What is hemp and 6 reasons why it's sustainable

Hemp is deemed a true superpower plant and the use of it today is nowhere near it’s potential. 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 is 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 we compare hemp to other materials, we always need to remember that the fiber 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.

hemp is an allround plant and can be used in a variety of ways
the various use cases of hemp

What is hemp?

Because hemp and marijuana have both been labelled as narcotics for a long time, the plant has a bad stigma attached to it. 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, same as marijuana. Both are strains from the same plant however containing different properties and genes. Whilst marijuana can even contain 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 has also 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 mostly 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 as well.

Our favourite is the stalk of the plant. It’s fibers are used for textiles, insulation for buildings, paper, ropes and plastics. We hope that 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 have a closer look why we believe it can help the planet to reduce carbon footprints and is a more sustainable alternative to any synthetics and conventional cotton.

Hemp fabric is a great alternative to nylon and polyester
Hemp fabric is a great alternative to nylon and polyester

1. Less land usage

If hemp is planted and grown for fiber, then it’s planted very densely, yielding much more per acre than other crops (Mooleki et al 2006). It can provide up to 8 tons of material per acre (up to 2 tons of textile grade fiber, compared to 500 pounds of organic cotton per acre). Hemp productivity levels are therefore much greater.

2. Less pesticides, herbicides and fungicides

Some articles claim that hemp doesn’t require any pesticides, herbicide and fungicides. This is not quite accurate (Fortenbery and Bennett 2004). It is true however, that hemp requires less input in comparison to cotton. As hemp grows densely, there is usually no space for weeds to grow hence the use of herbicides is minimised. Some studies show that where commercial production of hemp has been ongoing for decades, pesticides are quite common. 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 other crops. Some studies in China have shown that using 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 soil for other crops improving yield. 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 the 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. In comparison, 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 mostly 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 kg of water per kg (Chadwick, Cherret et al 2005). That is almost 4 times less! If it’s grown in a region with regular rainfall, it can almost be fully sustained with rainfall only.

hemp vs conventional cotton
hemp vs conventional cotton

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. Fast growing plants take less maintenance, use less fertilisers and can be turned around faster, especially if used as a rotational crop.

Wrap up

There is not as many studies available on hemp as for other materials or crops. The studies that are available show a lower economic footprint for hemp compared with other fabrics. There is also not many studies that take into account the complete life cycle of a material up to disposal. Hemp is biodegradable. Polyester is plastic so every polyester piece that has been produced to date, still exists somewhere on our planet. Taking this into account, hemp is the definite winner.

More research and investments need to happen in this space to fully capture the potential of hemp. Imagine what could be done if hemp would receive the incentives necessary to modernise it's production? In my mind, only an even lower carbon footprint which is good for you, good for the environment and good for your pet. This is exactly why Hooman's Friend decided to launch their first pet collection made from hemp!

hemp field and sunset
hemp field

Hemp Production in Saskatchewan, 2006, Mooleki, S.P., R. McVicar, C. Brenzil, K. Panchuk, P.Pearse, and S Hartley. Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture. Revised July 2013 by D. Risula

Opportunities for Commercial Hemp Production, 2004, Fortenbery, T. R. and M. Bennett. Review of Agricultural Economics 26(1): 97–117

Hemp "more effective than trees" at sequestering carbon says Cambridge researcher
2021, Darshil Shah

"Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester",2005, Nia Cherrett, John Barrett, Alexandra Clemett, Matthew Chadwick and MJ Chadwick.
http://www.sei-international.org/mediamanager/ documents/Publications/SEI-Report-EcologicalFoot printAndWaterAnalysisOfCottonHempAndPolyest er-2005.pdf