Hemp: The Fabric of the Future?

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. This rhyme is familiar to those of us who paid attention in high school, but less familiar is the fact that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in a ship made largely from hemp. The sails and ropes were made of hemp. The cracks between planks were sealed with hemp. Hemp oil fuelled the candles, and hemp seeds gave the sailors the protein they needed to survive. After wood, hemp was the most useful material in shipbuilding at the time. Known for its durability, absorbency, and lightness, hemp is practical and versatile, particularly in textiles production. So why was it ever superseded by less efficient, weaker materials such as cotton and polyester?

In the early settler days, hemp was a commonly grown crop, used for a large variety of applications. In the 1930s, Henry Ford developed a prototype of a car that he deemed invincible. It was the bio-plastic Model T, made of and fuelled by hemp. His dreams of a sustainable, tougher-than-steel car were cut short, however, as in 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed in the US. All strains of cannabis were made illegal to produce. Though the THC level in industrial hemp is less than 0.3%, it was grouped together with forms of cannabis used as recreational drugs. Cannabis cultivation was also banned in Canada in 1938, under the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act. In 1998, however, the Government of Canada legalised the cultivation of industrial hemp for commercial purposes. Today it is planted and processed in huge quantities, and over 1000 cultivation licenses have been issued every year since 2014. In the past decade, demand for industrial hemp has increased enormously, and Canadian hemp products are currently exported to over thirty different countries worldwide.

The appeal of hemp is no mystery. One acre of hemp produces three times as much fabric as an acre of cotton. Hemp cultivation requires no pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or GMOs. Farming hemp also improves soil quality through nutrient production and erosion prevention. Cotton production, in contrast, requires intense use of pesticides and fertilizers, excessive water, and causes soil erosion. Polyester is just as harmful-its plastic fibres contribute heavily to ocean pollution. Even as such, both cotton and polyester are produced in massive quantities every year in order to fulfill the demands of the textiles industry. An estimated 100 billion fast fashion garments were created last year, double the global production of 15 years ago. This is too much. The fast fashion industry is the world’s second-largest polluter of fresh water, after agriculture. It is the second-largest polluter of the earth, after oil. Drastic behavioural changes are needed for us to reverse the damage fashion does to our planet.

One solution cited by many a sustainability consultant is the implementation of a circular economy. As it is now, the fashion industry is based almost exclusively on a linear economy model. Clothing is produced, purchased, worn minimally, and then disposed of. The idea of the circular economy is to keep these products in circulation by repurposing worn materials.  

But what if we intervened earlier in the cycle? What if production was made more sustainable as well, instead of just lengthening the life of a garment produced at a huge cost to the environment?

Is hemp the answer? Can this remarkable fibre redirect the fashion industry towards a more sustainable future? In the past couple of decades, the environmental and economic benefits of hemp have become better-known, and its relation (or lack thereof) with marijuana has become better-understood. This knowledge, as well as widespread advocation for its legalisation, has influenced government: US Congress is currently working through the Farm Bill, a piece of legislation that would allow for the production of industrial hemp.

Increased use of hemp is a symptom of the sustainable fashion trend visible on every street corner in North America. We are starting to examine how our clothes are made, and what they are made of. Clothing made of entirely recycled materials is growing in popularity thanks to companies like Patagonia. My prediction is that hemp will continue to grow in popularity as a positive by-product of our increasingly woke consumer habits.

Last year it was discovered by international media that Burberry burned 48.9m CAD worth in clothing in 2017 so as to protect their brand from counterfeiting. The resulting outcry from consumers was consequential, on Twitter and in real life. People donated their $400 scarves to second-hand stores, and a brand that burned their clothing to remain upscale had to reverse their strategy and stop burning immediately to save their reputation. Consumers need to act on other unsustainable aspects of the fashion industry with the same gusto. Fast fashion only exists in its problematic forms because we are purchasing it. Supply only exists because of demand. Now let’s demand hemp!