Shopping for Eco-Friendly Clothes, Part 3: Choose Hemp



Part 1 of this series suggested you read the label and look for specific certifications that indicate clothes were made to reduce their environmental impact. Part 2 noted you could make it easy to buy greener fashions by choosing Tencel and Lyocell, fibers woven from natural cellulose. In the last of our three-part series, we're focusing on one of my all-time favorite fabrics: hemp, made from a plant that's been a source of food and fiber for the past 10,000 years.

Hemp tunic Because it's botanically related to marijuana, many people believe that hemp is completely illegal to grow in the U.S. This is not the case, though it is not grown as widely as it should be. Industrial hemp is legal to produce, trade and possess in Oregon, Maine, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota and Vermont, though the federal Drug Enforcement Agency has imposed some restrictions. To be absolutely clear, hemp does not have any of marijuana's psychoactive properties. You can grow it, process it, eat it, and wear it, but you sure can't smoke it, even if you set it on fire! Meanwhile, Americans spend $360 million every year on imported hemp, and that number is growing. Wouldn't it make more sense to develop the industrial hemp market here in the U.S.?

WHAT'S SO GOOD ABOUT HEMP?



Hemp grows very well in North America with no artificial fertilizers and pesticides required. The entire plant can be used, from seed to foliage:   as a diet supplement, for biomass fuels,  to make paper, boxes and bags,  even as home insulation

Hemp is also wonderfully durable. I have a hemp sweater that never seems to wrinkle or lose its shape, and hemp shoes I don't think will ever wear out. If allowed to flourish, hemp could become the foundation for an amazingly sustainable industry

So…what are the downsides? 

Hemp loses some of its appeal depending on how it's harvested and processed.

The preferable harvesting process is called "field" or "dew" retting: plant stems are cut or pulled up and essentially left in the field to rot, which will naturally separate the bast fibers from the woody core. This is the process used in countries that have stronger environmental regulations.

The alternative "water retting process" is not so eco-friendly. Instead of letting the plant stems rot naturally, they're immersed in fresh water, which then needs to be treated and disposed of.

Either way, once the fibers are separated from their woody core, then need to be put through a mechanical finishing process. In China, where water retting is common, chemical methods are sometimes used to make cottonized or flock hemp. These chemicals also strip hemp of its naturally strong characteristics. Like most other fabrics, including bamboo and cotton, hemp is sometimes cleaned and softened with caustic sodas. This is not an eco friendly practice as it releases harmful chemicals into the environment. 

Hemp can be produced organically, just as cotton can be produced organically. Unfortunately, the hemp industry lacks precise consumer guidelines and it is difficult to tell whether hemp clothing was produced in the most eco friendly way or if harsh chemicals were used.

  ECOLUTION® is a European company that is producing hemp in exactly the right way, as you can see on their website where they posted a visual of their processing steps.

Another company to consider is Sweet Grass Natural Fibers , an one online store that makes all of its clothing in the U.S., uses no plastic packaging in shipping, and invests in renewable wind power.

 

Hemp shoe SHOP OUR STORE

In addition to the retailers listed above, we hope you'll browse our store. We've found t-shirts, dresses, shorts, skirts, and even shoes, made mostly with a combination of hemp and organic cotton. At the least, you'll get an idea of the variety of fashions you can now buy that are made from hemp.

 

 RELATED POSTS

How to Shop for Eco-Friendly Clothing, Part 1: Read the Label

How to Shop for Eco-Friendly Clothing, Part 2: Try Tencel or Lyocell

Clothing: What's Eco, and What's Not

Bamboo: Green, or Green Washed?

Dry Your Clothes for Free

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8 Responses to Shopping for Eco-Friendly Clothes, Part 3: Choose Hemp

  1. Marty August 3, 2011 at 12:39 pm #

    This is an excellent series for consumers wanting to do the right thing. One drawback of many hemp fabrics is their tendency to have a somewhat scratchy texture and a firm hand that doesn’t drape well when used in clothing. Here at Sympatico we create our womens wear from a 65%/35% hemp/Tencel blend which offers a nice drape and soft hand. As noted in your earlier article, Tencel is sustainably produced in a closed loop system, making it an environmentally sensitive option when addressing hemp’s biggest downside from a fashion standpoint.

  2. adam @ greendoglove.com August 5, 2011 at 10:27 am #

    Good post. You are right most people associate hemp with marijuana, but hemp has so many good qualities that make it more eco friendly than cotton. It takes less water to grow, it’s durable, no pesticides or fertilizers needed. Thanks for spreading the word!

  3. Alicia@ eco friendly homemaking August 7, 2011 at 8:16 am #

    I have just found your blog and I am so glad that I did!! I have been reading over several of your posts and they are so informative!

  4. Carolyn @ harmonyyogapants.com August 9, 2011 at 6:11 am #

    I just discovered your blog and find it very interesting. Hemp is a good alternative for fabric, but I didn’t realized that there were multiple ways to process it. It is not surprising that we don’t grow it more in America, with the stigma that it is related to marijuana.
    Hemp is not always that most comfortable fabric but at harmonyyogapants.com we have do offer a hemp yoga pant that can be worn all day and with its grippy texture is perfect for Acro yoga and rock climbing.

  5. Diane MacEachern August 10, 2011 at 11:14 am #

    Thanks, Alicia!

  6. Diane MacEachern August 10, 2011 at 11:15 am #

    Thanks for sharing your link!

  7. Jessica Hamilton October 1, 2012 at 9:04 am #

    I believe eco-friendly clothing is becoming more a norm in society today. Not only does it benefit the economy, but the clothes just seem to be soft and more comfortable.

  8. Diane MacEachern October 15, 2012 at 3:51 am #

    Jessica, I hope you’re right. It seems pretty easy to buy t-shirts made from organic cottons. I used to be a big fan of fleece made from recycled polyester, but I’m rethinking that. There’s not nearly enough “business wear” in organic or eco-friendly clothing, or even jeans for that matter. But the more we demand, the more likely we are to get it. That’s the power of the purse, right?

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