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.
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.
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.
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.