Hemp is so versatile it can be found in most industries from fashion to construction. It’s popularity, and sales, have increased dramatically in recent years. In 2018 in the U.S. the sales of hemp-based products reached $1.1 billion – this year (2022) the figure is expected to be an incredible $2.61 billion. However, as with all materials, we need to determine how it impacts the environment for us and for future generations. Is hemp sustainable?
What is hemp?
Hemp is a class of the plant Cannabis sativa that is grown specifically for commercial and industrial uses. Both the seeds and the fibers of the plant can be used. Cannabis and hemp, although they come from the same plant, are not the same thing. Hemp only contains a tiny amount of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the psychoactive compound that make people ‘high’.
So, is hemp sustainable?
Despite the stigma of hemp (largely due to its association with cannabis), it is making a comeback! This is great news in terms of the environment, hemp ticks a lot of boxes on the sustainability front.
Hemp is renewable – and quickly!
Ability to renew itself is a key indicator of sustainability. Hemp shines in this category – along with bamboo, it is one of the fastest growing plants in the world! In optimal conditions, they can reach heights of around 12 inches within a month. Maturity can be reached in as little as 3 to 4 months.
Hemp is an extremely durable crop
Hemp is up there with the most durable crops out there too. Not only does this help during the growth phase, it also ensures that items contain hemp are extremely durable too. This is great news from an environmental point of view – items that can be used for a long time reduce waste which could, ultimately, end up in landfill.
Hemp requires little water to thrive
The amount of water needed to produce an item is an important environmental consideration. Overuse of fresh water means that it may be diverted from ecosystems that need it to thrive. The amount of water required depends on the climate and the stage of growth. Generally, though, hemp can thrive with little water. When hemp is used in the fashion industry the water savings are significant. This amount is fairly low compared with other natural fibers such as cotton.
Hemp is naturally pest-resistant
Often farmers will use chemical pesticides to to fend off any insects or other pests. This comes with significant environmental impacts. They can degrade soil and pollute local water ways, affecting soil health and killing aquatic species. Fortunately, most varieties of hemp are pest-resistant, so these harsh chemicals are not needed.
However, it should be noted that the process of growing hemp is largely not chemical free. Chemical fertilizers are often used by farmers to create an optimal environment for them to grow. Fertilizers have similar impacts on the environment as chemical pesticides. Where you can, opt for organic hemp products to minimize the environmental impact.
Hemp can be grown anywhere!
Crops that can only be grown in certain climates or soil conditions present environmental issues. Products need to travel across the world to their destination to reach the shop floor. This leads to an increased carbon footprint due to the emissions associated with transport. Hemp-based products can, effectively, be local to anyone, wherever they are in the world.
Hemp products are biodegradable – and compostable
If an item is biodegradable, it can be broken down naturally by micro-organisms such as bacteria. Natural hemp products will break down. They came from nature so they can, essentially, return to nature. This is key in terms of sustainability – it means that hemp items won’t hang around indefinitely causing havoc in the environment.
Biodegradable and compostable are mistaken as interchangeable terms by many people. Just because an item is biodegradable, does not make it sustainable. For example, if it is laden with chemicals it can’t be added to your pile. Hemp products can, generally, be composted if no forbidden chemicals have been added. This will reduce waste whilst providing a nutrient-rich, natural fertilizer – and saving you money too! What’s not to like?
The bottom line
After years in the wilderness, hemp is making a comeback. Partly this can be attributed to its ‘green’ credentials. It is one of the fastest growing plants out there and needs very little water (or pesticides) to grow. When it comes to end of its usable life it will biodegrade and it is suitable for the compost bin too. All in all, hemp products rate highly on the sustainability scale – just make sure you opt for organic wherever possible!