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Which is a better alternative when it comes to cotton vs hemp? We analyze its versatility, cost of production, environmental impact and more!
With the debate of cotton vs hemp reaching a crescendo, it is important that we let the dust settle down and inform ourselves about its background.
Hemp, now being termed a wonder crop thanks to its multiple uses, had been a controversial plant because of its supposedly intoxicating characteristics. Not only could it be used for multiple applications but was eco-friendly as well. Yet, it was banned in the United States and other countries because of a false narrative spread by the cotton lobby. Though there were several attempts to find an alternative to hemp, they couldn’t, and eventually, the US lifted the ban, followed by other countries.
While hemp was serving the ban, cotton enjoyed a brief stint of popularity. Sure, the fabric was breathable and comfortable to wear, and for some time, the people were delighted to use the fabric, ignoring the deleterious effects it was having on the environment. However, in the light of severe environmental degradation, they had to eventually accept it.
When it came to fabric, cotton wasn’t the only one around. There were others as well such as silk, fur, wool, polyester, and rayon. Neither synthetic nor natural fabrics, including cotton, were a match for hemp. However, all of these had their limitations and none was at the level of hemp. It was only a matter of time that people realized the multiple advantages that hemp brought in.
Now as you are aware of the background, let us explore more how both the fabrics perform against various parameters:
Hemp simply has no match when it comes to uses as every part of the plant can be used. Fiber can be put to use for making apparel, ropes, and paper. Seeds are usable for making oil, milk, and other essential products. Edible or applicable products made of hemp are rich in Omega 3s. For vegans, whose diet is low on Omega 3s, hemp is the perfect alternative. Even the roots can be used for medicine and organic compost. Leaves/flowers come in handy for animal bedding, compost, and medicine. When it comes to usability, the only purpose of cotton cultivation is nothing but apparel.
Cost of production
When we talk about the cost of production, it is more than monetary expenses. We also have to take into account the environmental cost. Producing raw materials of different textiles has different kinds of costs. When producing cotton, more than half the spending is on herbicides and pesticides. Hemp production is totally a different matter, however, the plant has inherent anti-pest properties, bringing the expenses on herbicides to almost nil. We also have to take into account that chemical pesticides used in the fields eventually percolate underground, polluting groundwater.
The environmental cost of production also depends on the methods used. Organic methods, for example, reduce CO2 emissions. A major advantage hemp has over cotton is that it is a natural crop of the Himalayan region in India, which effectively brings down substantially its cost of production. It gets irritated by the pristine waters of the Himalayan rivers. Cotton has no such advantage and its production inflicts heavy costs on the environment.
Absorption of moisture
Breathability is a major reason why cotton is often preferred over other fabrics. Its characteristic of absorbing all the moisture from the body, keeping it cool, and removing the body odor has contributed to its popularity in a big way. However, it is a misconception that no other fabric can be as effective in removing moisture like cotton. Hemp is as much efficient in absorbing moisture like cotton
Hemp further scores over cotton with its antibacterial properties. While cotton just absorbs the moisture, hemp actively fights against bacteria and different kinds of fungi. Itself a wild plant, hemp can effectively tackle these challenges. Anti-bacterial qualities of hemp have been present for generations. However, even the advanced varieties of cotton succumb to pests in a few years as they develop resistance.
Cotton is a great sucker of water. As statistics reveal, 2.6% of annual global water usage is just for cotton production. Cotton requires whopping 10,000 liters of water for producing 1 kg of raw material for textiles. Hemp, on the contrary, needs just 2300 liters of water for producing the same amount of raw material. Water levels in the areas where cotton is grown grow drastically down, creating a potentially dangerous situation for civilization.
Hemp also restores nutrients to the soil, making it fertile enough for producing the crops you want. A carbon-negative plant, would breathe in large amounts of carbon dioxide and emanates fresh oxygen, helping all of us immensely in tackling the air pollution troubling all of us. It also has long roots, which helps in keeping the soil together and preventing it from getting washed down in the heavy rains. These roots also help in sustaining the water level.
As for the strength of the fabric and resultant longevity, cotton is simply no match with hemp. Though cotton is soft and comfortable to wear, after a few times washing, the quality of fiber declines substantially. It doesn’t mean that hemp is immune to washing; however, it is much more durable than cotton. Despite multiple washes, it will stay for a longer time.
Hemp is also better insulating compared to cotton. You can also pull hemp fabric taut and it will remain taut when stretched. This characteristic of hemp makes it better for furniture upholstery than other fabrics.
Hemp vs Bt cotton
Bt cotton has genetically modified seeds, having genes from Bacillus thuringiensis, the soil bacterium which is toxic to the main cotton pest bollworm caterpillars. However, with time, the pests grew tolerant of the genes, leading to thousands of farmers losing their investments. Another side of Bt was that it made cotton even more water-guzzling. Talking about Indian Bt cotton growers, US anthropologist Glenn Stone has stated on record that these farmers are on a seed and pesticide treadmill.
Juxtaposing it, hemp cultivation has led to not just better quality of soil and environment, but also of the hemp growers. Thanks to the multiple uses of hemp, the earning capacity of these farmers has consistently grown up.
Factoring in all the points stated above, little doubt remains about the winner. Hemp leaves behind cotton with a large margin. In the light of this information, an often-heard opinion that hemp will replace cotton as the main natural fabric is not an exaggeration.