Is Hemp a Sustainable Textile? Half the Footprint, Twice the Durability

hemp a sustainable textile

Today I’m sharing a sponsored guest post written in collaboration with 8000Kicks, an upcoming Portuguese shoe brand that manufactures waterproof, hemp shoes. Edits and citations provided by me.

Why Hemp is a Sustainable Textile

What is Hemp?

Hemp comes from the Cannabis Sativa plant and dates back to 8000 BCE, first cultivated in Taiwan for use in both textiles and food. You’ve probably seen it before – in clothes or inside your history books – because before industrialization and globalization, seemingly anything and everything was made with it: ropes, boat sails, clothing, paper, and even burial cloth. In fact, the oldest surviving hemp fabric, estimated to be around 9,000 years old, was found wrapped around the remains of an infant buried near a house in Turkey.

Until the 60s and 70s hemp was very widely used, but due to concerns about increased use of marijuana (hemp’s sister plant – they’re virtually identical in appearance), the farming of hemp was reduced to nearly nothing for decades. Industrial hemp, however, is not intended to be used as a drug. It is specifically bred and cultivated to produce fibers suitable for textile production, which makes it a poor substitute for marijuana. The taller the plants grow the more fiber can be extracted from its trunk. Additionally, unlike marijuana, there’s comparatively little THC in hemp. That means that you’re not likely to get high from hemp grown for textiles.

How is hemp sustainable?

Hemp, like its sister plant, grows like a weed: fast and everywhere. And this is very important when considering sustainability, because it grows so fast it requires few if any fertilizers or pesticides. While cotton is the world’s most popular fiber, cotton is a water guzzler, requiring 50% more water per season than hemp while still in the field and four times the amount after processing. Cotton is also heavily treated with pesticides.

Hemp is also a high yield plant, and it requires a lot less land for the same amount of output of usable fiber, grown in less than half of the time.

But even more significant, when it comes to carbon, hemp is a self-offsetting crop. According to an article written by James Vosper, an Environmenal Management expert:

Industrial hemp has been scientifically proven to absorb more CO2 per hectare than any forest or commercial crop and is therefore the ideal carbon sink. In addition, the CO2 is permanently bonded within the fiber that is used for anything from textiles, to paper and as a building material.


Hemp Has Some Surprising Strengths

A composite material made from hemp waste is being considered for a variety of applications, from power tools to electric cars.

Hemp fabric is made from the stalk of the plant, which allows the individual fibers to be quite a bit longer than cotton or wool fiber tends to be. This length, along with the fact that the fibers, by virtue of hemp taxonomy, must be strong enough to support the entire plant, means that when hemp fiber is woven into textiles, the result is an incredibly strong fabric. By comparison, silk is also incredibly strong, but it can be prohibitively expensive due to a slow, painstaking cultivation process.

But there’s more: when you combine the strength of hemp with its antimicrobial properties, what you are left with is a textile that is going to age extremely well. It doesn’t break down, tear, or become smelly at the rates of other natural fibers. It also takes dye better than cotton, and doesn’t stretch out.

Hemp a Sustainable Textile

So why isn’t everyone cultivating hemp?

While it seems like a no-brainer, a combination of legal limitations, anti-hemp lobbying, and misinformation means hemp is not as accessible as it should be.

Progress is happening, but there’s still a long way to go. Legal limitations on scaling hemp farming means that it is more expensive than cotton and polyester. It is also not a familiar fiber to producers or consumers, so selling hemp takes more marketing dollars. However, the 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp from the definition of marijuana, opening a pathway to increased cultivation in the States (this bill also legalized CBD products with low amounts of THC).

A lot of innovation is coming, with new sustainable brands driving demand forward, but a key problem is limited supply. Many people are joining the industry, but it will take years, if not decades, to recover the knowledge of our ancient hemp predecessors and sustainably scale.

Sustainability advocates can work together to reduce stigma around this remarkable plant.

StyleWise + 8000Kicks

Hemp a Sustainable Textile

This piece was built together with 8000Kicks, an upcoming Portuguese shoe brand that manufactures the world’s 1st waterproof cannabis sneakers: 💪 Super Strong Hemp fibers; 💦 Splash friendly; 🍁 World’s 1st Hemp Insoles; 🌱 Algae Bloom soles; ✅ 100% vegan; 🏃 Versatile design.

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Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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