Hemp vs Cotton — Which Is Better for the Environment?

12th October 2020

Is hemp better than cotton? Hemp is making waves in the fashion and textile industries. Sure, hemp is a versatile and durable fibre, but is that enough for hemp to dethrone cotton as the public's fabric of choice?

For years, cotton has cemented its place in the fabric of our lives. Not only is cotton affordable, but it's readily available. From dishcloths to bedsheets to t-shirts, cotton is everywhere.

However, cotton production isn't sustainable. According to the WWF, the production of one kilogram of cotton requires 20,000 litres of water.

Environmentalists have extolled the benefits of hemp, as a sustainable replacement to cotton. Like cotton, hemp is a natural fabric. It is also one of the fastest-growing plants in the world.

Today, at Candid, we're looking at the hemp vs cotton debate.

A Hemp-ful History:

Before we get into the debate, some historical context is always helpful.

While clothing made from hemp fibres might seem like a novel idea, this isn't the case. Hemp has been around since 8,000 B.C. Grown all over the world, hemp has been harvested for multiple purposes.

Due to its thick, fibrous stalks, hemp can be used in construction. Examples of this can be seen in Ancient Egypt where hemp was used in the production of rope and paper. Hemp seeds are also a great source of protein, making it a paleo and vegan-friendly source of nutrition.

In addition to this, archaeologists have found remnants of hemp fabrics on digging sites. This supports the theory that hemp clothing has been around longer than we can imagine.

With its many uses, hemp quickly spread throughout Europe, eventually making its way to North America. However, this is where the use of hemp seems to have declined. As hemp is a species of cannabis, it was outlawed in the 20th century, alongside the criminalisation of the marijuana plant.

The criminalisation of marijuana was supported, in part, by logging and cotton industries. Once hemp was outlawed, the textile industry was left wide open for the exclusive production of cotton clothing.

However, hemp is currently regaining its footing in the fashion industry. This brings us to the question on everybody's mind — is hemp better than cotton?

Hemp vs Cotton: What's Wrong With Cotton?

You're probably aware of the benefits of cotton. Cotton clothing is everywhere. It's also blended with polyester, rayon, or elastane to make different kinds of clothes.

In terms of fabric, cotton might seem like a better option than hemp. Cotton clothing is affordable, and the more it's washed and worn, the more comfortable it gets.

While there are clear benefits to cotton clothing in the cotton vs hemp debate, its production also has a huge environmental impact — and not in a good way.

Cotton production requires a large amount of water. Additionally, most cotton manufacturers aren't able to keep up with the demands of their clients. Many of them are forced to rely on chemical pesticides to produce large amounts of cotton.

The pesticides and chemicals can seep into the local soil and water, contaminating it. While farmers can continue to farm on this land, quantity and quality will degrade over time.

Washing and wearing cotton only serves to make it more comfortable — but is this really the case?

Cotton's natural softness means that it's just not durable. By the time your favourite cotton t-shirt has reached that comfy stage, it's likely that the cotton fibres have been stretched and broken. You might have to look into a replacement — and soon!

How Is Hemp Better Than Cotton?

Hemp seems to come out on top in the hemp vs cotton debate. There are many benefits to switching from cotton to a hemp-based fabric.

The main benefit of hemp clothing is that it is exclusively made from hemp fibres and textiles.

In the age of fast fashion, the same cannot be said of cotton. Most cotton clothing is mixed with synthetic fibres and plastics like polyester, nylon, and acrylic. Clothing manufacturers put this down to making clothes more durable and versatile.

However, cotton-blend clothing can have harmful effects on the environment, just by going through a cycle in the washing machine. When these clothes are washed, thousands of microplastic fibres are released into the water supply.

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Hemp clothing is generally made from 100% hemp. Not only is it biodegradable, but it's also refreshing to know what's in your clothes.

Here are some of the other benefits of hemp clothing:

  • Breathable: Hemp clothing is more absorbent than its cotton counterparts, wicking away moisture from sweaty skin. Its antibacterial properties also help in the fight against body odour!
  • Durable: Given that it's been used in construction, hemp's durability is no secret. Hemp clothing lasts longer and is less prone to wear and tear than cotton is.
  • Environmentally-friendly: Hemp can be cultivated globally and grows densely. It's a great space-saving organism. Hemp is also a bio-accumulator, which helps reduce soil pollution.
  • Holds colour: Dyed cotton fades over time. Hemp's super-absorbent nature makes it a better fit for absorbing dyes, without the fading.
  • Softens over time: Since hemp is so durable, does it soften over time like cotton? Yes — hemp softens over time. As it becomes more comfortable, the fabric also maintains its integrity. No more threadbare patches!

Are There Any Negatives to Hemp Clothing?

Hemp isn't a miracle fabric. While it grows quickly and takes up less space than cotton, it can also be more expensive.

While cotton is much more readily available on the market, the hemp production industry is still in development. This makes hemp a niche fabric.

In addition to this, many hemp fabric manufacturers care about the quality of their product. Hemp fabric is organic, which means it comes with a heftier price tag.

Hemp clothing isn't as readily available as its cotton counterpart. While brands like Levi's and Adidas are using hemp in their production, most hemp clothing brands are solely available online.

However, don't be too hasty in writing off hemp clothing. The benefits of hemp clothing far outweigh their negatives.

Hemp vs Cotton: How Do They Grow?

We've said that cotton isn't sustainable. Even organic cotton, grown without the use of pesticides, can take far too long to grow.

Growing organic cotton also requires more use of water. This puts even more pressure on areas like India, where water, as a resource, is already scarce.

Conversely, hemp is an extremely resilient plant. It can grow anywhere (although a hemp plantation in Antarctica might be asking too much), without the use of pesticides. Hemp crops can also be rain-fed, which reduces the need for irrigation.

Hemp plants are space-saving, as they are tall and thin. While cotton plants need to be spaced out to ensure proper growth, this isn't the case with hemp plants. Therefore, more hemp plants can be planted in a single area than cotton plants.

Additionally, hemp plants can be used for a variety of purposes. Hemp is used in cosmetics, health, and beauty products. It's also used in the production of bioplastics.

In production, practically every single part of the hemp plant is used. It's the perfect zero-waste example.

As a plant, hemp is not only more resilient than cotton, but it requires less care. It's also more eco-friendly, needing no pesticides and less water than cotton.

In terms of growth, hemp is the clear winner.

Key Takeaways:

While hemp isn't as popular as cotton, it's clearly the more eco-friendly option. Although cotton has been used for thousands of years, hemp has the potential to be just as popular.

Hemp's durability and breathability make it a strong contender in the hemp vs cotton debate. However, as a form of clothing, it can be more expensive.

At Candid, we're hoping to see more clothing manufacturers make the switch to hemp fabrics. Hemp textiles could be the next big thing in sustainable fashion.

One small step for clothing manufacturers, one giant step for the environment.

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