Hemp: so useful, yet so misunderstood

Do you sock it to the planet with your socks? It is estimated that in the United States four billion pairs of socks are purchased each year. The production, distribution, and disposal of these socks produce a large volume of greenhouse gases and therefore contribute to global climate change. And socks represent just a small portion of the clothing that we wear.

In addition to socks, the production, use, and disposal of all clothing contribute significantly to global warming. This was shown in the first article in the series that explores the relation between clothing and climate change. Textiles account for ten percent of the world’s total carbon dioxide (CO2) production. According to the US Energy Information Administration, the textile industry is the fifth largest producer of carbon dioxide in the United States. The use of textiles was responsible for about one ton of the 19.8 tons of the total emissions produced by each American in 2006.

Since petroleum is one of the components of polyester, it is obvious that the manufacturing of polyester fabrics especially contributes to global warming. Nearly 70 million barrels of oil are used globally each year to produce polyester.

Along with polyester, the production, use, and disposal of cotton also produce greenhouse gases. Cotton use contributes between 0.3 and 1% of total annual global greenhouse gases. Ten percent of the world’s fertilizers are used on the cotton crop, and petroleum is one of the ingredients in nitrogen fertilizers. Additionally, the production of one ton of fertilizer uses around 33,000 cubic feet of natural gas. Since fracking is one of the sources of natural gas, growing cotton with synthetic fertilizer contributes to the use of fracking. Moreover, petroleum is also an ingredient of pesticides, and the cotton crop uses 25% of the world’s insecticides.

Fortunately, there is a natural alternative to polyester and cotton that is much better for the environment in general and will help slow down global climate change in particular. Hemp is that solution. In a report from 2005, the Stockholm Environment Institute found that hemp, compared to cotton and polyester, has the lowest ecological footprint. Of course, there are other fiber substitutes, but there are so many advantages to hemp that an article exclusively dedicated to the plant is warranted.

This article includes many statistics from the United States. However, since the country is so dominant in the globe, if it moves toward the use of hemp fiber it is probable that the rest of the planet will soon follow.

Growing hemp is much better for the environment and the prevention of greenhouse gases. One advantage of hemp is that it can be built almost anywhere, as opposed to cotton, which can only be grown in warmer climates. Cotton crops require temperatures ranging from sixty to ninety degrees Fahrenheit for six to seven months. In contrast, hemp requires temperatures of sixty to eighty degrees Fahrenheit for a much shorter growing season of approximately four months. The shorter the growing season, the less amount of fossil fuels are used during the production of the crop, both for raw materials and the use of farm equipment.

A map published by the US Department of Agriculture shows that hemp can be grown in some part of every state in the continental United States, except Arizona and Florida. In fact, hemp can be grown in the entire area of the majority of states. In warmer regions of the world, including Southern California, Texas and Florida in the United States, hemp could be harvested twice a year.

Unlike cotton, the hemp crop does not need herbicides. A reasonable stand of 200 to 300 plants per square meter suppresses the growth of weeds. Hemp does not require large quantities of fertilizer, and it can be grown organically very quickly. After all, it is called a weed. The root system descends for three feet or more and helps build and aerate the soil, and anchors and protects it from erosion. By contrast, cotton exhausts and depletes the soil, thus requiring heavy applications of fertilizer.

Hemp is also more productive than cotton. Since hemp plants reach heights of up to fifteen feet, it is estimated that one acre of hemp will produce as much fiber as two to three acres of cotton. Because hemp has greater yields than cotton, fewer fossil fuels will be used per ton of fabric. An additional benefit of raising hemp is that besides providing fiber used in clothing, other parts of the plant can be put to many other uses, as opposed to cotton, which is only valuable for the cotton bolls themselves.

The book Design for Sustainability by Janis Birkeland contains a quote from Henry Ford regarding hemp. Ford asked the rhetorical question: “Why use up the forests which were centuries in the making and the mines which required ages to lay down, if we can get the equivalent of forest and mineral products in the annual growth of the hemp fields?” The woody core can be used for building material, industrial products, and paper. The seeds can be used for their strong nutritional value and oil made from the seeds can be used for foods, body care, and products such as paints. It is estimated that an acre of hemp can produce 300 gallons of oil, three tons of protein and 30 tons of fiber per year.

The hemp crop uses much less water than cotton thus cutting down on the need for irrigation. In dry areas, drought resistant varieties of hemp can be grown. Irrigation is powered by electricity which is usually produced using fossil fuels. The World Wildlife Fund states that 73% of the global cotton harvest is irrigated. Because hemp would not need to be irrigated, growing hemp would cut down a number of greenhouse gases.
Besides using fewer fossil fuels, growing hemp will actually remove some CO2 from the environment. Hemp Global Solutions calculated that the growth of each ton of hemp can absorb 1.63 tons of CO2. It is estimated that a hectare of hemp contains nearly ten times as much CO2 as a hectare of pine trees.

All of the processes in the manufacturing of fabric use great amounts of fossil fuels. For example, the process of dyeing fabric is energy intensive, and a lot of toxic chemicals pollute the environment during the process. Hemp can be grown to produce white, brown, green, gray, and black colored fiber thus cutting down on the use of noxious dyes. It is also relatively easy to dye hemp other colors.

Since hemp is more durable than cotton, consumers will not need to purchase as many articles of clothing thus leading to a reduction of greenhouse gases. Cotton fibers break down over time and the more it is washed, the more that it breaks down. Hemp fabric doesn’t break down as fast, and it softens over time. Hemp has many other characteristics which make it a better choice than cotton for the consumer. Hemp is breathable and wicks moisture away thus making it much more comfortable than other fabrics in the heat of summer. It also has anti-bacterial properties. Hemp is resistant to rotting, mold, and mildew, and it also withstands ultraviolet radiation.

The disposal of clothing contributes to the environmental burden on the planet. It is estimated that polyester clothing made from fossil fuels can take 1,000 years to decompose. In contrast, products solely made from hemp are biodegradable, can be composted, and are recyclable.
Raising hemp will contribute to the economic health of the countries that grow it. Growing hemp has the potential to change the balance of trade between countries. The US imports more textiles than any other product. In 1989, textile imports accounted for 21% of the US merchandise trade deficit, and the US currently imports even more textiles. Growing hemp will add to the gross national product thus providing more income which could be spent on producing solar energy or mitigating the effects of climate change. Hemp has the advantage of having been raised and used for textiles for a long period. This means that humanity knows how to grow it, and we already know that it can be successfully used to produce textiles. The Columbia History of the World states that fragments of hemp fabric dating back to approximately 8000 B.C. were found in tombs. It is probable that hemp could have been woven into fabric before that but would have decomposed by now. By the 27th century B.C. the Chinese raised hemp for fiber. The word for canvas in many languages comes from the word for cannabis. Around 450 B.C., Herodotus wrote that hemp “is extremely similar to flax [the source for linen fabric]. Hemp, however, is greatly superior to flax, since it springs self-sown. The Thracians manufacture, from this plant, garments which equal even those of linen: nor can any one, not very conversant in these matters, distinguish whether the garment is made of hemp or flax; while he who has never before seen hemp articles takes them to be linen.”

The use of hemp was necessary in early transportation throughout the world. From at least the fifth century B.C., until around the late 1800s, ninety percent of all ship’s sails were made from hemp. Ships from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries had fifty to one hundred tons of hemp rigging each. Hemp was also used by the pioneers in the settling of the United States. Prairie schooners were covered wagons used by nineteenth-century pioneers crossing North American prairies. Conestoga wagons were horse-drawn freight wagons that carried farm products to cities and goods from cities to rural communities. They look like large prairie schooners. Both of these vehicles featured canvas tops made of hemp.

Thus, hemp has a long history of use as a fiber in the United States. The website for Colonial Williamsburg stated that the Virginia Assembly in 1632 ordered “that every planter as soone as he may, provide seede of flaxe and hempe and sowe the same.” According to the LA Times, refusal to grow hemp during the 17th and 18th centuries was against the law. Another source stated that 17th century farmers in Virginia, Massachusetts and Connecticut were ordered by law to grow Indian hemp. Indian hemp was an indigenous species known to Native Americans. Between 1763-1769 in Virginia, farmers could actually be jailed for refusing to grow hemp. Soldiers in the Revolutionary forces wore clothing made from hemp.

Early American presidents raised hemp crops. According to the Mount Vernon Website, George Washington grew hemp at Mount Vernon. In a letter to William Pearce on February 24, 1794, Washington advised the following regarding Sainfoin seed and India Hemp: “Make the most you can of both.” Thomas Jefferson also grew hemp, and he stated that “Hemp is of the first necessity to the wealth and protection of the country.” Jefferson went on to state that hemp “is abundantly productive and will grow forever on the same spot” as opposed to tobacco which depletes the soil of nutrients. President John Adams also raised hemp.

Hemp continued to be a major crop into relatively modern times. For over 200 years taxes could be paid with hemp. The 1850 US census documented that there were approximately 8,327 hemp plantations of at least 2000 acres each. Until the 1880s, eighty percent of all textiles, including fabrics used for clothing, bed sheets, towels, diapers, etc. were made from hemp. Both the 1893-1910 editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica and the article in Popular Mechanics in 1938 estimated that at least half of all the material that has been called linen was not made from flax but was actually made from hemp.

In the past, the American government has outlawed the domestic production of hemp. However, hemp does not contain the chemical substance that produces a pharmaceutical high. This fact should eliminate the impediments to making hemp a legal crop. Thus, hemp is a potential remedy for the prevention of greenhouse gases as well as the mitigation of the harmful effects of global climate change. Therefore, it is possible to stop socking it to the planet with our socks.

Lenore Hitchler

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    By: ONE Team

    ONE is a nonprofit magazine founded in 2014, dedicated to providing unbiased and independent commentary and reporting on energy and environment issues. ONE policy pursues the following principles: accuracy, integrity and transparency.
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