Even natural fibres can cause problems. The most common natural fibre, cotton, despite only using 2.4% of cultivated land, requires 6% of all pesticide use, and 16% of insecticide use — more than any other crop. These chemicals deplete the quality of the soil, making it more difficult to grow other crops. They can also be extremely harmful to the health of farmworkers, causing problems such as cancer and miscarriages. We all know that fresh water is one of the planet’s most precious resources, and is becoming increasingly scarce. Cotton is a very thirsty crop, which demands an unsustainable 93 billion cubic metres of water per year. So what are the alternatives?
Growing and producing organic cotton
Organic cotton production does not allow the use of harmful pesticides. It also encourages the use of low-impact farming methods. These improve soil quality and reduce the environmental impact of cotton. It’s clearly more sustainable than conventionally farmed cotton.
Yet, organic methods of growing cotton may demand more water, and produce less cotton. On average, organic cotton farmers produce 27% less cotton than their conventional counterparts. This goes against key sustainability objectives about the efficient use of water and land. It also means that organic cotton is often more expensive than non-organic cotton, putting it out of the reach of many consumers.
Growing hemp, our sustainable fabric of choice
So how does hemp compare to cotton? Well, first, hemp is a naturally hardy plant, so it resists pests well. Hemp also easily out-competes most weeds. Hemp thus requires far fewer pesticides and herbicides to produce. In fact, it is acknowledged that hemp can be grown without the use of any pesticides at all. Rather than depleting soil quality, hemp crops can improve the level of nutrients in the soil. Hemp can also prevent, and in some cases restore, soil erosion. To produce 1kg of hemp, between 300 and 800 litres of water are needed. For comparison, 1kg of cotton takes a whopping 20,000 litres of water to produce!
Hemp grows faster than cotton. It takes between 150 and 180 days to grow a crop of cotton, so most farms will only produce one or two crops per year. In contrast, it takes between 70 and 110 days, to grow a crop of hemp meaning that land can be made more productive. A crop of hemp can also produce two to three times more fibre than a crop of cotton grown on an equal-sized plot of land.
Carbon dioxide emissions and sustainable fabrics
It is difficult to establish which crop produces less carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide emissions can occur at many stages along the crop growth and textile production process. Emissions are dependent on various factors, including location, farming techniques and processing techniques.
A report by GoodEarth found that ‘one hectare of industrial hemp can absorb 22 tonnes of CO2 per hectare,’ making it ‘one of the fastest CO2-to-biomass conversion tools available, more efficient than agroforestry’. However, the process of turning a crop of hemp into fabric is inefficient. The Stockholm Environment Institute found that the technology used to produce hemp textiles has remained largely the same for the past 50 years. As a result, these processes frequently emit more carbon than technologically advanced cotton-processing procedures.
The Stockholm Environment Institute report also compared twelve different possible types of hemp, cotton, and polyester production. It found that, when all factors are considered, the overall ecological footprint of hemp was smaller than that of cotton — even organic cotton.
The above graph shows the ecological footprint of different fabrics and production methods. All methods and locations of hemp production outperform all types and methods of cotton production. Source: Stockholm Environment Institute (2005) ‘Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester’
Of course, fabric production is only one facet of the textile industry’s environmental impact. In the UK alone, about 1.2 million tonnes of clothing are thrown out each year, and about 300,000 tonnes of this ends up in landfill. Many of these are perfectly wearable clothes, thrown out due to our fast-fashion culture. The rest are clothes that have worn out. This is why, when discussing sustainability, we also need to think about the durability of sustainable fabrics.
Cotton fabrics shrink and wear out relativelyeasily. To fix this problem, many producers weave cotton together with synthetic fibres. These cotton-synthetic mixes are not biodegradable, making them bad for the planet. In contrast, hemp is famed for being durable, meaning that hemp products will, on average, last longer than their cotton equivalents. Less fabric waste is produced, which is good for the planet, and items have to be replaced less often, which is good for your wallet. When your hemp product finally wears out, it’s biodegradable, and can even be composted!
The future of sustainable fabrics
It’s important to take a balanced approach to sustainability. Organically produced cotton and hemp are both sustainable fabrics. However, hemp has clear advantages over cotton.
Unfortunately, in recent years, the association between hemp and cannabis meant that hemp had an unfair bad reputation. For example, it was illegal to grow hemp in the USA until 2014. Bans on the production of hemp mean that the technology needed for sustainable mass production is often unavailable.
This said, the tides are changing. At Bagmaya, we believe that hemp’s sustainable credentials make it the ideal fabric from which to manufacture our fabulous bags. We use hemp as a change-maker for the people, and for the planet.
What do you think about hemp? Are you already using products made with hemp fabrics? Let us know what you think in the comments below!