Eco-conscious consumers are now, more than ever, aware of the damaging effects of fast fashion and are in search of more sustainable and ethical fashion.
Hemp clothing is one of the most sustainable fashions and is fast rising in the textile and apparel industry. Manufacturers grow hemp organically, free of pesticides and fertilizers. People consider hemp clothing an eco-friendly option. Well, this is until they look at the price tag.
While hemp clothing is sustainable, it is also quite costly. The question is- why is hemp clothing so expensive?
Manufacturers make the hemp fabric using fibers from the stalk of the Cannabis Sativa plant. This plant is known as a source of the most durable textile fibers. The cannabis plant has two major purposes.
First, farmers cultivate the cannabis plant to contain high amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) alongside other chemical components called cannabinoids. These chemicals are psychoactive and popularly called marijuana.
Second, farmers cultivate the hemp plant to produce strong fibers and purposefully reduce any psychoactive chemical components. These fibers come from the outer layer of the stalk. The stalk’s outer layer comprises bast fibers that manufacturers process and then spin into a yarn used to make hemp clothing. Hemp is a sustainable fiber that is thick, durable, and excellent for making eco-friendly clothing.
However, when it comes to distinguishing between THC marijuana and hemp without THC, there isn't much legislation that regulates this.
As a result, there is a stigma surrounding hemp, and people can misunderstand the difference between marijuana and hemp. There are, however, exceptions in some countries that now embrace the cultivation of industrial hemp for commercial purposes.
The Hemp fabric is soft, similar to the cotton fabric. It is durable and can last twice as long as fabrics like cotton. Hemp fabric is lightweight, dye absorbent, and breathable, making it the perfect material for hot weather. Hemp is resistant to shrinkage and pilling. It is also naturally resistant to molds and microbes.
Hemp goes through four major processes of planting, harvesting, extracting, and weaving to become clothes These processes might appear simple but are quite labor-intensive, requiring careful attention right from the planting stage.
Farmers typically plant the seeds for the hemp fibers close to each other to encourage taller stems. They could cultivate up to 300,000 plants per acre.
Farmers can plant no more than 182,000 plants in Europe, and their fiber produces a finer quality fabric. The hemp plant grows in a mild, humid climate and is also naturally pest resistant.
The harvesting process is equally technical. Farmers harvest the plant for the hemp fibers when the plant’s lower leaves begin to turn yellow.
To harvest the hemp plant, farmers use the hemp harvester, a machine specially made for the hemp plant. They then cut the stalks and leave them in the fields to ret for weeks. The most common method for extracting hemp fibers from its stem is Dew Retting.
Farmers leave the stalks to decompose before separating the fibers. Next, farmers separate dried hemp fibers from their shives using a machine. They then clean and comb the hemp fibers to remove impurities and spin them into a yarn. Like any fabric, manufacturers weave the thread into materials used to make hemp clothes and other products.
Read More: Hemp Fabric & Sustainability
Hemp is versatile, and we can use it in many ways, from clothing to bags, shoes, building materials, and paper, amongst other uses. Hemp is safe, organic, and environmentally sustainable. Here are a few uses of hemp fibers.
Manufacturers use hemp in making clothing. They grow, harvest, and extract these hemp fibers to make the most durable and beautiful textiles and clothing. They use these textiles to make clothes like t-shirts, dresses, activewear, and socks. They are soft on the skin and protect it against UV rays and bacteria.
Manufacturers can use hemp fiber to make the most sturdy, comfortable, and breathable shoes. Commonly, manufacturers use leather or synthetic materials like plastic and rubber. Leather shoes involve animal cruelty and are expensive to produce.
Synthetic materials like plastics and rubber have a damaging effect on the environment, contributing to global warming. Hemp can be an excellent alternative for fashion designers. The hemp plant grows fast and in large quantities and can be a more sustainable option.
The cannabis plant has a woody layer that manufacturers use in place of wood or timber. Hemp possesses insulation properties which also makes it a good alternative. Manufacturers can use these fibers for building materials needed for house construction. By substituting hemp for wood, the rate of deforestation, which has adverse effects on the environment, can be reduced.
Manufacturers also use hemp fibers to make paper.
Today, most papers come from trees that people cut down every day. Billions of trees are cut down every year just for this purpose. This has led to dislodging of natural habitats, the scarring of lands, and global warming.
Using hemp fibers for paper production can be a greener alternative. Hemp grows in abundance and is a readily available raw material for producing quality papers.
Read more: All About Hemp - Definition, History & Uses
We consider hemp as one of the most sustainable fabrics in the fashion industry. So what makes hemp clothing sustainable?
When we consider hemp cultivation and production, we will see that its growth is an eco-friendly process. Hemp grows extremely fast, taking around 120 days to grow into a stalk ready-to-make hemp clothes. The hemp plant chokes the growth of other competing plants. It also naturally reduces pests. This means that hemp typically requires little or no herbicides or pesticides.
The hemp plant is also environmentally friendly and requires little or no water. According to research by Stockholm Environment Institute, the water needed to produce a kilogram of hemp is between 300 - 500 liters. We can compare this to the massive 10,000 liters of water required to produce a kilogram of cotton. Hemp farming also provides more environmentally friendly fibers using less land.
Interestingly, hemp replenishes soil nutrients and can regenerate the soil, ridding it of toxins and impurities. The hemp plant also absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere even much more than forests.
Hemp clothing is versatile, and one thing that makes it a sustainable fabric is that nothing on the whole plant goes to waste. Manufacturers can use the stalks for clothing and its woody layers for building purposes and fuel. They can also heat and mold the fibers and use them as an alternative to plastic.
We know hemp fiber for its strength and durability. It is highly resistant to shrinkage and can withstand harsh elements. The longer your hemp clothes material, the fewer resources are needed to make more of them.
As we mentioned earlier, growing the hemp plant requires little or no herbicides or pesticides. However, growing hemp may require more nitrogen than other fabrics like cotton. When shopping for organic hemp clothes, you want to make sure you are on the lookout for organic certification.
After legislators passed the 2014 Farm Bill, they permitted industrial hemp farming for research at the federal level. Since then, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) can now certify the hemp crop as organic. Also, organizations like the European Union can offer an organic certification for fully processed organic hemp.
The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) also certifies hemp clothing that is 70% organic and uses dyes and materials that follow environmental standards.
ECOCERT also certifies hemp clothing when it is 95% organic.
We have previously established that hemp is one of the most environmentally friendly fibers when choosing eco-friendly clothing. We have also examined its sustainable production process. However, the question remains, why is hemp clothing so expensive?
This section will examine what makes hemp clothing so expensive and look at what the future is for the hemp clothing industry.
Organic hemp clothing comes from natural hemp fibers extracted from hemp plants - a natural and renewable resource. This plant grows in countries with temperate climates and across different types of soils. Some of the largest producers of hemp worldwide are North Korea, China, and Italy.
Industrial hemp farming is scarce, and the industry is still tiny. However, data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reveals that the global production of hemp fibers increased to 60,657 tons in 2018. While this looks impressive, this is nothing compared to other fabrics like cotton, with 30.3 million tons, and flax fibers at 868,000 tons.
As a result, hemp fiber availability remains low, ultimately causing a hike in hemp clothes prices.
Manufacturers make hemp fabrics with natural fibers that grow organically in significant amounts, even more than cotton. Hemp also grows extremely fast, using less land, less water, and little or no chemicals.
Before suppliers market organic hemp clothing, organizations must issue an organic certification. The quality and eco-friendliness of the hemp must be tested, ensuring it follows all environmental standards. As aforementioned, some of the hemp certifications available include the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), The European Union, ECOCERT, and The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS).
This chain of processes, as with other eco-friendly fabrics, increases the hemp price. This is coupled with the low acceptance of hemp among fashion designers, brands, and consumers.
Due to the previous lengthy ban, hemp has grown at a slow pace. Even after the legalization of hemp in 2014, this fabric still sustains a bad reputation among consumers. Many still find it difficult to discuss organic hemp clothing. Why is this so?
As earlier discussed, hemp is a cannabis plant grown in two ways. One of which contains no THC. They use this non-psychoactive version to make organic hemp clothing for consumers.
However, people find it hard to distinguish between the psychoactive drug, marijuana, and hemp. When marijuana became illegal in 1937, the demand for hemp also went down. This misconception has branded hemp as unlawful.
It has also slowed down the growth of the hemp industry. With this, demand for organic hemp fabric fell, ultimately increasing the price of hemp.
Organic hemp is a very sustainable fiber and a more durable choice of clothing than cotton fibers. Also, the hemp plant grows faster than cotton. The cotton industry uses more natural resources than hemp. Also, conventional cotton poses some adverse environmental and social impacts.
Consumers are more comfortable with cotton clothing. But despite the apparent advantages of hemp, people do not choose hemp immediately. They would rather buy cotton clothes as they are cheap and a more popular option. This has led to lower demand for hemp clothes, causing prices to increase.
The demand for the hemp industry is low. The production of hemp fibers is still low, and only a few brands make hemp clothes. As a result, the price of hemp stays high.
For the prices of hemp clothes to reduce, the demand and supply for hemp clothes must increase. People must buy hemp clothing more.
If consumers buy organic hemp clothing and demand increases, hemp companies will increase supply to match the demand. This will ultimately reduce the price of a single unit of hemp clothing.
Apart from the sustainability of pure hemp clothing, this natural fabric comes with other benefits. Here are a few benefits that make it a good idea to buy hemp clothes:
Hemp is one of the most lightweight fabrics in the market, weighing much less than fabrics like cotton and wool. Hemp has natural properties that regulate temperature, allowing airflow in and out of the material. It is lightweight and has breathable properties making them suitable for hot weather.
This natural fabric is highly durable and can last for decades longer than fabrics like cotton. It is highly resistant to shrinkage, fading, and abrasion. It holds out its shape after multiple wears and washes. This fabric only gets softer and more comfortable on the skin over time. They are also resistant to molds and mildew.
More than sustainability and durability, this fabric naturally fights microbes. It contains antimicrobial properties that fight against bacteria and fungi. It retains the strength and durability of the fabric and protects your skin. This clothing is particularly favorable if you have allergies or sensitive skin.
What’s better than sustainable clothing that keeps you healthy? Producers tightly weave hemp-produced clothes, making them resistant to sun rays. They keep you protected from harmful UV rays that could lead to skin issues like cancer.
Many compare hemp and cotton fabric. People would choose organic cotton over hemp, at least partly because the cotton fabric has been around for many generations, is cheap, and is commonly used for clothing like t-shirts, dresses, underwear, towels, etc.
This section will compare both fabrics looking at the environmental impact, fabric properties, and cost.
When we consider the environmental impact of both, we clearly see that hemp is a more sustainable and environmentally friendly fiber. Cotton makes use of more natural resources than hemp. Cotton uses much more water for growth and processing.
Hemp, on the other hand, uses less water. Cotton also requires heavy use of pesticides and other chemicals. These chemicals penetrate the soil and water, causing pollution.
Hemp, on the other hand, requires little or no pesticides or chemicals. They are naturally resistant to pests, insects, and weeds. Hemp also uses a smaller land space and produces large amounts of hemp fibers. Cotton produces less, using up more land.
The hemp plant also removes soil toxins and adds nutrients to the soil.
Hemp fabrics are highly durable, absorbent, and insulating, unlike cotton fabric. They retain their shape and can last for decades after multiple-use. Cotton is a softer fabric and is also highly absorbent.
Hemp is dye absorbent and retains its color even after multiple washing, unlike cotton fabric.
Many people prefer conventional cotton fabric because it is cheap and available in large quantities. Organic cotton is costly, but it does not compare to hemp fabric, which is more expensive. Hemp is more expensive because it is still a tiny industry, and its fibers are not readily available. Organic hemp fabric stays expensive because fewer people demand the material.
Both fabrics blend well together, and manufacturers commonly combine both hemp and cotton to reduce costs.
For many years, legislation has forbidden hemp. However, today, the hemp industry is progressing as consumers seek to reduce their carbon footprint and adopt a more eco-friendly lifestyle.
We have examined hemp in detail, looking at the reasons the hemp fabric is so expensive. The low demand for hemp clothing has caused slow-paced development in the industry, causing this fabric to stay costly.
However, this can change as the demand for hemp clothing increases. Hemp is versatile, and durable and continues to be one of the most eco-friendly fabrics in the world.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.