Editors Note: This is a guest post by Jonathan Davies of Beeco.
They are both natural plant fibers. Yet, in this article, we will see that natural doesn’t always mean eco-friendly!
On one hand, we have cotton, the king of the fashion industry. But does being the most used fiber for clothing worldwide make it the best option?
Hemp, on the other hand, doesn’t know the same popularity. But again, does that lack of use make it a bad clothing alternative? By the way, if you still see hemp as rough, stiff fabric, let these hemp hats convince you of the opposite!
In the current economy, we all know popularity doesn’t always mean the best. Low production costs, low retail prices, and good marketing are often the main ingredients of success.
But let’s take popularity out of the equation and compare both fabrics for their inherent qualities.
Actually, let’s add a third contender in that competition: organic cotton.
Which of the three fabrics is the best for the environment?
You may already have an idea of the answer, but read until the end… you will see that as it’s often the case, eco-friendly goes hand in hand with quality!
Cotton, does it deserve the throne?
Cotton has been used to make clothes for more than 7000 years. Useless to say that it’s here to stay!
Cotton is natural, biodegradable and makes a great clothing fabric as it is soft, breathable and lightweight.
However, the king of the clothing fabrics has a huge environmental issue at the growing level.
Firstly, the amount of water required to grow the cotton plant is tremendous when compared to the amount of usable cotton produced by the plant.
In fact, it takes around 2700 liters of water to grow enough cotton to make one simple t-shirt…
Then, while the manufacturing process of the cotton fabric itself doesn’t require intensive use of chemicals, it doesn’t mean those are out of the picture. Actually, chemical dyes are often used for regular cotton.
Finally, the fabric is a victim of its success.
Being the most common clothing fabric worldwide, demand is huge and cotton producers often have to rely on chemical fertilizers and pesticides to grow cotton faster in order to meet that demand.
And where do most of these fertilizers and chemicals end up? In rivers…
Considering that India is the largest producer of cotton in the world, and that the country is facing a crisis in terms of availability and quality of drinkable water, cotton fabric isn’t only creating environmental issues, but ethical concerns as well!
What about organic cotton?
Organic cotton has been created as an eco-friendly alternative to traditional cotton.
Organic cotton producers fix the environmental issues at both the growing and manufacturing steps.
This means organic cotton is grown from non-GMO seeds and without the use of fertilizers. When it comes to pest control, insects are used instead of harmful pesticides.
Also, way less irrigation is required as a clever soil rotation system is used by the farmers in order to maintain soil fertility. In terms of numbers, this system needs around 85% less water than the traditional growing way.
Then, the bad chemicals used during the traditional cotton’s manufacturing process are replaced by environmentally-friendly alternatives such as water-based dyes.
Organic cotton also generally offers a much better textile quality than traditional cotton. The crops are not only healthier, but they are also harvested by hand, which preserves the softness of cotton much better than when harvested by machines (like it’s the case with traditional cotton).
Why don’t we replace traditional cotton with organic cotton then?
Organic cotton takes more time than traditional cotton to grow, to harvest and to manufacture. Which means that the demand for cotton couldn’t possibly be met with organic cotton.
Plus what makes traditional cotton so attractive is its low price, and organic cotton being more complex, it is also more expensive.
Hemp, marijuana’s cousin
Here comes the last contender, and let’s cut to the chase, it is our clear winner here!
Actually, hemp is considered one of the most eco-friendly clothing fabrics you can get.
And maybe this is the fabric that should be king.
As we stated in the title, hemp comes from the cannabis Sativa plant. Yes, the same plant that is used to produce marijuana and hashish. Yet, the psychoactive effects of the plant are not the reason behind that coronation. (In fact, industrial hemp has a really low concentration of THC).
Hemp is actually one of the fastest-growing plants in the world as it takes only 3 to 4 months to reach maturity. And a single hemp plant yields 220% more fiber than a cotton plant!
Moreover, it needs very little water to grow and it is naturally pest resistant. And the best? Hemp’s roots are actually beneficial to the soil as they protect it from toxins and erosion.
In three words: hemp is strong!
And your clothes will be stronger as well. Plus, that fabric is perfect for hot climates as it is very breathable and has great antibacterial properties.
So hemp grows fast, without the need for much water or chemicals and it provides much more fiber than cotton… all that while being beneficial to the soil…
Then why isn’t hemp everywhere?
We like to believe that hemp will rule the fashion industry soon. In reality, hemp’s popularity is growing as more and more brands are including the fabric in their collections.
The fabric suffered from a few drawbacks and that’s mostly the reason for its delayed popularity.
Indeed, it’s only in the 1980s that experts managed to manufacture a hemp fabric soft enough to be an alternative to cotton.
Then most people don’t differentiate industrial hemp to marijuana as a drug, and the fabric suffered from this reputation. For example, it’s only up to recently that the ban on hemp farming has been lifted in the US.
Hemp is also currently more expensive to produce than both traditional cotton and organic cotton, which doesn’t help.
November 7, 2020 at 1:16 am
After all that info , you say that hemp is more expensive to produce than cotton.
How is that possible !?
November 9, 2020 at 7:50 am
The processing is harder than cotton.
April 7, 2022 at 1:42 am
How much more?
May 26, 2021 at 4:01 pm
Thanks for this report Jonathan! To add to what Debra said, hemp is also lightyears behind cotton in terms of scale which also adds to price. I just launched a hemp clothing company hempcamel.com and was blown away to see the price differences between hemp and cotton for t shirts, however this is all the more motivation to create sustainable hemp t-shirts to help grow the hemp economy and lower prices for all people!
John Robert Lumb
May 3, 2022 at 5:59 am
Hi, Reuven, I will be launching a Hemp project in Africa, I would like to chat about your experiences in sourcing and working with hemp fiber to see if there is a synergy.
September 14, 2021 at 11:30 am
Thanks for the informative post. Hemp is a great eco-friendly resource for future, not only for fabrics but also for paper uses and toilet papers. However, the price sometimes be a problem for people who cannot afford it.
April 14, 2022 at 12:37 pm
Oh, I’d like to get a t-shirt from organic cotton, but it’s pretty hard to find anything decent on the internet, I have to say.
April 15, 2022 at 6:42 am
That’s true, but I managed to find a great company where you can buy clothing from organic cotton with your own design. You can check out Printful, it’s a company I usually order t-shirts and hoodies from, and I can tell you that the quality there is amazing. And you can come up with your own design, so that’s a huge advantage.