What is hemp and 6 reasons why it's sustainable
Hemp is deemed an actual superpower plant, and its use today is nowhere near its potential. However, every part of the plant has a use case in textiles, food, building materials, fuel and even hemp plastic, making it a zero waste plant.
It has been known to humans for 10000 years, going from legal to illegal and back and forth. We have elaborated on the history of hemp in a short article here.
When comparing hemp to other materials, we must remember that fibre production is mostly still on the same level as 50 years ago. It has never received any financial incentives, and research is still behind compared to other fabrics.
What is hemp?
Because hemp and marijuana have been labelled as narcotics for a long time, the plant has a bad stigma. When I first heard of hemp, I imagined a group of university students passing a bong around a circle in a rundown dorm room. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Hemp is derived from the plant Cannabis Sativa, the same as marijuana. Both are strains from the same plant; however, containing different properties and genes. Whilst marijuana can even have up to 25% THC, which gives the plant its psychoactive use, hemp usually only contains 0.2%-0.5%. Therefore, it’s shockingly non-intoxicating. Industrial hemp won’t give you a “high” like ever.
The hemp plant also has more to offer than CBD oil. In fact, the plant has currently around 50,000 use cases. That is because every part of the plant can be used for something.
Seeds are mainly used for oil and foods. Imagine hemp milk, hemp cooking oil, cosmetics and even fuel and paint. The seeds are packed with healthy proteins and healthy fats.
The leaves and flowers can be used for medicines, animal bedding or compost, whilst roots can be used as organic compost and medicine.
Our favourite is the stalk of the plant. Its fibres are used for textiles, insulation for buildings, paper, ropes and plastics. We hope humans ditch cotton and synthetics to switch to breathable and natural fabrics made from hemp.
Now that we all understand what hemp is and what it can be used for let’s look at why we believe it can help the planet reduce carbon footprints and is a more sustainable alternative to any synthetics and conventional cotton.
1. Less land usage
If hemp is planted and grown for fibre, it’s planted very densely, yielding much more per acre than other crops (Mooleki et al. 2006). In addition, it can provide up to 8 tons of material per acre (up to 2 tons of textile grade fibre, compared to 500 pounds of organic cotton per acre). Hemp productivity levels are therefore much more significant.
2. Less pesticides, herbicides and fungicides
Some articles claim that hemp doesn’t require pesticides, herbicides or fungicides. This is not entirely accurate (Fortenbery and Bennett 2004). However, hemp indeed requires less input than cotton. As hemp grows densely, there is usually no space for weeds to thrive; hence the use of herbicides is minimised.
Some studies show that where commercial production of hemp has been ongoing for decades, pesticides are pretty standard. Pests attacking the hemp plant are grasshoppers and the Bertha armyworm (Mooleki et al. 2006).
Hemp is also not resistant to fungus as initially thought. Much more research must happen in this space. Overall, the impact is lower than on other crops. Some studies in China had shown that hemp, as a rotational crop, helped repel certain pests when other crops were planted afterwards.
3. Increases soil regeneration
Hemp has naturally deep roots, also called taproots. They help drainage, aerate the soil and minimise erosion. This makes hemp a perfect rotational crop as it prepares the ground for other crops improving yield. In addition, rotating the crop with others can replenish the soil with nutrients. Hemp is also used for bioremediation, as it can decontaminate water and soil from toxins.
4. Absorbs CO2
A new study from Cambridge University shows that industrial hemp captures CO2 even more effectively than trees (Shah 2021). Industrial hemp can absorb between 8 to 15 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per cultivation. A forest captures between 2 to 6 tonnes per hectare per year.
5. Less thirsty plant than cotton
Cotton is a very thirsty plant. It also grows mainly in regions with water scarcity. In terms of water consumption, cotton requires 9,758 kg of water per kg, while hemp requires between 2,401 and 3,401 kilograms of water per kg (Chadwick, Cherret et al. 2005). That is almost 4 times less! If grown in a region with regular rainfall, it can practically be fully sustained with rains only.
6. One of the fastest growing plants on earth
Same as bamboo, hemp grows very quickly. Depending on end use, harvesting can be done after 120 days. In addition, fast growing plants take less maintenance, use fewer fertilisers and can be turned around faster, primarily if used as a rotational crop.
There are not as many studies on hemp as for other materials or crops. The available studies show a lower economic footprint for hemp than other fabrics. There are also not many studies that consider the complete life cycle of a material up to disposal. Hemp is biodegradable. Polyester is plastic, so every polyester piece produced to date still exists somewhere on our planet. Taking this into account, hemp is the definite winner.