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Go Sustainable with Cannabis’ Less Intoxicating Cousin: Hemp 

As an ethical clothing brand, Idioma love sustainable fabrics and taking care of planet Earth. So it’s no surprise that we are looking for ways to increase our sustainability beyond using organic cotton and sweatshirts made of salvaged materials.

Given that it takes 2,700 litres to make the average cotton t-shirt(1), not ours obviously, a large percentage of the world’s water supply is being used by the textile industry. As someone who has witnessed first hand families surviving on 10 litres of water a day compared to us greedy Brits (Americans and Europeans are equally as greedy) who typically consume 150 litres a day, it’s time we look to other fabrics to help reduce the burden on our planet. 

World Map - Idioma But what other fabrics can we use? I’ve already mentioned organic cotton, but what about cannabis’ cousin hemp? Hemp has so many qualities that you may not be aware of.

A little historical insight

For over 6000 years, hemp has been utilised to make textiles and it was regularly used to make sail canvas including the sails on Christopher Columbus’ ship. The US Declaration of Independence was even printed on paper made out of hemp. In fact, the word canvas derives from cannabis; hemp is a variety of the Cannabis Sativa plant species.

Many years after Columbus set sail for distant lands, the famous car manufacturer, Henry Ford recognised hemp’s potential and built a prototype car that harnessed its powers. 

But hemp was made illegal soon after this, as it was believed by some, that many US companies were worried about the impact such a discovery might have on them, despite the more widely presented view underlining the close relationship between hemp and marijuana.

In 1937, the Marihuana Tax act of 1937 was passed meaning that anyone caught dealing with hemp, marijuana or cannabis, in a commercial context, would be fined. Some believed several businessmen were to blame for this decision including a paper manufacturer and the wealthiest man in the US at that time who had just invested heavily in DuPont’s new synthetic fabric, Nylon. However, these links have been disputed by those involved. 

To build on Ford’s legacy, a Canadian company called Motive Industries have recently designed a car made primarily from hemp and whilst not yet on sale is proving of great interest to global investors(2). While across the border in the US, researchers have been using hemp waste fibres that usually end up in landfill as a cheaper alternative to Graphene given their ability to be transformed into high performance energy storage devices that could be used in electric cars(3).

Why grow hemp?

Despite hemp’s chequered history, it is grown in many countries around the world and China is currently the world’s largest producer and exporter. Given its similarity to cannabis and the fact that it contains THC (the psychoactive component found in Cannabis), albeit at a lower concentration, many countries require hemp to be bred with a specifically low THC content. 

Hemp grown in Europe contains little or no THC and mainly supplies the specialist paper industry and the non-woven converting industry (they supply automotive companies).

As a textile, hemp has numerous qualities and is known to be a fast-growing crop that adapts to many types of soil and climatic conditions. It also needs less help from pesticides and is often used as a mop crop to clear impurities from wastewater and is helping to clear contaminants at the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site. Many farmers consider hemp as a good break crop as it replenishes the soil with nutrients such as nitrogen and gives the land a much-needed rest from intensive farming. Hemp is also a long-lasting fabric that softens with wearing, wrinkles less than linen, is six times stronger than cotton and can be made into a variety of items. But best of all, it requires a considerably smaller amount of water to grow the crop and produces 200-250% more crop on the same amount of land(4). 

There are several retailers who make clothes from hemp, including US outdoor clothing company Patagonia but it is an expensive material to work with as Derek Thomas of an LA-based clothing startup explains: “[h]emp is significantly more expensive than cotton…because the hemp supply chain is encumbered with setbacks. We just don’t have the machinery here in the US to produce the hemp textiles(5).” However, there are organisations in the US trying to change this, but the majority of hemp is still produced in China due to heavy investment in machinery. 

President Obama has been supportive in encouraging the growth of industrial hemp and signed the 2014 Farm Bill ‘allowing for universities and state departments of agriculture to begin cultivating industrial hemp for limited purposes’ in other words for research or pilot programme purposes(6). ‘State statutes, with the exception of West Virginia, define industrial hemp as a variety of cannabis with a THC concentration of not more than 0.3 percent.(7) As of March 2016, over half of US states allowed for some hemp production but they had to seek permission from the Drug Enforcement Agency to grow the seeds (this video made by Patagonia explains the challenges) making hemp production in the US rather protracted. Despite this, the ability to grow industrial hemp on an ever wider scale in the US will enable researchers to understand to a greater extent the benefits of growing and using hemp in a variety of products. And hopefully the interest in hemp will ensure the world’s water supply and environment are treated with more respect.

If global brands such as Converse and Levi Strauss have used this versatile material then surely many more can follow. 

So whilst hemp t-shirts might not be readily available on the high street just yet, spare a thought for our beautiful planet when you pick up that cotton t-shirt and at the very least buy organic.


1. bettercotton.org/about-bci/cottons
2. autotrainingcentre.com/blog
3. bbc.co.uk/news/science
4. collective-evolution.com/2013
5. theguardian.com/sustainable
6. www.ncsl.org/research
7. www.ncsl.org/research

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