Hemp has been cultivated and used since 5000-4000 BC. However, in the 20th-century hemp cultivation was banned in many countries around the world. This resulted in the loss of generational knowledge, cultural traditions, varieties of the plant, and super sustainable material that has the ability to curve climate change, and environmental degradation while providing people with superior products.
Why was hemp so controversial? Hemp is a part of the cannabis plant strain and is in the same family as marijuana. However, they have crucial differences as hemp contains less than 0.2% THC, the intoxicating part of marijuana. With only 0.2% hemp is fit for intoxication. Hemp cultivation was in many places outlawed because of its similarity to the marijuana plants. Either because of lack of knowledge, or lack of ability to effectively distinguish between the plants, and regulate the market. However, with more knowledge and in response to climate and financial crisis, many governments have begun to allow hemp cultivation again.
Hemp can be grown in a wide variety of climates. The plant can grow over 6 meters tall with very little input and practically no care. It is resistant to pests, animals or natural climate events and therefore most often grown organically with next to no additional inputs. It even uses very little water compared to for example cotton. This low chance of crop failure and little need for any inputs makes hemp a low-risk crop making it socially rewarding as it gives the farmers a high stable expected income.
In addition, growing hemp can clear toxins from the soil and even provide nutrition to the land, giving higher yields for other crops. This makes it important for increasing long-term sustainable food production with its ability to nourish and regenerate the soil. As an agricultural tool, hemp is also an excellent carbon sink. For each ton of hemp cultivated, the plant removes 1.63 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere. This is more than most tree types.
After cultivation, the hemp fibre is a great input for a variety of applications, and its use assures continued fixation of the CO2 absorbed into the fibres. Hemp can be used in paper production, building materials, composites, textiles, consumable foods and more.
Hemp vs. Cotton - A Sustainability Comparison
Yield: hemp yields up to 250% more fibre than cotton per hectare meaning that it can give a lot more while taking up much less land area which can instead be inhabited by forests and wildlife
Water: hemp cultivation use half the water of cotton, and hemp textile requires four times less water than cotton
Soil: cotton causes soil erosion and degradation while hemp has the property of giving nutrition to the soil and contributing to its regeneration
Pesticides: unlike cotton which is a fragile plant, and when grown organically puts a higher risk on the farmers' livelihoods, hemp is a low risk, effective crop, even when grown organically
CO2: cotton has a high carbon footprint of 2-4 tonnes of CO2 per hectare, while hemp, on the other hand, can trap 1.63 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of hemp harvested, which is roughly 230% more than the equivalent fast-growing Eucalypt trees
Climate and weather: cotton is vulnerable to climate and environmental changes, unlike hemp which can thrive in many different climate zones and more easily withstand climate change and weather events.
Durability: hemp is about 3-4 times stronger than cotton giving it the ability to last much longer, which is an essential part of environmental sustainability
Hemp is environmentally superior to cotton, even having some positive environmental impacts (CO2 storing, and soil regeneration), which is a rare feature of any raw material. Shifting to hemp rather than cotton has large positive environmental implications. In addition, it's a safer crop for the farmers which is an important social element, since farmers are increasingly being faced with larger crop risks due to climate changes. This risk reduces their expected income furthering the poverty of farmers worldwide. Next to being superior both socially and environmentally, hemp as a material is often superior in terms of its qualities. It's a strong and durable material, dries fast, can hold large amounts of moisture, and has antibacterial and flame-resistant properties among more.
Hemp, once a common plant traditionally grown and consumed around the world, is making a resurgence following global bans and campaigns against its growth and use.
Large-scale plantation owners have their eyes on hemp production. This would likely result in non-organic and not social or inclusive hemp cultivation. We believe that a cluster of small independent farmers in the Himalayas would create a much more sustainable hemp industry, where many people and rural communities benefit. Scaling this operation and making it effective will mean lower prices of hemp. However, the time is ticking to help the Himalayan farmers get a hold of the market before large-scale players take the market.
1: Ahmed ATMF, Islam MZ, Mahmud MS, Sarker ME, Islam MR. Hemp as a potential raw material toward a sustainable world: A review. Heliyon. 2022 Jan 13;8(1):e08753. doi: 10.1016/j.heliyon.2022.e08753. PMID: 35146149; PMCID: PMC8819531.
2: Craig Schluttenhofer, Ling Yuan (2017), Challenges towards Revitalizing Hemp: A Multifaceted Crop. Trends in Plant Science, 22.11, Pages 917-929 (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tplants.2017.08.004)
3: EJ Foundation (2020). CLOTHES AND CLIMATE: IS COTTON BEST?, https://ejfoundation.org/news-media/clothes-and-climate-is-cotton-best
4: Hemp vs Cotton: Which Fabric Is Better For The Environment?, Green Market Report, https://www.greenmarketreport.com/hemp-vs-cotton-which-fabric-is-better-for-the-environment/, 2020