Hemp vs Cotton: Which Fabric is More Sustainable?

Images of a hemp field and a cotton field

By making hemp federally legal, we’ve opened up a new world of opportunity for crafting sustainable alternatives to some of our most-used materials, like concrete, wood, fuel, and textiles.

Hemp has been used to craft clothing for centuries. But with the U.S. prohibition on cannabis, which began in 1937, hemp was no longer a popular source for textiles.

Fast forward to today, when industrial hemp is a federally legal crop grown across the nation. Farmers are growing hemp for all kinds of reasons, including to produce CBD products. And, many textile and apparel companies, including Levi’s, are jumping on the hemp bandwagon as well.

Cotton has been marketed as “the fabric of our lives.” In fact, hemp outranks cotton in several areas, including sustainability, crop yield, and water conservation.

The Dangers of Fast Fashion

Rack of clothes for sale

Did you know that the fashion industry is the second largest polluter on Earth? From water use and pollution, to the chemicals used, and the large amount of clothing that ends up in landfills each year, the current era of fast fashion is producing clothing unsustainably.

The many problems with fast fashion have many solutions. One way to be more thoughtful when it comes to your clothes is by looking at what they’re made of. Naturally sourced fibers are the preferred base material for clothing over synthetics like polyester, for a variety of reasons. But, not all natural fibers are created equal.

Hemp vs. Cotton: A Comparison

Pesticides & Chemicals

Globally, more pesticides are used on conventional cotton fields than on any other crop. In the U.S. alone, 50% of the total pesticides used in agriculture are used on cotton. And, several other chemicals are used to process cotton fibers into useable and wearable textiles. All these chemicals can end up in our lakes and rivers, the soil, and the bodies of those who are responsible for growing and harvesting the cotton.

Hemp has several features which help it to resist pests naturally, without the need for harsh chemicals. Hemp is affected by fewer pests than many other crops, like cotton. The plants can also be planted closer together than cotton, which limits the space for weeds to grow and pests to congregate.

Hemp also receives protection from the cannabinoids present in the plants. Cannabinoids are organic compounds present in plants like cannabis that interact with a system in our bodies called the Endocannabinoid System (ECS). CBD and THC are the most well-known cannabinoids, but there are many others, each with unique benefits. Some of these compounds have antibacterial and antifungal properties. Research shows that these properties can protect hemp plants from the growth of harmful bacterial diseases.

Fertilizers

Now, you may be thinking: conventional cotton may use a lot of chemicals, but organic cottons don’t use any—so, is hemp still superior to organic cotton?

The answer is yes, for many reasons. One of those is fertilizer use. The overuse of fertilizers in the agriculture industry has posed several problems. When fertilizers end up in waterways, they can cause dead zones, killing the natural plant and animal species as the water is depleted of oxygen. Producing synthetic fertilizers also generates greenhouse gases.

As cotton grows, it takes a large amount of nitrogen and potassium from the soil. Ensuring each crop grows healthy at maximum yield requires farmers to apply a lot of fertilizer, which can run off the land and into waterways.

On the other hand, hemp restores nutrients to the soil. It can also be used to clean up contaminated areas of soil.

Water Use

Agriculture uses a lot of water, but some crops are bigger offenders than others—like cotton. Several sources report that producing a single cotton t-shirt, from planting, growth, processing and dyeing the fibers, requires about 700 gallons of water.

Cotton is often irrigated when rainfall can’t provide enough water to sustain the crop. Irrigation is not the most efficient use of water, as much is lost to evaporation and overflow.

Hemp generally uses about half the water needed to produce an equivalent amount of cotton, and usually doesn’t required irrigation.

Yield

Large piece of equipment harvesting cotton

As we mentioned, hemp can be planted more densely together than other crops, meaning a higher yield per acre. Some estimates place hemp at nearly 3x the production capacity as cotton for the same amount of acreage. And, a crop of hemp can be harvested in as little as 60 days, compared to 160 days for a cotton harvest. This means more product can be produced in the same amount of land in a shorter amount of time.

Processing

To be fair, there is one area where cotton beats out hemp—processing. Hemp does require a bit more energy than cotton to process the plants and convert them to clothing. Currently, much of that energy for processing both plants comes from fossil fuels.

Benefits of Hemp Fabric

hemp thread on a spool with scissors

Even if we know hemp can be grown more sustainably than cotton, as consumers we have other concerns as well. Think about what you consider when shopping for clothes. Is it comfort? Durability? Style?

When you hear “hemp fabric” you may perceive something that is rough, heavy, scratchy, brown—not very appealing, right?

However, the reality is: hemp can be made into soft fabric, and it gets softer over time with each wash. Clothing made from hemp is also more durable than cotton apparel, provides combined breathability and insulation, and is water absorbent. And, hemp’s antibacterial and antimicrobial properties help keep your clothes cleaner and less smelly!

3 men on runway wearing hemp-based clothing
Hemp is making its way into everyday styles and onto the runway.

Hemp isn’t limited to the basics, either. It’s being embraced by many players in the fashion industry, and used to make all kinds of apparel, from comfy pants to classy dresses.

hemp t-shirts on hangers
A classic tee with a hemp touch!

Hemp clothing is gaining popularity, helped along by the Farm Bill. The USDA has reported a dramatic increase in hemp planted in the U.S. over the past year. In 2018, 78,176 acres of U.S. soil were growing hemp. Today, that number is over 125,000 and growing daily.

A sustainable, durable, and versatile fabric that can be produced sustainably in the U.S.? Sounds like a win to me!

I invite you to look into and consider a piece of hemp clothing for yourself. It’s good for you and your planet.

Cotton Harvest image by Kimberly Vardeman on Flickr used under CC 2.0. Photo was cropped.

ukhempharvest image by K-State Research and Extension on Flikr used under CC 2.0.

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