Hemp vs. Cotton: Sustainability

“Cotton is the single most important textile fiber in the world, accounting for about 35 percent of all fibers produced,” says the Agricultural Marketing Research Center. For the international market, U.S. cotton production is the third largest in the world, trailing only China and India, highlighting its importance as a commodity used to make everything from shirts to bedsheets. Being an important fabric, however, isn’t the same as being the best fabric, and comparing the sustainability of hemp and cotton demonstrates just how stark this contrast can be. 

Hemp, one of the world’s earliest cultivated crops, is a nutrient-rich variety of the cannabis plant that’s grown for industrial and commercial use. The seeds, stems, leaves, flowers and roots all have different uses, from food and biofuel to skincare and medicine, and people commonly use the strong, lengthy fibers in the outer stalk to make fabric, rope, paper and canvas. Though the fabric was originally more coarse in texture, Chinese scientists in the 1980s discovered a way to remove lignin (a natural polymer) from the fibers without compromising its strength and durability. Today, the texture of quality hemp fabric is similar to cotton but significantly more absorbent, better insulating, less susceptible to shrinkage and highly resistant to pilling. It’s even anti-bacterial and might provide sun protection by helping block UV-A and UV-B rays. The superior durability of the fabric means a hemp shirt can last twice or even three times as long as a shirt made of cotton. 

What fashion brands have used hemp fabrics? Several emerging brands make hemp a central part of their identity, but major brands who’ve used hemp include Nike, Patagonia, Levi’s, Gucci, United by Blue, Vans, Rip Curl, BCBG, North Face, Loro Piana, Helmut Lang, Hari Mari, Ermenegildo Zegna, Eugenia Kim, Deus Ex Machina, Vince, Calvin Klein, J Brand, Ralph Lauren, Elie Tahari, Fisher +Baker, See by Chloe, Armani and Enza Costa. 

In 1998, Ecological Economics published one of the first landmark studies on the environmental sustainability of hemp. The Australia- and U.K.-based researchers found that growing hemp provides a “double dividend” in that it decreases land use and improves environmental quality anywhere it’s grown around the world. “This can be interpreted as a decrease in the ecological footprint of production,” the study concluded. 

In 2015, the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) published a major 39-page report that compared the ecological footprint of cotton, hemp and polyester. Again, hemp came out on top. The study found that producing polyester requires up to 10 times more energy output and emits significantly more carbon dioxide (CO2) than cotton and hemp. As natural fibers, both hemp and cotton cultivation have water requirements, and each kilogram of cotton (kilogram = about 2.2 pounds) requires 9,758 kilograms of water use (kilogram = a liter in water volume), while each kilogram of hemp requires between 2,401 and 3,401 kilograms of water. The report found that cotton requires the most land area for cultivation while describing hemp as a robust “low maintenance crop requiring low inputs, including agro-chemicals… and it has to date not been plagued by pests.”

The SEI’s verdict? Cotton represents “the higher end” in terms of its negative ecological impact, while hemp represents “the lowest” negative impact. “These results highlight that the cotton system… is the least productive,” the report concluded, while “the overall best performer in the Ecological Footprint context is Traditional Organic Hemp.”

Growing hemp also involves fewer adverse chemicals and can improve the soil on which it’s grown. 

The aforementioned Agricultural Marketing Research Center notes, “Industrial hemp may be an excellent rotation crop for traditional crops, because it suppresses weeds and decreases outbreaks of insect and disease problems. Hemp may also rebuild and condition soils by replacing organic matter and providing aeration through its extensive root system.”

Likewise, the Journal of the International Hemp Association highlights several studies that suggest hemp plants are natural pest repellents that “deter insects, nematodes, fungi and weedy plants” and kill and/or repel mites, weeds, fungi, bacteria and protozoans. Hemp essentially acts as its own pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer, and it can pull unhealthy toxins from the soil. By comparison, cotton plants grow on three percent of all crop-based land, but they receive 35 percent of the world’s insecticides and pesticides.

Cotton crops can also devastate the soil. In an article that called hemp the fabric of the future, Hypebeast explained, “Typically, cotton is grown in monoculture, meaning it’s the only crop grown in a single area. Its repeated farming overtime — without the implementation of a rotation crop — degrades the soil, causing the land to eventually become barren. And because most cotton in circulation is genetically modified, studies have shown that the genomic character — changed to thwart pests — produces an enzyme that lingers in the soil well after the plant’s maturation, decreasing the soil biodiversity.”

As previously mentioned, India is the second-largest producer of cotton, and the country’s edition of Vogue highlighted other concerns: “It takes 2,700 litres of water, 0.22 pounds of fertiliser, 0.1 pounds of pesticides and 1.2 pounds of fossil fuels to produce and transport a single cotton T-shirt in India. That’s enough water for one person to drink for two and a half years — and we are a country affected by drought. How long does this T-shirt last in your wardrobe? Now think about the resources required to produce a pair of jeans or a sari.”

In saying hemp could be the textile of the future, Vogue continued, “Today, there is a dire environmental crisis on our hands and the production of hemp fibre is a highly sustainable process. It is a carbon negative crop because it actually absorbs CO2 from the air. It can be produced with half the amount of water and land in comparison to cotton has thrice the tensile strength of cotton. It can also be easily blended with other fibres and doesn’t strip the soil of nutrients. On the contrary, hemp returns 60 to 70 per cent of all nutrients back into the soil.”

Finally, a push to replace cotton crops with hemp could potentially save billions in taxpayer money each year. Warning: This next bit of information might surprise you. 

Cotton is a cash crop in nearly every sense of the word. A 2018 report by the American Enterprise Institute notes that federal subsidies to U.S. cotton producers averaged almost $2.1 billion annually since 1995. This gigantic sum equals about 50 percent of the value of the entire U.S. cotton production. On top of that, the federal crop insurance programs paid out about $365 million annually to cotton producers between 1995 and 2016, putting the total taxpayer-funded subsidies at nearly $2.5 billion per year.

Cotton production costs taxpayers billions each year, and one assumes that a healthy percentage of that money gets funneled back to politicians who keep the subsidies coming. This means incentives exist for companies and politicians to suppress the growth of the hemp industry, even if it’s better for the environment. You can fight back by making a conscious decision to consider hemp-based alternatives whenever buying new clothes and other items that can be made by this more sustainable crop. 

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