If you’re one to keep up with the latest trends in sustainable fashion, you’ve probably heard about hemp fabric before.
From textiles to paper, shoes, bioplastics, and beyond, the use of industrial hemp has really taken off in recent years. So much so that it’s quickly becoming one of the most beloved resources with eco-conscious consumers.
But how sustainable is hemp in all of its commercial uses? And what are the key features making the crop so popular among eco-friendly manufacturers and shoppers?
Here’s all you need to know about the environmental benefits of hemp fabric, as well as its most common uses and possible drawbacks.
How is hemp fabric made?
First things first, let’s take a brief look at how hemp fabric is made today.
As you might already know, hemp fibres are derived from the controversial Cannabis sativa plant. A quick growing plant known for reaching maturity in as little as 80 days.
Once harvested, the hemp fibres are separated through a process called retting, which works by breaking down the pectins that bind the fibres to the plant’s stem. The process can be carried out chemically through the addition of enzymes or organically, using methods like field retting.
When all the fibres are separated from stalks and stems, they are spun together to produce yarn, not unlike what you’d see in the wool-making process. You can take a read about the sustainability of wool here.
The yarns are woven together in different patterns to create different types of fabric, or even blended with other materials like silk and wool.
Raw hemp fabric is known for being quite tough and even abrasive on the skin. So, if the fabric is to be used in the clothing industry, it will usually be softened through either chemical processing or organic methods. Organic processing uses biodegradable softening solutions as opposed to synthetic ones.
The finishing process might also involve dyeing the fabric, depending on what it will be used for.
How sustainable is hemp fabric?
So, is hemp sustainable? Or at least more sustainable as a fabric than conventional cotton, wool or other organic textiles?
Get ready for a bit of good news – industrial hemp is a low-impact and highly sustainable crop.
Hemp boasts high marks across the board when it comes to water use, land use, greenhouse gas emissions and chemical pollution.
It requires very little water to grow, especially when we take into consideration its thirsty competitor, cotton. While the exact amounts will change depending on where the crops are grown, hemp requires roughly half of the water cotton needs to thrive, and if using drip irrigation, the number can get even lower!
Hemp crops also require a lot less land to cultivate, as they can produce double the yield per hectare than cotton.
On top of that, hemp doesn’t necessarily need pesticides and herbicides to grow, as it is an invasive weed in itself. Inherently resistant to most pests, hemp can be grown organically without much effort and added costs for farmers. You can read a bit more about the Soil Organic Association here.
All in all, this makes hemp a fantastic low-impact crop.
Is hemp good for the environment?
In many ways, growing hemp can even be considered a carbon-negative effort.
Unlike most crops, hemp deposits many nutrients back into the soil, sequestering carbon from the atmosphere at the same time. This means that cultivating hemp can prevent soil degradation, reduce carbon emissions and even restore overworked land to its former glory. This is a cornerstone of regenerative farming.
Industrial hemp can be used to replace much more than just cotton too. This versatile plant can be used to create fuel, food products, bioplastics, paper, and even building supplies.
But while hemp as a crop is largely unproblematic, the production process that gives us hemp fabric is not necessarily without its faults.
Polluting chemicals might be used during the retting process. And once the fibres are woven, companies might also dye their fabrics with synthetic dyes, which can further impact the environment.
So, does this mean that hemp is sustainable or not?
It will largely depend on the manufacturer, since both the retting and dyeing stage of production can rely solely on organic processes.
The best course of action will be to research where and how the hemp fabric has been made. This will allow you to avoid falling prey to misleading greenwashing. Look out for companies with B-Corp certifications or any other third-party certification assessing the impact of production.
Is hemp biodegradable?
Hemp is also a sustainable fibre when it comes to curbing landfill pollution.
As long as no synthetic fibres and softening chemicals have been added to the raw material, hemp fabric can be considered fully biodegradable.
Look out for organic hemp fibre, and you’ll even be able to compost it!
Hemp-based bioplastics are also biodegradable, taking as little as 3 months to decompose in the right environment.
Can hemp fabric be recycled?
Hemp bioplastic can easily be recycled once the product reaches the end of its life. It can actually continue to be recycled indefinitely.
Compared to recycling petroleum-based plastics that end up leaking harmful substances like BPA into the environment when recycled, recycling hemp bioplastic is non-toxic and has virtually no impact on the environment – except for a positive one!
Organic hemp fabric is also fully recyclable. But as is the case with composting fabric, you’ll have to make sure it has not been dyed with synthetic dyes, treated with chemicals, or blended with other materials.
So, is hemp sustainable?
Hemp is a renewable, biodegradable and recyclable resource requiring little land and water to produce.
The resilient plant needs as little as just a third of the water needed for conventional cotton to yield over 200% more fibre. This is all without the use of soil-polluting herbicides and pesticides.
On top of that, hemp is a carbon-sequestering plant that benefits our all-important soil and prevents degradation. This makes hemp one of the lowest-impact crops around.
When looking at all these figures and key features, it’s pretty clear that hemp is a sustainable fibre, at least in its raw form.
All the major issues associated with industrial hemp come from production, as different manufacturers follow different standards when it comes to low-impact retting, dyeing and finishing.
But as long as you make sure to research your products extensively and opt for only purchasing organic hemp fabrics and textiles, you won’t be contributing to the more unsustainable side of hemp production. Just make sure to stay clear of greenwashing!
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Ben is the Creator and Editor of Tiny Eco Home Life. I write and publish information about more sustainable, environmentally friendly living in and around the home.
Alongside this website, I love spending time in the natural world, living a simple life and spending time with my young family (Murphy the dog!) I round up my thoughts and recent blogs on the Eco Life Newsletter.