Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Cotton vs. Hemp

With sustainability efforts on the rise, more and more options are becoming available for designers looking to start an eco-friendly label, or for those shifting to their first sustainable collection. Many natural alternatives are now available to replace harmful synthetic fabrics, such as organic cotton, bamboo and hemp. [1]

The Truth About Industrial Cotton

The environmental catastrophe that is conventional cotton production is widely known, with issues such as extensive agrochemical use, monocropping and immense water requirements topping the list of eco-unfriendly growing practices. [1] Some startling facts about the negatives of our heavy reliance on cotton as a primary source for fabrics and textiles:

Cotton is The Pesticide King

The cotton plant is very susceptible to pests and therefore requires heavy pesticide spraying and treatment. In 1995 for example, U. S. farmers applied nearly 1/3 of a pound of chemical fertilizers and pesticides for every pound of cotton harvested. [2] Much of the groundwater tested in agricultural regions around the world has been contaminated by runoff from pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. Currently 15,000 lakes in the United States are so contaminated that nothing can live in them. In developing countries, pesticide and fertilizer regulations are less stringent and the environmental damage is even more severe. [2] 

Cotton is Always Thirsty

Cotton demands heavy irrigation that drains the land of its natural water supply. It can take more than 20,000 liters of water to produce 1kg of cotton; equivalent to a single T-shirt and pair of jeans. 73% of global cotton harvest comes from irrigated land (as documented in the WWF report The Impact of Cotton onFreshwater Resources and Ecosystems).

The Buzz About Hemp

Hemp has been making a lot of noise lately, especially with the growing awareness surrounding the use of hemp oil for treating cancer. Although the word ‘hemp’ still often gets confused and lumped into the same definition as Cannabis, a similar but psychoactive plant, it’s important to realize hemp can be a major game changer for our world if used to its potential.

Hemp Fibers And Fabrics

Hemp is one of the oldest domesticated crops known to man. It has been used for paper, textiles, and cordage for thousands of years, dating back to as early as 8,000 BC. [3] Hemp is categorized as a bast – a strong woody fiber obtained chiefly from the phloem of a plant, which grows on the outside of the plant’s stalk. [3] The textile material used to make hemp clothing comes from the long strands of bast fiber that make up the stalk of the hemp plant.   The long bast fibers are the most desirable for the manufacturing of textile.  They can be spun and woven into a fine, linen-like fabric. This fabric can then be used alone, or blended with cotton, linen, silk, or man-made fibers such as lycra and lyocell.  Hemp fibers are mildew and microbe resistant, which make them valuable for the production of sails, tarps, awnings, carpets, and clothing. When compared to other bast fibers such as flax, ramie and jute, hemp ranks second in fiber length, ultimate fiber length, aspect ratio, tenacity, tensile strength, and breaking length, and third in cellulose content.[3] Clothing produced from hemp is more rugged, warmer, softer and more absorbent than clothing produced from cotton. The Declaration of Independence was written on Hemp paper and in fact, many of the founders maintained Hemp farms and grew and cultivated this crop. 

Thomas Jefferson claimed:

"Hemp is of first necessity to the wealth & protection of the country".[4]

George Washington stated:

“Make the most you can of the Indian hemp seed and sow it everywhere.”[4]

The Victor, Hemp

Hemp Production is More Efficient Than Cotton Production

In terms of water alone, hemp is by far and away the best choice. Industrial Hemp can be grown on a wide variety of soil types. In fact Hemp is the only known plant that can be grown from the Equator to the Arctic Circle and to the Antarctic Circle; from the mountains to the valleys, from the oceans to the plains, including arid lands and everywhere in between. [3] This means that Hemp doesn't have to tie up prime agricultural real estate where only tender agricultural stock can grow.

Purchasing Hemp Clothing
In terms of what to buy, the key things to take into account are avoiding fabrics created using by-products of the petroleum industry – nylon and acrylic for example – and making what you do buy last longer. [3] Look for renewable materials including wool, silk and (organic) cotton, although It’s worth bearing in mind that silk production usually results in the death of the silkworm which many consumers could find unpleasant. Peace silk is an alternative more expensive but it does allow the moth to leave its cocoon naturally (and alive) before the fibers are harvested, so is probably a much better bet all round. Also worth looking into is Lyocell, - Tencel as it’s more commonly known - which is made from wood pulp. [3] The textile result is long-wearing and comfortable but like organic cotton, it isn’t without its downsides, which include concerns over the amount of chemicals needed to turn the pulp into a viable fabric.

So is Hemp the Answer to All Our Environmental Problems, Or Just Boring Pot?

Unlike many fibers used in today’s apparel industry, hemp is grown without the use of harmful chemicals, pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. It is also a high-yield crop that grows very rapidly and with little irrigation (50% less than cotton), making it a very appealing and “clean” option for designers. Other benefits of hemp: tensile strength and durability (8x that of cotton), hypoallergenic, breathable, and UV resistant. It is no wonder that Stella McCartney, Calvin Klein and a host of other labels now use the fiber in their apparel, with many others quickly catching on. [1] Hemp can be used to make many products, including jeans, shirts, dresses, hats and bags

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