When compared to other natural fibers in terms of water and chemicals inputs as well as durability, hemp’s sustainability credentials are unmatched – but can it prove it?
What is hemp and where does it come from?
Known for its tensile strength, versatility and rapid growth, the hemp plant (not to be confused with marijuana, see inset), is primarily grown in Asia and the Middle East. Fibers from hemp’s stalks can be harvested and processed to either become soft and lightweight or tough and durable, and finds many useful applications such as in apparel and footwear and more. In many regions, hemp growing goes back for generations, like in Narlisaray in the Black Sea region of Turkey where farmers rely on manual labor, from planting to harvesting the hemp plants.
What are the sustainability benefits of hemp?
Often considered a weed, hemp grows easily in many regions and can become up to eight meters tall. It is naturally resistant to pests, fungi and diseases, which means that it requires minimal – if any – herbicides or pesticides to fend off the various enemies that many other natural fibers face. It also consumes minimal water (one third that of cotton) and essentially requires no fertilizers to grow. Like other natural fibers, hemp additionally acts as a form of carbon sequestration, but combined with its durability and potential for a long lifespan this can result in a significantly lower total climate impact.
Sounds great! Why isn’t everything made of hemp?
For starters, there remain challenges in the production phase. The fiber’s strength, for example, can also pose its own challenges, whereby the strong fiber is difficult to process. This is especially true when grown for textiles that require long fibers. Here, many producers still rely on cumbersome manual separation methods or water retting to separate the bast fiber from its core. There are innovative and efficient means of overcoming these challenges, but perhaps the real issue facing hemp has been achieving scale. This is largely due to hemp’s similar appearance to its near cousin cannabis, which had for years made the plant illegal in many major markets.
Hemp has since become legalized in most of the world, and as demand increases so too does its market share. Nevertheless, these misconceptions have kept hemp production at very small scales globally, and it is often produced on family-run farms. This also means that while in principle hemp is sustainable, it is currently difficult to sufficiently trace its supply chains, and small producers may find it difficult to afford expensive certification regimes to verify it is organic, fair trade etc.
Technically speaking, hemp is not a distinct species from marijuana – they are two types of cannabis in the Cannabaceae family. Legally speaking, the difference lies in their respective content of the psychoactive drug THC. Simply put, marijuana contains amounts of THC that can cause intoxication, while hemp does not.
Illustration: Kiki Fjell