Maybe you enjoy some hemp seeds or hemp protein in your breakfast or lockdown brunch at home from time to time. However, the plant is not just a superfood – it has many other super powers. And no we have to disappoint you, hemp and marijuana are not the same thing, even if they look alike. However, Mary Jane’s quiet twin Hempton should not be underestimated. It’s a plant capable of incredible things. Today we want to find out with you how great hemp actually is and ask the question: how sustainable is hemp really?
What exactly is hemp?
Hemp is basically cannabis sativa – the plant also known for the green goods. Even though it is the same plant as the marijuana plant the hemp plant has a thc level of a 0.3% threshold and is therefore not gonna get you high. The plant was first cultivated in East Asia and later found its way to Europe and after that – you guessed it – America. Currently it is estimated that 25% of the global hemp production is based in Europe with 40% of it coming from France. However, China is the global leader in hemp production.
Overall, hemp is a superplant that can be used not only for food and for fibre but also for paper, biodegradable plastics and other industrial textiles like fibreglass.
How is hemp fibre sourced and produced?
For hemp fabric the inside of the stalk is used. Once the plant reaches the early to mid-stages of flowering it is harvested. Then the fibres are separated by a process called retting – a process that is also used when making linen. Retting means that the pectin that holds together the hemp fibre to the stem gets broken down. Following that the stalks are cut and baled. After that the fibre is spun into long yarn. While the world’s leading hemp producer China unfortunately uses chemical methods to produce hemp fibre the European and other Western producers use natural methods by utilizing enzymes.
The pros and cons of hemp
Hemp has many different benefits. Not only do hemp fibres filter UV light, the fibre is also resistant to mold and bacteria. Similar to linen hemp is strong, breathable, water absorbent and keeps you cool during hot weather and warm during the winter. On top of that, hemp is quite versatile as it can be blended with other fibres for different qualities. For example, hemp often is mixed with either silk or cotton to make it softer and even more comfortable. However, this might not always be the best way to go from an environmental standpoint as non-blended fabrics are far more sustainable. It should also be noted that often hemp is dyed chemically which can be harmful to the environment and the workers. So, it is important to check for how a hemp product was processed and finished before making any judgement on how sustainable the garment is.
The hemp plant can grow up to 6 to 12 feet tall and only takes 3 to 4 months to grow. This makes it an especially renewable resource. All this while producing 5 to 10 tonnes of cellulose fibre pulp per acre during that time. It gets even better: An industrial hemp plant absorbs more carbon dioxide than other trees usually do. The fibre is also less expensive to cultivate and produce as it requires less pesticides and fertilizers than many other fibres and is therefore one of the most sustainable crops. The best thing about the plant? All of it can be used, from the seeds to the stalks.
To top it all off, hemp requires very little water – half as much as cotton. Moreover, hemp is not only lightweight but one of the strongest fibres out there with three times the tensile strength than cotton. This makes us wonder: Is hemp better than cotton? Let’s find out more!
Hemp vs. cotton
Even though cotton is cheaper to produce hemp has many benefits over the leading natural fibre. This gets especially apparent once you realize that hemp needs less resources like water. But then again, cotton is the number one natural fibre. Cotton is often the preferred fabric because hemp usually does not compare to the softness or whiteness of it. The cheaper production of cotton plays a role in that too. But there is a light in the tunnel: new enzyme methods produce lighter and softer hemp fibres which makes it a great alternative after all!
However, cotton still has a market share of around 25% worldwide. While cotton had an estimated global production volume of 6.4 million metric tonnes in 2019 hemp only had a global production volume of around 60,657 metric tonnes in the same year according to the Food and Agriculture Organization and Textile Exchange. Why is that? It could lead back to hemp’s history in the United States and Europe.
The history of hemp
Even back in the day people in the US found hemp to have better quality than cotton but cotton was easier and cheaper to produce. Hemp was simply more labour intensive. Later on in 1938 a machine was invented in the US that made harvesting hemp easier, but the industry rivals felt threatened and lobbied against it. Therefore, some complicated laws were created so that hemp was almost impossible to cultivate. However, in 2014 President Obama finally signed a farm bill allowing the law to recognize a difference between hemp and marijuana which was later on continued by President Trump. Since then more and more hemp is being produced in the US.
Europe has faced similar issues as the limit for thc has been 0.2% since 1999 while in other countries like Australia the threshold is at 1%. On top of that, many European countries like the UK or the Netherlands for example don’t allow certain parts of the plant like the flowers to be used. Experts are now advocating for the allowed thc level to be 0.3% again like it was before 1999.
How to care for your hemp clothes
As hemp is a natural fibre there is not much you have to do to care for your hemp garments. The usual tips and tricks apply.
Wash your hemp garments with cold water. A 30 to 40° normal machine wash should be completely fine as hemp is quite durable and does not require to be hand washed. Of course only wash similar colours with each other.
You can put your hemp garments into the dryer but hanging your clothes to dry is always the preferred more eco-friendly option.
As hemp is a quite tough fibre that softens over time you can add dryer balls or tennis balls into a cool dryer session to help out a little.
So, how sustainable is hemp really?
It is pretty clear that hemp is one of the most sustainable fibres out there as it does not require many resources and can be cultivated in many different countries, even locally here in Europe. Hemp can be used for many different things and areas making it an amazing multidimensional tool. However, it is unclear – since hemp becomes more and more popular and the demand for cbd oil and hemp seeds have been rising and the fibre is making a come back as well – if the resource will become similar to cotton: A natural resource that will be over-cultivated, needing pesticides and fertilizers so farmers can compete despite the fact that hemp usually does not require any of these things.
All in all, hemp really convinced us as a readily renewable and more eco-friendly alternative to other natural fibres. We can only hope that the local European hemp market will grow – under sustainable regulations of course.