealing with odours and moisture.
Hemp: Hemp is equally good at offering breathability and wicking moisture in the body. But what is interesting is that in addition to doing all that cotton can do, hemp fabric exhibits anti-bacterial properties which give it an edge over any other fabric ever created. Also, hemp fabric does not hold odours so it outgrows cotton slightly on this front.
Cotton: Naturally, without the use of any dyes, cotton is available in white, cream, and off-white colours. There are ways to dye it naturally and synthetically to achieve any desired colour but dyes bring with them their own set of environmental and health problems.
Hemp: There are multiple processes that can be used to extract the hemp fibre from the stem of a hemp plant. Based on these, hemp is naturally available in creamy white, black, green, grey, and brown colours. And of course, dying hemp both naturally and synthetically is still possible.
There are areas in which hemp stands closer to cotton but also areas where it outdoes cotton in more than one ways. Cotton is a great crop which dominates the textile industry in the world today. And with the onset of organic cotton cultivation, that demand is only rising. However, the less amount of water and chemical fertilisers required by hemp are pretty strong arguments in its favour. Hemp is the most ethical and harmless plant grown ever. And it can’t be denied that because of that, it is pretty awesome.
3 Reasons why Hemp should be the New King of Clothing
In a time when consumers are becoming increasingly watchful of the environmental and human impacts of all their actions including the products they buy, it is highly unlikely for cotton to remain the textile king. Utilising almost a quarter of the world’s pesticides, cotton accounts only for 2.5% of the cropland worldwide. Moreover, the chemicals necessary for cotton cultivation affect the environment in more than one way. They damage the soil, decrease animal fertility, and deplete freshwater biodiversity. Also, it can’t be neglected that the excessive use of chemicals harms the lives of the field workers and the communities in the nearby areas.
Hemp Plantation is more sensible than Cotton Production
When compared to cotton cultivation, hemp production is more efficient—not only for the environment but for the workers as well. The hemp plant uses no chemical fertilizers and requires half the land to grow the same amount of fabric. The practice of hemp plantation is naturally organic which allows us to cut down on the energy required as well. To put it in simple words, hemp cultivation can produce a better yield with less land. It overall has a smaller ecological footprint than cotton.
Hemp Crop needs less water than Cotton Crop
One kilogram of cotton needs approximately 20,000 litres of water to produce. Cotton is one of the thirstiest crops. It needs high irrigation and thus contributes to the depletion of the Earth’s limited freshwater resources.
On the other hand, we have hemp which, according to studies, utilises less amount of water. A UK study reports that 1 kilogram of dry hemp takes about 300-500 litres of water as opposed to the 20,000 litres required to produce the same amount of cotton.
Hemp does not wear out as quickly as Cotton
Both hemp and cotton fabric soften over time but unlike cotton, the hemp fabric does not wear out. Hemp fibre can be woven into light materials for durable textiles and clothing and even building material such as ropes all because of its strength and longevity. Hemp holds it strength in water and also exhibits anti-bacterial properties.
Will the Hemp Textile industry rise again?
The hemp plant is breathing into a new life. It’s medicinal, industrial, and commercial aspects are turning it into a crop that is now everybody’s favourite. After much scientific research, manufacturers are beginning to employ hemp in creating organically healing products for ailments such as depression, anxiety, cancer, epilepsy, chronic pain, etc. And hemp is also being used in the industrial realm with increased use of hempcrete, hemp plastic, and hemp building material.
Observing this wave, it can be said that the hemp textile industry will be revived in the coming years. The textile demand in the world is rising and because of the limited supplies, cotton is finding it hard to cater to that demand. This is causing more and more manufacturers to move to hemp which is a good thing manifold. With all the economic, environmental, and human advantages of the plant, hemp will soon reclaim its status as the fabric of human life.