picture of cannabis plant used to make sustainable hemp fabric
25 Sep
picture of cannabis plant used to make sustainable hemp fabric

Material Guide: How Sustainable Is Hemp Fabric?

Hemp fabric has undergone an image transformation in recent years, as shoppers and brands alike are learning of its versatility, strength, and potential sustainability. 

Hemp on the high ground

Hemp is the sober cousin of marijuana, and industrial hemp contains only a tiny amount of the psychoactive component of cannabis, so the only high you’ll get from hemp fabric is the moral high-ground you’ll stand on knowing you’re wearing a  more sustainable fabric.

In fact, industrial hemp is the fashion equivalent of the boring sibling who wants to stay home every weekend and knit socks for fun. But despite its boring properties, hemp’s association with cannabis has copped it a bad rep over the years.

It also doesn’t help that hemp clothing has been historically associated with baggy grunge-style clothing in khaki hues. Not that there’s anything wrong with hippy clothing if that’s the goal, but the trend certainly hasn’t done much to improve hemp’s image among the general populace.

But hemp has started to redeem its image in recent years, and its potential is undeniable. The environmental benefits of hemp cultivation, combined with its durable characteristics as a fabric, mean it can feature in clothing that both feels and looks great, by even the highest of standards.

So what is hemp?

Hemp has a very long history of being used as a fibre. In fact, it has been cultivated for thousands of years and on almost every continent. It has been used in clothing, ropes, and sails. Rumour has it that the word “canvas” is derived from “cannabis”.

Hemp is a type of bast fibre which means it’s one of a number of plant-based fibres derived from the stems of plants such as flax (where linen comes from), jute, and stinging nettle. The fabric has various natural advantages such as keeping you warm in winter, cool in summer, and even protecting you from UV rays.

The fibre produced from pure hemp is similar to linen in texture. It can also be blended with other plant-based fibres to create fabrics with the durability of hemp and the softness of cotton or bamboo. Extremely versatile, materials produced from hemp fibres can be used for a variety of fabrics, “from jersey to denim to hessian to canvas”, according to Textile Exchange.

But why all the fuss about the little green leaf? Is it really any different to its alternatives?

What makes hemp fabric a more sustainable option?

It’s no coincidence that hemp bears the nickname weed. A densely and quickly growing plant, hemp literally chokes out any competing plants. This means harsh chemical herbicides aren’t necessary. Hemp also naturally reduces pests, so no pesticides are usually needed. Amazingly, it also returns 60-70% of the nutrients it takes from the soil. As Textile Exchange points out, since hemp plants have deep root systems, soil quality is replenished, which in turn captures carbon from the atmosphere.

Not only is hemp gentle on the earth, it also requires very little water, especially when compared to cotton, which, according to Slate uses “about 50% more water per season than hemp.” But that’s not all. According to the same article, “when you add processing into the equation, cotton uses more than four times as much water as hemp.”

Hemp also requires a relatively small amount of land to cultivate. According to the Guide to Sustainable Textiles, this means it can produce up to double the fibre yield per hectare than cotton. It also makes a great addition to crop rotations throughout the year for farmers.

However, it’s important to be aware that hemp does not always mean organic, and many farmers still use environmentally damaging fertiliser. When going for hemp, make sure it’s organic and thoroughly study the brand you’re considering buying from.

So from an environmental perspective, the benefits of hemp are pretty clear. But how does it compare once we start processing the raw product into a fabric?

How is hemp turned into a fabric?

Hemp fabric is made from the long strands of fibre that make up the stalk of the plant. These fibres are separated from the bark through a process called “retting.”  These fibres are then spun together to produce a continuous thread that can be woven into a fabric. The processing methods for hemp were originally developed in the early 1900s, and are only now being updated and expanded to meet rising demand.

The various stages of the process can be done organically through a mechanical process that requires no chemicals. However, many companies now produce hemp fabric chemically, in a process that is much more intensive on the environment, but faster and cheaper to create. Often you can tell that a hemp fabric has gone through this intensive process if it is labelled as “hemp viscose”, which normally involves the same harmful processing with toxic chemicals as regular viscose. Some companies may use the less impactful lyocell process, so it is worth double checking before purchasing something made of hemp.

Cost of production is another factor to consider, says Textile Exchange. Since hemp is bulky, transporting it to processing centres can be “expensive and energy-intensive”. Shorter, localised supply chains are one possible solution here.

The impact of the fabric doesn’t just stop once it has been woven, either. Once the fabric has been created, it may be dyed, which again can result in various environmental outcomes, depending on the technique used.

So the production phase is a bit less clear-cut. Although hemp is a more eco-friendly crop to grow, we still need to be sure that the process being used to turn the plant into a fabric is lower-impact. Producers have a responsibility to ensure their manufacturing process considers the environment, their workers, and the consumers, along with profitability.

So, what’s the verdict?

The good news is that hemp generally constitutes a more sustainable, lower-impact crop that can be converted into fabric responsibly. It’s important to make sure, however, that companies are not just greenwashing their hemp. Wondering where to start looking?

Check out these brands, rated “Good” or “Great” in the Good On You directory:

Opera Campi

Rated: Good

Hemp Sweater – Ships internationally from Italy

Founded in 2017, Italian brand Opera Campi creates premium quality garments from locally-sourced raw materials. By using a balanced approach to sustainability, the brand makes conscious choices throughout its supply chain and donates 4% of its profits to social causes.

The brand is inclusively sized from 3XS-3XL.

See the rating.

Shop Opera Campi.

WAMA

Rated: Good

High-Waisted Underwear – Ships internationally from the US

WAMA is pioneering the hemp clothing industry with premium hemp underwear. It uses a high proportion of eco-friendly materials including organic cotton and hemp, and is a PETA approved vegan company!

Find the range in inclusive sizes XS-3XL.

See the rating.

Shop WAMA.

tentree

Rated: Good

Hemp Henley Longsleeve – Ships internationally from Canada

Canadian brand tentree believes big change starts small. Small as in bringing your reusable bag to the grocery store, making fewer, more thoughtful purchases, and choosing to purchase sustainably when you do. The brand plants ten trees for every item purchased to help regenerate ecosystems and provide planting jobs in communities around the world, and has already planted over 65 million trees.

All tentree’s products are created with an Earth-First approach, meaning they're made in fair, safe working conditions, and constructed using more sustainably sourced and recycled materials.

tentree’s super comfy fabrics and easy wardrobe staples are typically available from XS-XL.

See the rating.

Shop tentree.

Outerknown

Rated: Good

Sur Snap Hoodie – Ships internationally from the US

Founded by surf champion Kelly Slater, Outerknown is a sustainable brand that aims to blend style and function with the protection of natural resources. The brand is Bluesign certified and has partnered with the Fair Labour Association.

Find the range in sizes XS-2XL.

See the rating.

Shop Outerknown.

Shop Outerknown @ Wearwell.

Shop Outerknown @ Good.

LANIUS

Rated: Good

Longsleeve – Ships internationally from Germany

Offers

people in blue coat and puffer by Lanius.

LANIUS – Site-wide (EU)

Discover styles from the current winter collection with up to 40% discount. Your new favourite piece is waiting for you. Up to 40% off (EU). (Ends: 9 FEB)

Shop now

“Love Fashion, Think Organic, Be Responsible” are the maxims of LANIUS. The German brand uses eco-friendly materials, like GOTS certified cotton. All LANIUS facilities are SA8000 certified and it is a member of the Fair Wear Foundation. LANIUS' clothes are available in EU sizes 34-44.

See the rating.

Shop LANIUS.

Shop LANIUS @ Curate.

Afends

Rated: Good

Jara Cable Knit Crew – Ships internationally from Australia

Offers

Afends – Womenswear Archive Sale

Make a statement with organic hemp clothing that is as good on you as it is on the planet. Up to 50% off, including dresses, baby tees, pants, shorts, skits and more. (Ends: 31 JAN)

Shop now

Afends – Menswear Archive Sale

Where streetwear meets sustainability. Shop a complete wardrobe made from 100% lower-impact fabrics, from pants to tees and sweats, featuring a slew of prints. Up to 50% off menswear archive sale, including graphic tees, hoodies, jackets and pants. (Ends: 31 JAN)

Shop now
Bio acetate sunglasses designed by Afends.

Afends – Eyewear

Handcrafted in Italy from premium bio-acetate and fit with UV resistant lenses, these sunglasses are leading the way in more sustainable eyewear. Exclusive 20% off eyewear with code GEYEWEAR20. (Ends: 31 JAN)

Checkout code: GEYEWEAR20
Shop now

Afends – Denim

Denim, the foundation of Afends. Whether you like ‘em loose, straight or super baggy, they’ve got your next all-day, everyday jeans. Exclusive 20% off denim with code DENIM20. (Ends: 31 JAN)

Checkout code: DENIM20
Shop now

Born in Byron Bay, Afends is a responsible brand leading the way in hemp fashion. Drawing inspiration from the environment, streetwear, and surf culture, Afends’ mission is to create more sustainable clothing through innovation, action, and positive change. As true hemp advocates, they purchased 100 acres of farmland called Sleepy Hollow to grow their own hemp crops and ignite the hemp revolution. Explore their range made from 100% eco-conscious threads.

See the rating.

Shop Afends.

Vege Threads

Rated: Great

Hemp Twill Wide Pants – Ships internationally from Australia

Vege Threads is ECA certified and makes all of its clothing in Australia. Its range is sustainable and eco-friendly, and includes men's and women's basics, as well as women's activewear and swimwear. Find the range in sizes XS-XL.

See the rating.

Shop Vege Threads.

A.BCH

Rated: Great
woman wearing white linen jacket by abch

Relaxed Hemp Jacket – Ships internationally from Australia

A.BCH is a Melbourne-based, Australian-made fashion label for individuals who care about garment provenance. It utilises renewable, organic, and recycled materials.

Find the range in sizes XS-XL, or customise to fit you.

See the rating.

Shop A.BCH.

Learn more about sustainable and ethical materials

Editor's note

Feature image via Unsplash. Good On You publishes the world’s most comprehensive ratings of fashion brands’ impact on people, the planet, and animals. Use our directory to search thousands of rated brands.

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