Let’s be real- we haven’t exactly done Mother Earth right over the last few centuries, give or take a hundred years. From industrialization to population booms, the impact humans have had on the environment can be felt worldwide. In an effort to slow down the degradation of the environment, there are small choices you can make that can have an impact; choosing sustainable materials is one of them.   

Hemp and cotton are two natural fibers with a long history of use in textiles, but they couldn't be more different when it comes to their environmental impact and versatility. While there is some overlap between the two and their uses, there are some key differences between industrial hemp and cotton, especially when it comes to the environment. 

Is Hemp Better Than Cotton?

Whether hemp is better than cotton is a little more complex than just a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. With many factors influencing the benefits of one versus the other, there is a lot of weighing of variables in order to arise at a conclusion. Are you in the market for new underwear? Hemp may not be the most comfortable option. Looking for a durable backpack? Hemp could be an excellent alternative to cotton.

The History of Hemp and Cotton

Cotton has been a staple in the textile industry for nearly 5,000 years. Seriously- the first documented use of the cotton plant for clothing was somewhere around 3,000 BC.  It is soft, breathable, and comfortable to wear- everything ancient civilizations needed in a garment. 

In the United States, with the industrial revolution and the invention of the cotton gin (shout out to our boy Eli Whitney), cotton became a staple crop, making the US responsible for supplying ⅔ of the world with cotton. Because of its versatility and comfort, cotton's popularity amongst textiles has only continued to grow. In fact, some things that are made from cotton that you may not be aware of: coffee filters, paper, beauty products and, most recently, a filament for 3-D printing.

Hemp plant, on the other hand, has a rich history dating back thousands of years, and it offers several advantages over cotton when it comes to sustainability and uses. Easy to grow and durable, hemp has managed to become incorporated into all of the major industries of the world. 

Historically speaking, hemp originated in China and was primarily used for textiles and the seeds as food. As populations began to migrate (see also: colonialism), hemp became popular in Europe and then the United States shortly before the Revolutionary War. However, come the mid-20th century, production had all but been banned by the United States government. These old, rich, white dudes argued that since hemp was derived from the same plant that marijuana was, its cultivation and production should be highly regulated. 

There’s a conspiracy in there somewhere. We’re just not quite sure where.  

Comparing Hemp vs Cotton

A boxing match but make it natural fibers.

When looking at industrial hemp and organic cotton, there are a lot of similarities between the two fibers. They both can be used in textile production and have seeds that can be leveraged as nutrition. Both are natural fibers with rich histories in both the US and abroad. That being said, when looking at hemp and cotton, hemp has some clear advantages, particularly when it comes to the environmental problems posed by each. 

Sustainability and Environmental Impact

Cotton is a notoriously thirsty crop. Kind of like your ex. Cotton production requires a significant amount of water, with estimates suggesting that it takes around 2,700 liters of water to produce one cotton t-shirt. In regions with water scarcity, cotton cultivation can strain local water resources, leading to environmental degradation, loss of soil fertility and hardship for communities. Again, kind of like your ex.

One of the most striking advantages of hemp over cotton is the hemp plant's little water requirement. Hemp is a hardy plant that can thrive in a variety of climates and needs less water than cotton to grow. This makes it a sustainable choice in regions where water resources are limited. 

Additionally, when looking at the impact hemp and cotton have on the environment, hemp requires exponentially less fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to grow. Hemp is naturally resistant to many pests and because of its dense growth, smothers weeds. It's natural resiliency reduces the needs to toxic chemicals which can ultimately end up back in water sources.

With regards to water, cotton requires substantially more water than hemp to grow whereas hemp is considered to be ‘water-efficient’. When comparing hemp and cotton, you will also find that cotton leads to soil degradation while hemp actually encourages soil regeneration, encouraging new plants and crops to take root. 

Strength and Durability

Hemp fabric is incredibly durable and becomes softer with each wash, making it an excellent choice for clothing. It also provides excellent UV resistance, making it ideal for outdoor and active wear. Hemp fibers are longer and stronger than conventional cotton fibers, which means hemp products are more resistant to wear and tear, ultimately leading to a longer lifespan and reduced waste. Oh and hemp is four times stronger than cotton fabrics and doesn’t stretch which means clothing retains its shape longer. The moral of this paragraph? Hemp clothes, including t-shirts, will have a longer life span than your run of the mill fast fashion materials like cotton, polyester and nylon.

Versatility and Applications

Both hemp and cotton have a wide variety of applications ranging from the fashion industry to food to manufacturing and you will often find that hemp plants and cotton plants are used to make similar products. While oil extracts from hemp seeds and cotton seeds are both used in the beauty industry, hemp seeds provide the additional benefit of being a nutrient dense food. These applications reduce the demand for resource-intensive, environmentally harmful alternatives.

Performance and Comfort

When looking at hemp vs. cotton in regards to textiles performance and comfort, hemp has made substantial progress in its competition against cotton. Often considered the superior fabric for clothing, cotton has lost some of its stride in recent times as it makes way for more and more hemp clothing brands. 

Cultivation and Production

On the surface, the cultivation and production of these crops appear similar. We mean, they’re crops, right? Wrong. The two plants could not be any different from each other when it comes to cultivation and production. 

For instance, cotton farming has become increasingly more reliant on chemicals to control pests and weeds. The excessive use of these chemicals can lead to soil degradation, water pollution, and harm to both human health and wildlife. The pesticides used in cotton farming can have detrimental effects on ecosystems, particularly when they leach into nearby water bodies. Over the years, there have been numerous lawsuits involving the U.S. government as well as studies surrounding the harmful nature of pesticides and herbicides.

Contrarily, hemp requires little to no pesticides or herbicides as it has a natural resilience to a good number of pests and weeds. Because of this, the soil degradation and ultimate depletion that can be seen with cotton farming is not present in hemp farming. Furthermore, cotton is a ‘monoculture’ crop which means it is the only crop cultivated in a given area. Hemp, on the other hand, is often part of diverse crop rotations which are known to enhance soil quality. 

Economic Impact

The economic impact of hemp vs. cotton is far reaching and immeasurable on some levels as the long term impact of hemp has not been fully uncovered. As of today, cotton remains a slighting more ‘economic’ fabric. This is largely due to cannabis plants criminalization and industrial hemp's cultivation being all but illegal for the better part of the 20th century and still being viewed as a ‘niche’ fabric. 

To bring hemp production to a larger market without compromising affordability entirely, many alternative, environmentally conscious brands are creating ‘hemp blends’ to manufacture textiles out of. This can include hemp/cotton blends and hemp and polyester blends to name a few. These unique blends offer the companies the ability to balance sustainability with affordability.

When we look at the large scale and long term economic impact of hemp and cotton, the toll cotton takes on the environment and its lack of sustainability can not be accurately quantified yet. Given the environmental impact cotton has, one could wonder if cotton will kill itself. 

The Future of Cotton vs. Hemp

While cotton has long been a staple in the fashion industry, its environmental impact is increasingly hard to ignore. Like with most things, taking a closer look at anything that was a good idea in pre-electricity and running water. With its high water requirements, chemical use, and soil degradation, cotton leaves quite a bit to be desired (like your ex).

Hemp is more water-efficient, requires fewer pesticides, regenerates soil, and has a minimal impact on the environment making it an all around better choice of fabrics. Its durability and versatility make it an excellent choice for clothing, textiles, and various other products. Moreover, hemp's potential to sequester carbon and support biodiversity adds to its sustainability appeal. Ya’ll- hemp can literally heal the planet. Hemp for President 2024.

Additionally, because hemp is one of the fastest growing crops and requires little outside assistance in terms of fertilizer or pest/weed control, we can grow and cultivate hemp is a fraction of the time it takes to cultivate the same amount of cotton. For example, one acre of hemp yields three times the amount cotton grown in the same space. THREE TIMES AS MUCH.

As consumers become more conscious of their environmental footprint, the demand for sustainable materials like hemp is growing. By choosing hemp over cotton, we can take a step towards a more sustainable future, reducing our impact on the planet and supporting environmentally friendly practices in agriculture and industry. It's clear that in the hemp vs. cotton debate, hemp emerges as the badder of the asses.

May 13, 2024 — Amber Sparks

Leave a comment

Please note: comments must be approved before they are published.