Hemp and cotton are two of the oldest fibers known to man. People have been using them for thousands of years to produce clothing and other fabrics.
However, in the last century, hemp cultivation in the United States ceased for several decades. The federal government implemented laws that effectively banned the cultivation of cannabis species in the United States. The first piece of legislation was the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. It imposed taxes that were so punitive on the sale of marijuana that no cultivator could afford them. The second was the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970. Under the CSA, marijuana became a Schedule 1 drug. It brought an end to hemp farming in the U.S. for almost 50 years.
While hemp is a type of Cannabis sativa plant, it has one crucial difference. Industrial hemp contains less than 0.3% THC, meaning, unlike most marijuana strains, it does not produce intoxicating effects.
After several decades, the government re-evaluated its stance towards hemp. The Hemp Farming Act of 2018 made a legal distinction between industrial hemp and marijuana. As a result, hemp cultivation is once again legal in almost all states.
It seems likely that this will mean a resurgence in hemp’s popularity for making clothing, among many other things. But is there any advantage to using hemp rather than cotton, the mainstay of the modern clothing industry? Read on to find out.
Hemp vs. Cotton: The Basics
Humans have used hemp since the dawn of civilization. It is made from the stems of the Cannabis sativa plant and produces long and robust fibers. For this reason, people traditionally used it to make ropes and other items such as clothing and fishing nets. Hemp fibers can also be used to manufacture paper, and its seeds are a valuable food source.
Despite its long history, marijuana prohibition has meant hemp is now used far less than in previous years. In fact, hemp fiber only accounts for around 0.15% of the world’s textiles today.
The first use of cotton can be traced back to around 3000 B.C. It is made from the seed heads of plants in the Gossypium family. When these seed heads split, they produce white, fluffy fibers, which can then be spun into cotton. Cotton is extremely popular and accounts for around 30–40% of the world’s fiber requirements. Manufacturers produce a staggering 20 million tons of cotton worldwide every year.
Hemp vs. Cotton: Environmental Impact
When it comes to the environment, there are some pretty significant differences between hemp and cotton production. Cotton farming is estimated to be responsible for as much as 25% of the planet’s pesticide use. This is a massive problem as runoff from fields can cause water pollution that can seriously damage habitats and biodiversity.
Pesticides also pose a threat to workers who come into contact with these chemicals daily. Laborers often work under poor conditions in developing countries with little regard for health and safety precautions.
Cotton can be grown organically, but it requires more land to achieve the same amount as it produces a much lower yield. Organic cotton is also associated with higher costs at every stage of processing. These costs will inevitably be passed on to consumers, meaning that organic cotton can be prohibitively expensive to buy.
On the contrary, hemp requires far fewer pesticides to grow as it is naturally resistant to many pests. The way in which it is farmed also reduces the growth of unwanted weeds around it. Because of this, hemp can be considered a far more environmentally friendly alternative to cotton. However, the benefits of hemp for our planet do not end there.
Hemp vs. Cotton: Water Requirements
All plants need water to grow, which means that much of the Earth’s water is reserved for farming. In countries where there is not much natural rainfall, crops need to be watered by irrigation. This process is both costly and detrimental to the environment.
Water requirement is another area where hemp beats cotton hands-down. While cotton is a thirsty crop, hemp requires far less water to grow. In 2005, the Stockholm Environment Institute conducted a study entitled Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp, and Polyester. The researchers found that cotton needs around 10,000 liters of water to produce just one kilogram of fiber, while hemp requires less than half the amount of water to grow, at only 2123 liters per kilogram of usable fiber!
As cotton needs significantly more water to grow, many cotton-producing areas have suffered droughts. Some have even experienced desertification as a direct result of cotton farming.
Hemp vs. Cotton: Land Requirements
As well as sunlight and water, crops also need space to grow. This is yet another area where hemp has a distinct advantage over cotton.
Hemp plants are tall and thin, growing to a height of 5–15 feet. Their slender shape means that these plants need far less land to produce much higher yields than cotton. One acre of hemp generally produces around 1500 pounds of fiber. This figure represents approximately three times the amount of cotton that can be grown in the same space. Hemp is also fast-growing. Hemp farmers can grow it on the same land for several consecutive years without depleting the soil or reducing yield.
Hemp vs. Cotton: Comfort
In terms of environmental impact, hemp has the advantage over cotton. But what about when it comes to wearing clothes made from hemp?
Cotton is both soft and breathable. As well as feeling fabulous against your skin, it reduces sweating and the risk of unpleasant body odor!
Hemp is also a natural fiber and has similar properties. Although it may not be as soft as cotton from the outset, it does soften over time and becomes more comfortable the more you wear and wash it.
Like cotton, hemp is a highly breathable fabric. It’s around four times more absorbent than cotton, which means it effectively draws moisture from your skin to prevent clamminess. Hemp is also insulating, meaning that it can keep you warmer on chilly winter nights.
Hemp vs. Cotton: Durability
Durability is another area where hemp really shines. As cotton is soft, it gradually breaks down over time.
We have all experienced disappointment when a favorite t-shirt comes out of the wash stretched beyond recognition. You will not experience these problems with hemp. Although it takes longer to ‘break in’ than cotton, it has a higher tensile strength, so it should last much longer. Hemp will not stretch in the same way that cotton does, making it ideal for manufacturing upholstery and clothing.
Hemp is also naturally antibacterial. This means that you can store it for long periods without the risk of developing mold or mildew.
Another advantage of hemp is that it is so absorbent that it is easy to dye and holds its color for longer than other fabrics. Yet another great reason that we should be making our clothes out of hemp rather than cotton!
Hemp vs. Cotton: Versatility
As well as being used to make fabric, hemp has many other uses too. Its seeds are highly nutritious, packed with protein and omega-3 fatty acids. It is an ideal crop for producing plant-based milk and other products; great for those following a vegan diet.
Although industrial hemp only contains traces of THC, it does contain other beneficial cannabinoids such as CBD. When extracted, manufacturers can use cannabidiol to make CBD oil and other products with a range of potential medicinal benefits. CBD has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Consequently, many use CBD to address various conditions, including chronic pain, anxiety, addiction, sleep disorders, epilepsy, and more.
Hemp can also be used as animal fodder to make paper, toiletries, and fuel. Believe it or not, one inventive Canadian has even created a fully functioning plane made entirely from hemp!
Hemp vs. Cotton: Final Thoughts
Over the last century, hemp has taken a back seat thanks to the illegal status of cannabis in most places. However, this is now changing, and the Hemp Farming Act of 2018 represents a massive step forward for the hemp industry.
This is excellent news as hemp is more environmentally friendly, durable, and versatile than cotton. Although it takes time for hemp to become as comfortable as cotton, clothing made from these fibers is an excellent investment. When you buy clothing made from hemp, not only will you be purchasing items that last for years, but you will also be making a lasting difference to our planet.
So next time you are thinking about hitting the shops, think hemp. You will not regret your decision!