The fashion industry is responsible for large amounts of waste and environmental damage. 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. That’s enough water for one person to drink for two and a half years.
Using hemp in textiles is an easy way to reduce this damage. Hemp is a carbon negative crop because it absorbs CO2 from the air. It consumes half the amount of water compared to cotton and has thrice the tensile strength. Hemp returns 60-70 percent of all nutrients back to the soil.
It can easily be blended with other fibres. In 1980’s, researchers found a method to remove lignin (the substance that makes fibers tough and hard to process) from hemp fibres without compromising its strength. Today, hemp is similar to linen and can be used to replace cotton.
The fibre has important properties: conducts heat, dyes well, resists mildew, blocks UV light and has anti-bacterial properties. Hemp clothing is highly durable and does not lose its shape easily.
- The cotton plant needs about 50 percent more water per season than hemp, which can grow with little irrigation. Cotton also tends to be grown in parts of the world where water is scarce. More than one-half of the world’s cotton fields rely on irrigation, because it grows in some relatively dry regions, like Egypt, China’s Xinjiang province, California, and Texas.
- When you add processing into the equation, cotton uses more than four times as much water as hemp. Polyester is difficult to compare, because it’s not an agricultural product. But some studies suggest it’s the least water-intensive of the bunch, using just one-thousandth as much water as cotton. (In fact, water is a byproduct of polyester processing.)
- There’s an argument to make for polyester, but the non-renewability of synthetic textiles raises serious concerns. Overall, hemp appears to be slightly easier on the environment than cotton, considering it’s superior on water and land requirements, and only slightly worse for energy use.