Into The Fiber: How Sustainable Is Hemp?

Into The Fiber: How Sustainable Is Hemp?

Key Takeaways:

  • As a crop, hemp is a sustainable wonder. As a fabric, hemp is often processed with chemicals.
  • Currently, Hemp is not a viable fiber for the mass market due to its rough features 
  • Beware of brands using a small percentage of hemp to boost sustainability claims.
  • With innovation, hemp can become a viable replacement for most popular unsustainable fibers.

When it comes to sustainability, cannabis could be the fiber of fashion’s future. Just not the cannabis you’re used to smoking. Hemp is a strain of marijuana containing significantly less TCH, making its psychoactive qualities nonexistent.  It has been used for thousands of years to make paper, rope, clothing, and fuel. However, due to anti-drug sentiment in the 20th century, hemp was classified as illegal and grew out of favor globally. As of December 2018, hemp is legal to grow in the United States and most textile-producing nations. Now considered one of the world most sustainable fibers, hemp clothing is no longer for hippies and is slowly making its way into the closet around the world 

Why is Hemp Sustainable Crop? 

Hemp
Hemp Feild

Cannabis is not only nicknamed “weed” but was once generally considered a weed. Weeds are unwanted plants that grow prolifically with limited resources. However, if a weed can be cultivated for consumption, they are low impact crops due to their ability to thrive in natural environments.  Hemp’s low impact attributes include: 

In fact, some argue that hemp grown and cultivated on a massive scale is a solution for global warming. The science is indisputable; hemp is good for the world. Fortunately, the global industrial hemp market size is expected to reach USD 15.26 billion by 2027, growing at an annual rate of 15.8%. 

How is Hemp Turned into Fabric?

Mostly overshadowed by its sustainability as a cash crop, the hemp to fabric process is not as sustainable as you’re led to believe.  The steps involved are

  1. Separating the fibers
  2. Spinning and weaving these fibers into yarn
  3. Cleaning and softening
  4. Dyeing and finishing

Although all steps can be processed using organic processes, most mass-produced hemp is chemically processed due to scale. There are a few natural methods, but all take days or weeks to complete. Meanwhile, chemical methods speed up the process to a few hours and result in a more standardized finished product.

Despite hemp being a sustainable crop, the process of converting hemp to fabric can have a significant impact on the environment at scale. As hemp increases in popularity, producers should prioritize sustainable processing techniques to ensure hemps sustainability as both a crop and fabric.

Other Uses For Hemp

The coolest thing about hemp is that the entire plant can be used across many different industries. Nothing goes to waste after harvesting. We all know about CBD, but below are some of its other uses.

Source: CBD Origin.

Fifty thousand uses may be a bit of an exaggeration, but the possibilities of hemp is what makes it unique.  From a sustainability point of view, it’s nice to know that the land used in hemp production can be 100% yielded. In contrast, most global cotton production is only harvested for the fiber, which makes up a small percentage of the cotton crop’s mass. On a per-acre basis, hemp yields 250% more fiber than cotton and 600% more fiber than flax without the need for toxic chemical pesticides and fertilizers. 

And all these potential end uses are a good thing for hemp textile innovation.  Although some believe hemp can replace cotton in the near future, the technology is not advance enough to mass-produce hemp into a viable consumer product. Currently, most hemp on the market is mixed with other fibers like cotton as 100% hemp is stiff, wrinkles, and corse.  Hopefully, the demand for hemp in other markets will enable innovation in textiles.

Recently, Levi’s unveiled “cottonized hemp,” which is described as  “a less stiff, more cotton-like alternative to regular hemp” Currently use in their wellthread collection, “cottonized hemp” still needs to be mixed with cotton. Made in China and shockingly mixed with non-organic cotton, Levi’s innovation may be rooted in greenwashing. 

Source: Levis. LEVI’S® WELLTHREAD™ X OUTERKNOWN 70%cotton/30%hemp jacket

Is Hemp Sustainable? 

 

YES. 

As a crop, hemp is a sustainable wonder. As a fabric, its sustainability is not as clear cut. However, it’s processed more sustainably than the majority of natural textile alternatives, making it a more sustainable option.

Hemp’s issue is it’s not a viable textile option for the majority of brands. Hemp needs to become softer without the use of toxic chemicals for it to be adopted in the mainstream, among a few other problems. The future of hemp in fashion hinges on the industry’s ability to innovate. 

Jon K.

Jon Kirsner, MBA, MSBA, is a supply chain professional with a decade of experience in sustainable manufacturing. His industry experience has exposed him to the truth of the sustainable fashion and consumer goods industries. He does not write as a journalist but as an industry expert and passionate advocate.

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