How Sustainable Are Hemp Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

How Sustainable Are Hemp Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

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Quynh Nguyen

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The hemp plant has a bad reputation because of its marijuana association. But the fact remains that industrial hemp contains only a tiny amount of the psychoactive component of cannabis. Industrial hemp is a low-input crop with positive environmental impacts. Still, we had to ask: How sustainable are hemp fabrics? 

Hemp is generally a sustainable fabric. Hemp plants require little input yet provide exceptionally high fiber yield for fabric production. Also, they sequester carbon and improve soil health. Cutting out chemicals in hemp cultivation and manufacturing increases hemp fabrics’ sustainability.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of hemp fabrics used for clothes and bed covers. Then, we evaluate its sustainability, potential, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable products made with hemp fabrics.

Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Hemp Fabrics

Hemp fabrics are fairly sustainable textile materials. They are durable and breathable. The hemp crop, which provides raw materials for hemp fabrics, requires little to no irrigation while typically producing a very high yield (several times more than other fiber crops). Hemp can also be cultivated with very low agrochemical input. 

However, while organic hemp is ranked a class A fabric – the most sustainable, standard hemp is only ranked a class C fabric.

Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”

Oxford Dictionary

To understand the sustainability of hemp fabrics, we must assess their life-cycle and each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of products and materials. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. So, let’s have a look at the LCA of hemp fabrics!

In this article, we’ll use the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA, examining the five stages of the life-cycle of clothes and bedding made with hemp fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments

The life-cycle stages of hemp fabricsEach stage’s sustainability
Sourcing of hemp fabricsSourcing hemp fibers (as raw materials for hemp fabrics) is generally sustainable. The hemp crops sequester carbon and improve the health of the soil. Little water, pesticides, or herbicides are needed for hemp cultivation, yet the fiber yields (from hemp stems) are typically high. 
Hemp farmers can also harvest other parts of the plant, including seeds, leaves, roots, and stem woods. 
Manufacturing of hemp fabricsHemp production can be sustainable, even labor-intensive, mainly because most processes during the conventional manufacturing of hemp fabrics are fundamentally mechanical. But the harmful synthetic chemicals, which are sometimes used to reduce labor, quicken the process, and modify the final product, could lead to more adverse environmental impacts.
Transporting of hemp fabricsThe transportation of hemp fabrics might have a significant carbon footprint because of the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Hemp fabrics typically travel from fields (where hemp plants are grown) to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumer houses before going to recycling centers or landfill. 
Usage of hemp fabricsThe usage of hemp fabrics tends to be less sustainable because of the relatively high energy consumption for washing, drying, and ironing. However, the environmental impacts of the usage stage can be reduced with changes in how hemp clothes are laundered. Also, hemp fabrics are durable, which means a longer lifespan and lower replacement frequency. 
End-of-life of hemp fabricsThe end-of-life stage for hemp fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable. 

Overall, hemp fabrics are fairly sustainable. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, like a hemp t-shirt, depends on more specific factors, including the sourcing of hemp fibers and the type of energy used in manufacturing factories and consumer homes. The distance and mode of transportation are also deciding factors. 

Let’s dive deeper into each life-cycle stage and find out how you can buy hemp fabrics more sustainably.

How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Hemp Fibers for Hemp Fabrics

Sourcing hemp fibers (as raw materials for hemp fabrics) is generally sustainable. The hemp crops sequester carbon and improve the health of the soil. Little water, pesticides, or herbicides are needed for hemp cultivation, yet the fiber yields (from hemp stems) are typically high. 

Hemp farmers can also harvest other parts of the plant, including seeds, leaves, roots, and stem woods. 

What Raw Materials Are Used for Hemp Fabrics

Natural cellulose fibers extracted from the stems of the hemp plants are the main material for hemp fabrics. 

How Do the Raw Materials Sourced for Hemp Fabrics Impact the Environment

The main raw materials for hemp fabrics come from hemp plants – a rainfed crop with high carbon sequestration potential. Sourcing fibers from hemp plants is sustainable because hemp is a low-input, multiple-output crop with a relatively short rotation. Also, hemp cultivation, especially in organic farming, can improve soil health while providing exceptionally high fiber yields. 

Carbon Sequestration During Hemp Cultivation Has Positive Global Warming Impact 

As hemp plants grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink, taking greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere and helping to mitigate the climate crisis

During one growing season, one acre of industrial hemp sequesters and stores almost 8,77 tons of carbon dioxide (or 22 tonnes of CO2 per hectare). Because of the rapid growth rates, it is possible to plant two hemp crops per year and double the amount of carbon sequestered. 

In comparison, one acre of flax – the raw material for linen, a fairly similar fabric – absorbs about 1,5 tons per year. That is about 8,5% of the possible carbon sequestered by industrial hemp crops in a year. 

Hemp is a Fast-Growing, Productive crop 

Hemp is a rapidly growing plant that can grow up to 1 foot within a week. The height of industrial hemp cultivated in a temperate climate is typically between 6 to 15 feet as the plant matures. 

Consequently, a hemp field can be harvested after around 70-90 days. In comparison, the growing season for flax and cotton – other natural fiber crops – are 100 days and 150 to 180 days, respectively. 

Though the hemp fiber yield depends on sowing density, nitrogen level, and harvest time, it is generally very high compared with other fiber crops. 

The reasons are: 

  • Hemp plants can be grown in high density
  • Hemp plants reach impressive heights, having significant amounts of long fibers along the tall stem. 

Hemp has the highest yield per acre of any natural fiber

Hemp is a Low Water-Requirement Crop 

A hemp crop can be cultivated with very little to zero irrigation water, depending on the growing season and the climate. 

For example, hemp grown in the UK requires around 500–700 mm of water per growing season. This amount is most often met entirely by rainfall. Similarly, in China, hemp is grown under rainfed conditions. 

In comparison, cotton – the most recognized natural fiber in textiles – is a water-thirsty crop. The global water footprint for a kilogram of harvested cotton is around 10,000 liters.

Land Usage of Hemp Has Multiple Benefits

When hemp is planted as a resting crop, it helps improve soil health. Specifically, hemp plants can 

Also, a hemp crop produces more than one product. Essentially, every part of the plant has potential market values. Here is a list of hemp product examples from all parts of the plants: 

  • Stem fibers for fabrics, paper, food, bioplastic, and insulation material 
  • Stem woods for building material 
  • Seeds for food and oils 
  • Leaves and flowers for oils and mulch 
  • Roots for oil and dietary supplement 

Farmers Can Grow Hemp Without Toxic Pesticides and Herbicides 

Hemp is naturally pest resistant, so no harmful synthetic pesticides are needed to cultivate hemp. 

Also, hemp grows very densely and quickly with big canopies, which choke out most weeds. Thus no toxic herbicides are needed, either. 

Harmful synthetic fertilizers can also be avoided in hemp cultivation, though many farmers still use them. 

Because toxic chemical-based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides are unnecessary, hemp farmers can avoid the adverse environmental impacts of these agrochemicals. Such negative consequences include: 

  • elevated greenhouse gas emissions
  • water pollution
  • ecosystem disruption
  • health risks for farmers and nearby residents. 

In brief, the sourcing stage of hemp fabrics is sustainable because the low-water and low-input hemp crops provide multiple environmental and economical benefits. 

Where Are the Raw Materials for Hemp Fabrics Usually Sourced From

Hemp cultivation is believed to have started in Central Asia before spreading worldwide. The plant can grow well (without pesticide and fertilizer) in temperate climatic zones between the 25th and 55th parallel. In comparison, cotton only thrives in much smaller climate zones.

Industrial hemp (Cannabis sativa) is the same species of plant as marijuana but with much less tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). However, industrial hemp cultivation is not legal in many countries because of the association. 

Only 30 countries in Europe, Asia, and North and South America currently permit farmers to grow industrial hemp. 

Here are the top producers of hemp fibers in 2020: 

  • France
  • China
  • Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
  • Poland
  • Netherlands
  • Austria
  • Italy
  • Chile
  • Romania
  • Lithuania
  • Bulgaria
  • Spain
  • Russian Federation

All top producers of hemp fibers (except for Chile) are located in Europe and Asia. France and China produce more than half of the global hemp fibers (32% and 23%, respectively). 

In the US, cultivating industrial hemp is on the rise. 

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Hemp Fabrics

Hemp production can be sustainable, even labor-intensive, mainly because most processes during the conventional manufacturing of hemp fabrics are fundamentally mechanical. But the harmful synthetic chemicals, which are sometimes used to reduce labor, quicken the process, and modify the final product, could lead to more adverse environmental impacts. 

How Sustainably Is Hemp Fabrics Generally Manufactured

Hemp fabrics are made with natural cellulose fibers extracted from hemp stems. Hemp, similar to linen, jute, or bamboo, is a bast fiber because it comes from a plant’s stem. 

Once separated, hemp fibers can be woven into yarn via a series of (mostly) mechanical processes. 

These mechanical processes set hemp (and other natural cellulose fibers, including cotton and linen) apart from regenerated cellulose fibers, such as rayon, acetate, and cupro, which are made in chemical processes. 

The traditional manufacturing process of hemp fabrics typically follows these steps: 

  1. Extract cellulose fibers from hemp: After hemp stems are cut, they are retted, broken, scutched, and hackled for the fibers to be extracted.
    • Retting: hemp stems are left to decompose in a retting process. There are retting methods:
      • Dew retting: Cut hemp stems are spread out in the field where natural moisture (dew) ferments the stems, breaks down the glue, and frees the fibers from the stem. This process can take 2 to 10 weeks, depending on weather conditions
      • Water retting (or vat): Submerge hemp stems in water. The water source could be a stagnant pond, a flowing river, a vat, or a tank of (warm) water. Heated water fastens the decomposing process. Water retting is often faster than dew retting, taking approximately 1 to 2 weeks
      • Chemical retting: Cut hemp stems are soaked and boiled in a chemical solution that fastens fibers’ separation. This fiber extraction process could be done in under one hour.
      • For example, chemical retting in hemp cultivation in Northern Thailand takes as little as 20 minutes, but water retting can take up to 9 weeks.
    • Breaking: the stems are broken by a breaker or fluted rolls.
      Scutching: The broken stems are beaten to remove the soft tissues. This can be done mechanically using steam or biologically-based enzyme technology. (Non-organic hemp manufacturers might use synthetic chemicals here).
      Hackling: The fibers are combed to remove any remaining woody particles and to align. 
  2. Roving and spinning into yarns: These are mechanical processes done by hand and/or machines.
    Specialized spinning machinery is required to process the long fibers of hemp that are retted using traditional organic methods (i.e., dew retting and water getting).
    In contrast, hemp fibers retted chemically have a similar length to cotton (being “cottonized”) and can be processed by similar spinning machines that work cotton or wool.
  3. Finish the yarns with processes such as cleaning, softening, dyeing, washing, drying, and weaving. 

Alternatively, there are (green) decortication methods to harvest and manufacture hemp fibers, such as Fibranova’s approach. In this approach, hemp stems are scutch (or decorticated) green and do not go through retting. After scutching, fiber separation is achieved through a degumming process, either using chemicals or natural enzymes. This approach is sometimes preferable to the traditional method for a few reasons: 

  • The harvest period is wider (harvest can start soon after flowering) 
  • No retting (and extra time for retting) is required 
  • Both short fibers and long fibers can be produced, suitable for different purposes 

Let’s now deep dive into a few key sustainable issues of this life-cycle stage: 

Manufacturing Hemp Fabrics is Labor and Energy Intensive 

Harvesting hemp plants for hemp fibers and manufacturing hemp fabrics are labor-intensive. While machinery can replace human labor in various steps (including scutching, hackling, roving, drawing, and wet spinning), energy is required for machine operation. 

An ecological footprint and water analysis of cotton, hemp, and polyester calculated that manufacturing hemp fabrics (both organic and traditional) has higher energy requirements than manufacturing organic cotton (both organic and conventional varieties). However, hemp fabric manufacturing requires much less energy compared to polyester. 

According to the same analysis, the energy requirements for fiber production and crop cultivation for different hemp fabrics follow this descending order: 

  • Non-organic hemp: processed using Fibranova’s green decortication approach and degummed using chemicals 
  • Organic hemp: processed using Fibranova’s green decortication approach and degummed using chemicals 
  • Non-organic hemp: dew-retted and traditionally processed 
  • Organic hemp: dew-retted and traditionally processed 

Fibranova’s green decortication approach has a higher energy usage than the traditional method, mainly because of the need to boil water during degumming. 

When energy sources are mainly fossil-based, which is often the case in manufacturing factories based in China or other Asia countries, carbon emissions of this stage increase accordingly.

Manufacturing Hemp Fabrics Has Relatively High Carbon Emissions and Global Warming Impacts 

The high energy requirement results in increased carbon emissions, especially in places where fossil fuels are the main energy sources. 

An ecological footprint and water analysis of cotton, hemp, and polyester showed that hemp has relatively high carbon footprints (cradle-to-factory gate) compared to cotton. 

Specifically, one variety of hemp fabric (organic hemp, cultivated in the UK, processed using Fibranova’s green decortication approach and degummed using chemicals) has double the manufacturing carbon footprint of one variety of cotton (organic cotton, cultivated in the US)

However, hemp fabric production has similar carbon emissions to linen fabric production (mainly because the processes are similarly labor-intensive). 

For example, a study on the environmental impacts of the production of hemp and flax found that the carbon emissions of manufacturing hemp fibers (water-retted) and linen fibers (field or dew retted) are mostly the same. 

  • Hemp: 1,350 kg CO-eq per 100 kg of yarn 
  • Flax: 1,360 kg CO-eq per 100 kg of yarn 

The Environmental Impacts of Retting Varies Depending on the Methods

Each retting process used in hemp manufacturing has pros and cons, and their environmental impacts are varied: 

  • Chemical retting speeds up the process and guarantees the uniformity of fibers. However, harmful chemicals can cause further damage to the waterway if waste is disposed of without proper treatment.
  • Water retting sometimes uses a high volume of water. The water also needs to be heated, which uses energy. 
  • Dew retting is the most sustainable extracting method. It doesn’t require finding a water source and producing extra energy and chemicals. Also, dew retting allows nutrients to return to the soil through natural decomposition.

Manufacturing Hemp Fabrics Sometimes Involves Toxic Synthetic Chemicals

Some conventional hemp manufacturers use harmful chemicals for treatments, such as softeners, wrinkle-resistors, dyes, and bleaching. There are risks of these chemicals leaking into the waterways and the air if waste disposal isn’t handled properly. These chemicals can also hinder hemp fabrics’ biodegradability and end-of-life options. 

On the other hand, organic hemp manufacturers replace harmful synthetic chemicals with natural and/or low-impact ones (for example, for dyeing) while utilizing elements such as heat, steam, compressed air, and enzymes.

Where Are Hemp Fabrics Usually Manufactured

China produces approximately 70% of the world’s hemp fabrics. France is the next largest producer of this crop, followed by Austria, Chile, and the United Kingdom. 

Energy Usage at Linen Manufacturing Locations Varies Based on Each Country

Because manufacturing hemp is energy-intensive, using renewable energy (solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass) significantly reduces carbon emissions at this stage. 

According to Our World in Data, Austria’s share of renewable energy in primary energy is 18.36% – the highest percentage among all top producers of hemp fabrics, including the organic variety. 

Following are the renewable energy share in primary energy in the biggest hemp-producing countries:

  • China: 14.95% renewable energy
  • France: 13.67% renewable energy
  • Austria: 37.48% renewable energy
  • Chile: 26.52% renewable energy
  • The UK: 17.95% renewable energy

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Hemp Fabrics

The transportation of hemp fabrics might have a significant carbon footprint because of the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Hemp fabrics typically travel from fields (where hemp plants are grown) to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfill. 

In the life-cycle of hemp clothes, transportation typically occurs as below: 

  • From fields where hemp raw materials are grown to the fiber and fabric manufacturing location(s)
  • From the clothing manufacturing location to sorting centers/physical shops 
  • From sorting centers/physical shops to the consumer’s house 
  • From the consumer’s home to the centers for recycling/ disposing

Traveling Distances of Hemp Fabrics Vary Depending on the Supply Chain

It is not uncommon for natural cellulose fabrics like hemp to have their supply chain spreading globally, meaning that crop cultivation, fiber production, fabric spinning, and clothes manufacturing might happen in various towns, countries, or even continents. 

Here are some scenarios for transporting hemp fabrics: 

  • Farmers grow hemp in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to be sourced and shipped to a manufacturer in Chile. Final pieces of hemp clothes are then transported to the US to sell to consumers.
  • Hemp fibers are harvested from fields in France and shipped to fabric factories around Europe, including France, Austria, and the UK. Hemp clothes are then sold primarily to the European market.
  • Manufacturers in China source hemp fibers grown locally, spin and sew them into hemp clothes before selling them to US consumers. 

You can reduce the transporting carbon footprint by choosing hemp fabrics that travel a shorter distance from the fields and are made closer to your home.

The Carbon Footprint of Transporting Hemp Fabrics Depends Largely on the Vehicle of Transportation 

During its life-cycle, a piece of hemp clothing can be transported using various types of vehicles, including: 

  • Large container ships 
  • Planes 
  • Freight trains 
  • Long-distance trucks 
  • Short-distance delivering vans 

And these various types of transportation vehicles have different carbon footprint impacts: 

For example, you as a consumer can choose not to pick the fast delivery option when ordering hemp clothes to reduce the carbon footprint of your hemp items. 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Hemp Fabrics

The usage of hemp fabrics tends to be less sustainable because of the relatively high energy consumption for washing, drying, and ironing. However, the environmental impacts of the usage stage can be reduced with changes in how hemp clothes are laundered. Also, hemp fabrics are durable, which means a longer lifespan and lower replacement frequency. 

The usage stage is a critical stage in the life-cycle of clothing, in which energy and water are consumed for clothes washing, drying, and ironing. 

Hemp is a lightweight and highly breathable fabric. Clothes stay dry and fresh longer as hemp fibers allow moisture from the skin to pass through to the atmosphere. It helps reduce the frequency of washes, lowering the environmental impacts of this stage. 

Laundering behavioral changes can further reduce such impacts. These changes include:

  • Switch to line drying instead of using tumble driers 
  • Do cold washes with appropriate detergents
  • Use energy-efficient washing machines

Hemp is one of the strongest and most durable of all natural textile fibers. It is quite a bit stronger than cotton (its tensile strength is three times higher than cotton). While a typical cotton t-shirt doesn’t typically last more than 10 years, a hemp t-shirt may last two to three decades

Long-lasting clothing is generally more sustainable because you don’t need to replace it too frequently (thus, no need for more resources to make the new one). 

How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Hemp Fabrics

The end-of-life stage for hemp fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable. 

Hemp fabrics are 100% cellulose, making it a biodegradable material. At the end of the fabric’s life, there are generally three available options: 

  • Composting
  • Incineration
  • Landfilling

It can take from weeks to months for pure (unblended), hemp fabrics to decompose depending on the conditions. The story is different for linen treated with chemical dyes or similarly

In comparison, 

  • untreated linen takes about two weeks
  • untreated cotton takes up to five months
  • rayon fabrics (regenerated cellulose fibers) take from six to eight weeks
  • plastic-based items could take up space in the landfill for up to 100 years

Hemp fabrics can also be recycled and upcycled. It is possible to recycle hemp using similar methods for other natural cellulose fibers like cotton and linen.

How Circular Are Products Made of Hemp Fabrics

In the textile industry, a circular economy is designed to keep products and materials in use for as long as possible, especially through reusing and recycling. It also covers regenerating natural systems that support the industry and reducing polluted waste released into such systems.

“The circular economy is a systems solution framework that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution.”

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

As a whole, the textile industry is almost linear: 97% of the input is new resource.

It is possible to recycle hemp fabrics mechanically, physically, and chemically, depending mostly on whether the materials are pure hemp or a blend. 

Two challenges in recycling hemp on a large scale are:

How Can You Buy Hemp Fabrics More Sustainably

The key to sustainably buying hemp products is to check on relevant environmental and original certifications. 

  • USDA ORGANIC: This certificate is applied to growing the crop (raw material), ensuring natural agricultural products are produced that can be certified as “organic.” 
  • Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): A globally-recognized certification system that ensures a certain threshold of organic content has been met. It covers manufacturing, packaging, labeling, transportation, and distribution (but not what happens in the fields where crops are grown). 
  • USDA Certified Biobased Product: The USDA BioPreferred® Certification is a voluntary certification offered by the United States Department of Agriculture. The certificate identifies products made from plants or other renewable materials.
  • European Confederation of Flax and Hemp (CELC): The only European agro-industrial organization federating all the stages of production and transformation for linen and hemp from fields to factory gates.
  • Organic Content Standard (OCS): This certification from The Textile Exchange verifies the accurate percentage of organically grown material in a final product. 
    • OCS 100 is for products containing 95% or more organic material.
    • OCS Blended is for products containing at least 5% organic material blended with conventional or synthetic raw materials.
  • STeP by OEKO-TEX®: STeP by OEKO-TEX® is an independent certification system for brands, retailers, and manufacturers from the textile and leather industry. It communicates organizational environmental measures, including reducing carbon footprint and water usage.
  • Fairtrade International: A Fair Trade certification includes social, economic, and environmental standards that apply to the full supply chain from the farmers and workers to the traders and companies bringing the final product to market. 
  • Fair For Life: Fair for Life certifies every step of production instead of the finished product. It prioritizes transparency in business at all levels.

Some certifications are signaling brands’ efforts toward lowered environmental impacts and a circular economy are: 

  • B Corp Certification: The label B Corp is a certification reserved for for-profit companies. Certified holders are assessed on their social and environmental impacts. 
  • Cradle2Cradle certification: Cradle2Cradle provides a standardized approach to material circularity. It assesses whether products have been suitably designed and made with the circular economy in mind covering five critical categories: material health, material reuse, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.

Where to Buy Sustainable Hemp Fabrics 

As we have established throughout the life-cycle assessment, although linen fabrics are generally sustainable, not all hemp clothes are made equally.

Organic hemp fabrics are one of the most sustainable fabrics (Class A), but conventional hemp fabrics are only Class C.

For sustainable hemp fabrics, you want to look for the following: 

  • Certified organic, both during the growing stage and the other stages in the life-cycle 
  • Dew retted 
  • Naturally colors 

If you search for sustainable linen manufacturers, make sure they are transparent about the following:

  • Energy usage (volume and source) in manufacturing 
  • Chemical usages (and disposal treatments) in manufacturing 

We have compiled for you a list of some of the most sustainable brands selling hemp fabrics (in alphabetic order)

Why Is It Important to Buy Products Made of More Sustainable Fabrics

It is important to buy products made of more sustainable fabrics because a sustainable textile industry has a lower carbon footprint, helps save natural resources, and is better for forests, animals, and humans. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Your Carbon Footprint 

The production of clothing and footwear is estimated to contribute 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions – more than all international flights and shipping combined. If the fashion industry were a country, it would be the forth largest emitter of carbon dioxide

One way to reduce the carbon footprint of the clothes you buy is to opt for sustainable fabrics. Sustainable fabrics, which are often made with natural or recycled fibers, have relatively low carbon footprints compared to petroleum-based fabrics. For example, organic cotton made in the US has a carbon footprint of 2.35 kg CO2 (per ton of spun fiber) – a quarter of polyester’s carbon footprint. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Demand For Natural Resources and Waste Management

The textile industry uses water and land to grow cotton and other fibers. It is estimated that 79 billion cubic meters of water were used for the sector worldwide in 2015. For example, producing a single cotton t-shirt requires as much water as one person drinks for 2.5 years (2,700 liters of fresh water).

Worse yet, the textile economy is vastly more linear than circular: the largest amount of resources used in clothes ended up in landfill (instead of being recycled to remake clothes). According to a report by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation,

  • Less than 3% of materials used in the textile economy in 2015 came from recycled sources.
  • In other words, more than 97% of resources used in making clothes are extracted new. 

When clothing items are disposed of within a short period of time – under a year in the case of half of the fast fashion clothes – the natural systems that provide raw materials for fabrics don’t have enough time to recover and regenerate, which could lead to ecological breakdown. 

Sustainable fabrics are made with less water and emissions while lasting longer:

  • Because they are durable, you don’t need to buy new clothes too often. 
  • Thus, you help reduce to pressure to extract more resources for making new items. 

Similarly, making and consuming sustainable fabrics made with recycled materials reduces the demand for virgin materials while helping tackle waste management. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Sustainable Management of Forests

Sustainable plant-based fabrics are made with raw materials from forests and plantations that are sustainably managed, such as complying with FSC standards

When you buy sustainable plant-based fabrics, you discourage unsustainable forestry practices like illegal logging. You can help reduce deforestation, biodiversity loss, and the effect of climate change. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Animals 

The fashion industry is rife with animal mistreatment when it comes to making animal-based fabrics like cashmere or leather. Every year, billions of animals suffer and die for clothing and accessories.

Buying sustainable vegan alternatives can help to reduce the pressure on raising more and more animals to meet the demand for animal-based fabrics while sacrificing their well-being and lives. 

Suppose you have to buy fabrics made with, for example, leather or wool; make sure you only choose brands committed to cruelty-free products. In that case, you help advocate better treatments for animals raised within the textile industry. 

Using Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Textile Workers 

Recent statistics from UNICEF estimated as many as 170 million child laborers worldwide, many of whom were engaged in some form of work in the textile industry. They don’t get paid minimum wages and often work long hours. 

When you buy sustainable fabrics from brands transparent about the working conditions at their factories, you discourage the use of child labor and help promote better working conditions for textile workers.

Final Thoughts

Hemp fabrics are generally sustainable materials made with natural cellulose fibers in a series of mechanical (and possibly chemical-free) processes. 

Organic hemp fabrics are one of the most sustainable fabrics available. Even non-organic hemp fabrics could have relatively low environmental impacts, especially if the energy sources for manufacturing and usage have a high renewable percentage. 

Also, hemp crops have several environmental benefits, including capturing a lot of carbon and increasing soil nutrition. 

To make it even more sustainable, buy second-hand hemp clothes, use hemp clothes and household items for as long as possible, upcycle the material to extend its usage, and arrange for it to be recycled appropriately.

Stay impactful,



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Quynh Nguyen

Quynh loves to research and write about how we can live more sustainably. Before joining Impactful Ninja, she managed communications at the social enterprise Fargreen. And when she's not writing, she likes to run in the woods, dig in the garden, or knit the next jumper.

Did you know that the internet is a huge polluter of the environment? But fortunately not this site. This site is powered by renewable energy and all hosting-related CO2 emissions are offset by three times as many renewable energy certificates. Find out all about it here.

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