In search of the most sustainable fabrics, we pit cotton against hemp

Mention hemp clothing and many of us think burlap hoodies, hackie sacks, dreadlocks and bongs. But, since this is 2009 not 1994, hemp can be so much more than that.

In Vancouver, a number of eco-friendly clothing lines, such as Red Jade and Mandula, have turned to hemp and other sustainable fabrics. The use of these fabrics allows designers to feel better not only about the impact of their products on the environment but the quality as well.

But is hemp really more sustainable? And can it be fashionable? Here’s a quick breakdown on hemp versus cotton...

 

Hemp vs Cotton: Water

 

Hemp undies by Enamore

Enamore's French knickers are made

from a blend of hemp and silk.

Cotton needs a lot of water. In fact, to yield one pound of cotton, you’ll need to feed it about 1,400 gallons of water. That’s one thirsty plant. As resources get tighter, countries that rely on cotton face emerging problems. For example, cotton has led to desertification in areas of Uzbekistan, where it is a major export.

Hemp is strong, grows more quickly than almost any other plant and produces 250 percent more fibre than cotton when grown on the same land. It also requires about half the water cotton needs to grow. A field of hemp can be utilized twice a year and drops leaves constantly during the growing season, replenishing the soil of nutrients.

Point: hemp

 

Hemp vs Cotton: Pesticides, etc.

Cotton is a pesticide-intensive crop, using approximately 25 percent of the world's insecticides and 10 percent of the world’s pesticides. But the good news is a small number of farmers are moving toward organic cotton.

Hemp plants compete with and over-shade weeds, meaning they can’t thrive, so there’s little need for herbicides during growing. And most hemp is grown free of synthetic pesticides. Plus, hemp is a tremendous carbon trap and could be used to mitigate emissions from the very farms its being grown on.

Point: hemp and organic farmers

 

Hemp vs Cotton: Fashion

Hemp is increasingly being used by fashion designers seeking out new fabrics to work with that are durable and sustainable. And the results aren’t always what you’d expect. Here are just a few examples of hemp being used in place of wool, linen, jersey cotton, acrylic, canvas and silk.

hemp clothing, hemp shoes, hemp fashion
From left: Adidas, Nomads, Grace & Cello

Cotton is one of the most commonly worn fabrics available on the market. And as consumers begin to understand the environmental impacts of traditional cotton production, organic cotton is increasingly in demand. And there are plenty of designers offering organic cotton options.

organic cotton clothing
From left: Elroy, Thieves (2x)

 

Hemp vs Cotton: Colour

Hemp: Depending on the process used to remove the fibre from the stem, hemp may naturally be creamy white, brown, grey, black or green. This means variety without chemical dyes. Hemp can be dyed naturally or synthetically.

Cotton comes in white, off-white and cream… Boring! Cotton can also be dyed synthetically or naturally.

Point: hemp

 

Hemp vs Cotton: Wicking and breathability

Hemp has better anti-bacterial properties than any other natural fibre, making it extremely resistant to mold, mildew and rot. It’s great for outdoor activities and travel. It doesn’t hold odours. It is a breathable fabric that wicks moisture away from the body. It helps you stay cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.

Hemp versus Cotton

Learn more about hemp’s many uses

Watch this video about growing hemp versus cotton.

Watch this 1942 war-time propaganda film on the history and life cycle of hemp in North America.

Cotton is also breathable and doesn’t hold odours like synthetic fabrics do. And cotton also has a natural wicking system, but it does hold onto moisture and smells longer than one might wish.

Point: Almost a tie, but the point goes to hemp.

 

Hemp vs Cotton: Durability and comfort

Hemp is a strong natural fibre that softens with each wash. The fibres don’t break down but the fabric gets more comfortable.

Cotton also gets more comfortable with wear but breaks down after repeated washing.

Point: hemp

 

The winner?

While both fabrics clearly have advantages, cotton gets docked for its less sustainable chemical- and water-intensive production requirements. Easy to produce organically and effective in fighting climate change, hemp wins it.