If you had to make a list of ways that you can help the environment, what would be on it? Most people include things like recycling, using less water, and avoiding single-use plastics. One thing that doesn’t usually make the list is making sustainable fashion choices. It should. Many people don’t realize that the fashion industry causes massive environmental harm, and if you aren’t choosing to purchase sustainable fashion, then you are helping to drive that harm. How can you make sustainable fashion choices? Purchase clothing and accessories like towels, bedding and even sneakers made from Hemp or a blend of Hemp and another organic or sustainable material. This versatile fiber is being used to create beautiful, comfortable, and long-lasting fashion, without the long list of environmental costs that many other textiles come with.
Dress: Mara Hoffman
A Huge Industry
Across the globe, consumer demand fuels a fashion industry that is enormous, and continually getting larger. According to the Pulse of the Fashion Industry report, the world consumes 62 million tons of apparel every year, and that is expected to rise to 102 million tons by 2030. Not only do we buy a lot of clothes, but many of them just sit unworn in our closets; a recent article in the New Yorker states that the average American buys more than 60 items of clothing every year, and barely wears 80 percent of these. Even worse, a lot of them go straight into the trash. For instance, the Council for Textile Recycling reports that every year, the average American throws away 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles, much of which are made from synthetic fibers that can take hundreds of years to decompose in a landfill.
Trashing the Environment
Many of those items taking up space in your closet or the landfill are the cause of some major environmental problems. The fashion industry uses large amounts of water, contributes to CO2 emissions, creates substantial amounts of waste, and uses hundreds of different chemicals that pollute the environment.
Water Waste and Pollution. Growing conventional textile crops like cotton requires a lot of water. The World Wildlife Federation (WWF) reports that it takes a shocking 20,000 liters to produce enough cotton for just one t-shirt and a pair of jeans. Processing and dying the fabric takes even more water. In addition, numerous chemicals are used in all these processes and these chemicals often end up in our water systems. For example, fertilizer runoff makes its way into rivers and lakes. In some countries, untreated wastewater from textile factories is actually just dumped directly into rivers. For these reasons, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) calls the apparel industry “one of the biggest polluters on the planet.” It reports that a fifth of industrial water pollution worldwide is caused by the textile industry.
Harmful Chemicals. Overall, the textile industry uses a shocking number of chemicals. According to a 2019 report by the European Parliament, more than 1,900 different chemicals are used to make clothing and the EU classifies 165 of these as hazardous to health or the environment. In addition to polluting the water, chemicals used in the textile industry can harm the health of farmers, textile factory workers and others who are directly exposed to these chemicals.
Destruction of the Soil. Chemicals also harm the soil. Healthy soil allows us to grow future textile crops, however, even more importantly, it allows us to grow food. Researchers warn that due to pollution and unsustainable farming practices, the world’s topsoil is rapidly disappearing. According to the WWF, in the last 150 years, the earth has already lost half of its topsoil. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation calculates that at the rate our topsoil is disappearing, the world only has about 60 years of harvests left.
Microfiber Pollution. The environmental harms of fashion don’t stop after you bring that t-shirt or pair of jeans home. Every time you wash them, you might be causing even more pollution. That’s because synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon are essentially made up of plastic. When we wash these fabrics, they shed tiny, plastic microfibers. Since these fibers are generally too small to be caught by the washing machine filter, they end up getting into the wastewater system, and ultimately into rivers and oceans. According to a 2016 research study, doing an average wash load of acrylic fabrics releases more than 700,000 fibers. After they end up in rivers and oceans, these fibers are consumed by the creatures that live there, ultimately becoming part of our own food supply. Katie Price is the creator of The Sunshine Series, which sells reusable hemp produce bags and other alternatives to single-use plastics. She talks about how serious this problem is, warning, “Scientists have discovered microplastics everywhere from our waterways to marine life, plants & even in our bodies. This is an ecological, social and health crisis.”
A Better Alternative
However, it is possible to create textiles without trashing the environment in the process. The Sunshine Series hemp produce bags are just one example. Hemp can be used to make all kinds of fabrics and clothing—even shoes—and it can actually help, rather than harm, the environment in the process.
Saving Water. Brianna Kilcullen is the CEO and founder of Anact. The company name is short for “an act,” which means the simple act of taking action and creating a positive impact, in this case by creating a sustainable towel made out of hemp and organic cotton. She talks about how using hemp can help the environment, saying, “One of the biggest impacts is the water savings. Hemp uses little to no water to grow during the farming process in comparison to conventional cotton, which is one of the thirstiest crops in the world.”
Reducing Co2 Emissions. Another benefit of hemp is that it can reduce CO2. Bernardo Carreira is the CEO of 8000Kicks, which are sneakers made from hemp. He explains that his sneakers show that it is possible to make amazing shoes that are also eco-friendly. Both the shoe upper and the insole are made of hemp, and the outside is made from recycled algal blooms. Carreira says, “Unlike cotton, leather and polyester that create a lot of CO2. Hemp absorbs CO2, which means that we start our manufacturing process with a negative carbon footprint.”
Using Less Chemicals. Compared to other crops, hemp is much more resistant to pests and weeds. This means that it can usually be grown with very little chemical treatment such as insecticides or herbicides.
Healing the Soil. Numerous studies have shown that hemp can help improve the soil. The European Industrial Hemp Association explains how. It says, “The dense leaves rapidly form a natural soil cover material that reduces water loss and soil erosion. In addition, fallen leaves provide vital nutrition for the soil.” Further, researchers have found that as it grows, hemp also removes toxins from the soil. In 2017, the Rodale Institute started a four-year trial to study the effects of growing hemp. Preliminary results show that it both enhances the health of the soil and suppresses weeds. Researchers also found that in the third year of the trial, using hemp in rotation with other crops increased the yield of those other crops.
Why Hemp Makes Amazing Textiles
Not only does growing hemp help the environment rather than harm it, but hemp makes amazing textiles. The Council of Fashion Designers of America explains that the hemp plant has numerous qualities which make it an excellent textile choice: it is extremely strong, hemp is thermo-regulating (which means it is cool in warm weather and warm in cool weather), it can be machine washed and dried, is easily dyed, and is resistant to mold, mildew and UV light.
Hemp fibers are also very durable. Price explains, “Unlike many other fabrics, which breaking down over time, hemp fabric can actually get better—rather than breaking down, it is said to break in, becoming softer with each wash.” She says, “The more I study hemp, the more I fall in love with the fiber.”
Carreira echoes this love of hemp as a textile. He says that the idea for his hemp sneaker came in 2017 when he was brainstorming with friends. “We wanted to create something that stood by our values, something ecological, something unique and something better,” he says, “We realized that hemp was a game changer in terms of durability, it is eco-friendly, vegan and it is also cool.” Says Carreira, “This was something that could ignite big changes in the textile industry.”
Challenges in the United States
Around the world, a growing number of people are falling in love with hemp textiles, and more and more designers are using hemp in their creations. However, at present, most designers report that they are still unable to source their hemp in the United States. Instead, most hemp textiles are imported into the country, most commonly from China and Asia. For example, Kilcullen says, “Anact's towels are made in China because that is where the hemp textile infrastructure currently exists.”
The United States still doesn’t have the infrastructure to process hemp into textiles on a large scale. In a 2020 report published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the authors explain that because growing hemp has been prohibited here for so long, the country has not had enough time to develop this infrastructure. They point out that while the United States has only recently reintroduced hemp, it has been legal for much longer in other parts of the world. They state, “Canada, Europe, and China are major foreign hemp-producing regions and potentially formidable competitors for an emerging U.S. industry because they have several decades or more of additional agronomic and marketing experience.”
One important part of creating the needed infrastructure in the United States is increasing the consumer demand for hemp. As Kilcullen explains, “In order to manufacture . . . [hemp textiles] in the US (or for any market that wants to see hemp infrastructure exist) you have to create market demand to incentivize the farmers and processors to invest in the space with the assurance that they have a market to sell into.”
Mark Andrew Sunderland is Chief Innovation Officer and Chief Sustainability Officer for Hemp Black, a company that stands out because of the fact that it makes all of its hemp products in the United States. He explains that another major problem in the hemp textile industry is lack of knowledge. He says, “Challenges are still centered around the basic understanding of hemp and exactly what hemp can do. The United States is far behind the rest of the world in its understanding.” Hemp Black is working to change that. By combining science and innovation, the company is creating products that showcase the many amazing properties of hemp. Sunderland says, “Throughout our Hemp Black suite of technologies-Eco6, Hide, Element, Fusion and Ink, we have built a sustainable platform that delivers back efficacy and performance, including 99.9 percent anti-bacterial materials.”
As Hemp Black and a growing number of other companies strive to push the hemp fashion industry forward, consumers also have an important role to play. While it might seem like your choice to buy a hemp t-shirt is not going to have much impact on the fashion industry as a whole, you actually have a lot of power to create change. Every time you choose to spend your money on a particular piece of fashion, you are influencing what the fashion industry does, because without your money that industry cannot exist. Price talks about choosing a reusable hemp bag over a plastic one. “It may feel insignificant individually but collectively, it truly is a major impact!” she says, “One bag is not going to save the world but by choosing reusable options over plastic, you're reducing the demand on fossil fuels, forcing supply to be reduced and giving the environment a chance. Every single purchase and choice you make can either improve the issue or add to it.”
The Pulse of the Fashion Industry report evaluates sustainability in the fashion industry, and it has been published yearly since 2017. In their 2019 report, the authors conclude that consumers have become more aware of making sustainable decisions in fashion, however their decisions are still dominated by aesthetics and quality. They worry that sustainable solutions are not being implemented fast enough to counterbalance the negative social and environmental impacts that the fashion industry is having on the environment.
You can help change that by choosing to wear hemp.
Interested in hemp textiles but not sure where to get started? Here are some of the brands we’re following at Svn Space:
ALIYA WANEK @aliyawanyek
Hemp Black @hempblack
Conscious Clothing @consciousclothing
Back Beat Co. @backbeat.co
evan kinori @evankinori
Frank the Brand @frankthebrandla
Hemp Accessories Brands
i love bad @ilovebad
Amber Fort @amberfort
Sunshine Series @sunshineseries
Arraei Collective (Canada) @arraeicollective
The Hemp Temple (Australia) @thehemptemple
HempLove (South Africa) @hemploveza
Trace Collective (United Kingdom) @trace.collective
Hemp Clothing Australia @hempclothingaustralia (Australia)
TRE (Spain) @adorotre
CAPLDN (United Kingdom) @capldn