Hemp fibers are some of the most environmentally friendly and a great choice for green fashion. They make comfortable, breathable, and beautiful clothes that also protect the planet.
The main drawback of hemp fabric is its high cost. Hemp is much more expensive than cotton because of its low demand, limited availability, costly production, and a bad reputation.
Hemp clothes are ethical and sustainable but also difficult to buy for most conscious consumers. Even if sustainability is gaining popularity in the fashion world, hemp remains a high-priced fiber.
Especially when grown with organic farming methods, cotton is more affordable than hemp. Let's hope than hemp prices will go down eventually as the demand for eco-friendly clothing increases.
Why is cotton so cheap?
Cotton is much cheaper to produce than hemp and is readily available. Cotton and hemp are natural materials made from renewable resources, the cotton and hemp plant respectively.
Cotton has been used to make clothes for more than 7,000 years. It's the most widely produced natural fiber in the world. Cotton global production reaches 30.3 million tons annually, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
The largest producer of cotton worldwide is China with 6.1 million tons produced in 2018, followed by India (4.69 million tons), and the United States (4 million tons).
And fiber production must triple globally by the year 2050 to meet the textile fiber needs of the Earth's growing population, as reported by Cotton Incorporated. Cotton makes a strong choice for natural clothes.
Cotton is mass-produced globally which makes its price go down. Most cotton has been genetically modified to increase its productivity and resist pests.
Cotton farming accounts for 2.5% of the Earth's total agricultural area. However, it consumes 4% of worldwide of nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers, 16% of all insecticides, and 7% of all herbicides, as reported by the Global Fashion Agenda.
Conventional cotton production is disastrous and wasteful. It takes a tremendous toll on soil fertility and biodiversity. Due to the massive usage of toxic pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizers, cotton endangers land wildlife, marine life, and human health.
A better way of producing cotton involves organic farming methods. Organic cotton is grown from non-GMO seeds, without man-made chemicals, and is harvested by hand.
Read up my article on the case for organic cotton to learn more about the reasons to choose organic cotton over regular cotton.
But organic cotton is more expensive because of its very limited availability, higher production costs, and relatively low demand. Organic farming is costly, time-consuming, and laborious. In some cases back by recent research, organic farming even consumes more resources, including land, water, and energy.
The annual global production of organic cotton only reached 107,980 tons in 2016, according to the Textile Exchange Organic cotton market report.
Be sure to purchase organic clothes with verified content. Organic standards from international independent third-party organizations guarantee sustainable and ethical manufacturing with responsible use of resources, the least possible impact on people, animals, and the environment.
Follow my guide on the best certification stands for textiles to learn about what to look for.
What's wrong with hemp?
If you choose to buy and wear hemp clothes, you can build a wardrobe with a low environmental footprint. Hemp is a very ethical and sustainable fiber but is high-priced compared to cotton.
Global hemp production amounts to 60,657 tons annually, according to the FAO. The largest producer of hemp tow worldwide is North Korea with 14,891 tons produced in 2018, followed by the Netherlands, China, and Italy.
Cotton is a much bigger industry compared to industrial hemp production, even if hemp has a much higher yield per acre than cotton. One acre of hemp can produce two to three times more fiber than an acre of cotton.
Hemp is also one of the fastest-growing crops in the world. It reaches maturity in only up to 4 months, with very little water, and almost no pesticides or fertilizers.
Up to 500 liters of water (130 gallons) are needed to produce one kilogram of hemp, of which 30 percent is suitable for fiber production, as reported by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI).
In comparison, one kilogram of cotton requires 20,000 liters of water (5,000 gallons), according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
This makes hemp one of the most environmentally friendly fibers in the world. But hemp remains more expensive to grow, harvest, and produce than conventional cotton.
Only a very small amount of hemp is currently produced in the United States since the plant was banned in the 1930s. Hemp prices stay high mostly because of hemp fibers' very low availability.
Hemp clothes are lightweight, resistant, breathable, anti-bacterial, and absorbent. Unfortunately, they are much harder to dye than cotton clothes, wrinkle easily, and require treatments to stay soft and elastic.
Hemp also has a bad reputation. Hemp fibers aren't made from the same plant as marijuana but they are often mistaken for each other. Hemp and cannabis derive from the same species but contain very distinct biochemical components.
Hemp contains almost no delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana. Many governments only allow hemp with very low THC content. Most hemp varieties grown for fiber and seed have less than 0.3% THC.
Hemp prices stay high because of these numerous issues, like many other environmentally friendly fibers.
Hemp isn't perceived as a luxurious fiber by fashion designers, brands, or the general public. It's difficult to sell hemp clothes at a high-price.
Linen (flax fabric) is gaining more popularity than hemp as a natural and eco-friendly fiber. Linen is also very expensive but is much more luxurious.
About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.