Hemp and cotton are two of the oldest fibers known to man. They have both been used for thousands of years to produce clothing and other fabrics, but in the last century hemp has fallen out of favor.
Despite having been used by humans since around 8000 B.C., hemp, along with other cannabis products, was outlawed by the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937. Although hemp is a type of Cannabis sativa plant, the same plant as most other marijuana strains, it has one crucial difference. Industrial hemp contains less than 0.3% THC, meaning that smoking it will not get you high.
The fact that this plant has been lumped together with other, psychoactive varieties of cannabis seems crazy, but the government is finally seeing sense. The Hemp Farming Act of 2018 will allow farmers to grow this crop freely once more without the fear of repercussions.
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 plant Cannabis sativa and produces fibers which are long and incredibly strong. For this reason, it was traditionally used to make ropes as well as 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. In spite of 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. A staggering 20 million tons of cotton are produced 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 and seriously damage habitats and biodiversity. Pesticides also pose a threat to workers who come into contact with these chemicals daily, often working under poor conditions in developing countries with little regard for health and safety precautions.
Cotton can be grown organically, but since organic cotton produces a much lower yield, more land is required to get the same amount. 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.
Hemp, on the other hand, requires far fewer pesticides to grow. It is naturally resistant to many pests, and the way in which it is farmed 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, and this 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, a process which is both costly and environmentally unfriendly.
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. It found that cotton needs around 10,000 liters of water to produce just one kilogram of fiber. Hemp was found to require less than half the amount of water to grow, only 2123 liters per kilogram of usable fiber!
With cotton needing so much water to grow, it should come as no surprise that many areas where cotton is produced have suffered droughts, and 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 the 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, approximately three times the amount of cotton that can be grown in the same space. Hemp is also fast growing and can be grown on the same land for many consecutive years without depleting the soil or reducing the yield of the crop.
Hemp vs. Cotton: Comfort
In terms of environmental impact, hemp definitely has the advantage over cotton, but what about when it comes to actually wearing the clothes that are made from it?
Cotton is known for being 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 is also around four times more absorbent than cotton, meaning that it effectively draws moisture away 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. Because cotton is soft, it gradually breaks down over time. We have all experienced the disappointment when a favorite t-shirt comes out of the wash stretched beyond recognition, or when a trusty pair of jeans finally gives way in a very unfortunate place.
You will not experience these problems with hemp. Although it takes longer to ‘break in’ than cotton, it has a higher tensile strength and therefore should last much longer. Hemp will not stretch in the same way that cotton does, making it ideal for manufacturing upholstery as well as clothing.
Hemp is also naturally antibacterial. This useful property means that it can be stored for long periods of time without the risk of developing mold or mildew.
Another advantage of hemp is that because it is so absorbent, 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. This makes it an ideal crop for producing plant-based milk and other products which are especially helpful for those following a vegan diet.
Although industrial hemp only contains traces of THC, it does contain other useful cannabinoids such as CBD. This can be extracted and used to make CBD oil and other products with a range of medicinal benefits. CBD has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and can be used to treat a variety of 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 in comparison to cotton. Although it may take a few wears for hemp to become as comfortable as cotton, clothing made from these fibers is a great 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!