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From COS shirts and Levis jeans, to BMW performance parts and hemp concrete (hempcrete), hemp offers huge opportunities in versatile and sustainable production. Hemp fibres made the sails and ropes of the ships that first explored the world and early drafts of the Declaration of Independence were even written on hemp paper.

Hemp is a natural bast plant fibre, meaning that it comes from a plant stem, with organic hemp often being considered one of the most sustainable fibres available. Its natural characteristics include carbon capture and soil pollutant extraction, whilst its inherent strength and adaptability mean that it has a vital role to play in promoting a slower fashion and design culture built on materials with outstanding sustainability credentials and a lower environmental footprint.


Hemp has played a key role throughout human history, with remains of hemp cloth dating back to the 5th millennium BC found in China. Hemp rivalled flax as the primary bast textile fibre until the mid 19th century.

It is a plant that  has been cultivated for thousands of years across almost every continent, historically used for clothing, ropes, and sails but also regularly used to make food and medicine. In the 1700s, laws were passed which required both American and British farmers to grow hemp on their land.

However, the growth of the hemp industry faced issues in 1937 when the US Marijuana Tax Act came into effect, adding taxation to the sales of all cannabis and hemp products and catalysing production slumps across the market. Today it is one of the fastest growing sectors internationally, primarily driven by the rise in demand for new and sustainable materials to replace the plastic and synthetic fibres which pollute our planet.


Hemp is a unique crop as every part of the plant holds market value and utility in the production of a wide array of goods. The primary use for hemp is apparel. Alongside being used for textiles, hemp seeds and oil can be used to produce both food and beauty products. The outer layer of the bast fibres can be used for can be processed into rope, yarn, or cloth, while the inner, woody layer is commonly used for producing paints, paper, building materials, as well as biodiesel and eco-solid fuel.

Materials produced from hemp fibres can be used for a variety of fabrics, ranging from denim to canvas to jersey, and can be blended intentionally to have characteristics such as durability or softness. Hemp fabric is not susceptible to shrinkage and is highly resistant to pilling; while an average cotton T-shirt typically lasts ten years, a hemp T-shirt can last for up to thirty years.

Hemp has further natural advantages due to its fabric possessing the ability to keep the wearer cool in the summer and warm in the winter, while also having the ability to protect from UV rays.

Production Process

Traditional hemp fibre processing methods, originally developed in the early 1900s, are done organically through a mechanic process that requires no chemicals. Long strands of fibre that make up the stalk of the plant are separated through retting, spun together to produce a continuous thread and then woven into a fabric.

To meet rising demand, many companies now switch to cheaper and faster but more environmentally intensive methods. Harmful impacts can come from production processes including bleaching and retting. Retting is the process of separating natural fibres from the stem of the hemp plant, and can be carried out through chemical retting or water retting. Chemical retting utilises harmful chemicals and causes environmental damage if harmful wastewater is not treated properly or disposed of irresponsibly. Water retting can require high levels of water and energy inputs while also creating biological pollution.

However, chemical and water retting processes are able to reduce their harmful impacts through eliminating harmful chemicals, using renewable energy, recycling water, and eliminating waste. Dew retting is a further viable process which requires no additional water, energy, or chemical inputs; allowing nutrients to return to the soil through natural decomposition and hence offering a more sustainable hemp production process. Once the hemp fibre has been extracted from the stem, the processing of the yarn is largely mechanical and creates minimal environmental impact, again proving to be a natural material with great promise in meeting sustainability criteria. In the end, all production processes that create the materials we use today have impacts as materials are processed, dyes applied and products shipped.


The association of hemp with marijuana has posed many issues for the production of hemp. Although hemp is derived from the same species of plant (Cannabis sativa) as marijuana, industrial hemp contains just 0.3% of THC. Despite this, production in many countries, such as the United States (US), is restricted and limited due to the concerns surrounding the abuse of the plant’s recreational abilities.

Despite some issues within the processes of hemp growing and cultivation, when conducted with environmental sustainability at its forefront, hemp has minimal negative impact on the environment. Hemp does not require the use of chemical pesticides or fertilisers. Growing hemp also requires little water and rarely uses extra irrigation compared to alternative plants used in bast fibre production which need up to 50% more water than hemp to grow. The hemp plant replenishes soil with vital nutrients, so much so that it has been grown to extract pollutants such as zinc and mercury from soil, and is often used as a rotation crop to heal soil between crop yields. Hemp produces 600% more fibre than flax, giving it the highest yield per acre of any natural fibre. These attributes, when combined with responsible and sustainable production, offer huge opportunities in many industries, especially in the textile and design markets. Sustainable hemp options include Certified Organic hemp, dew retted hemp and naturally coloured hemp.

The Future of Hemp

As the world realises the importance of tackling climate change, hemp has a central role to play in the shift to sustainable production. Hemp is not yet being used to its full potential in generating market value or in repairing the planet. Despite forces such as innovation, the global sustainability consensus, and consumer awareness driving hemp to become one of the fastest growing international markets, it is vital for the market to establish consistent regulation in order to ensure the optimal sustainability of hemp production chains. Hemp market growth should continue to accelerate as more governments embrace the industry, consumers continue to increase their demand for sustainable goods and services, and new innovative uses for hemp are pioneered.

Resources for more

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