Ask the Ecologist: cotton, hemp and bamboo – which is the green choice?
Which of these is the most eco-friendly yarn: cotton, hemp or bamboo?
Maeve Smith, Natural Wisdom
The impact of fashion and its relentless demand for raw materials has long been a topic of intense debate among greenies. For some, the answer is second-hand, while others wax lyrical about the benefits of hemp. While, to answer your question, hemp is undoubtedly the greenest material for fabric available; there’s a problem. Currently, it’s hard to produce a decent cloth from it. What’s more, it has a serious image problem among the wider public, with many regarding it as an accoutrement to hair-shirted hippydom. So what’s being done to make it more palatable? Blending is the answer, with ‘hemp silk’ – usually 60 per cent hemp to 40 per cent silk – now widely available along with hemp versions of traditional fabrics such as corduroy, although cotton still makes up around 40 per cent of the blend. But while the hemp element is emerald green, the silk and cotton parts aren’t always as eco-friendly as they could be.
The environmental catastrophe that is conventional cotton production is widely known, with issues such as extensive agrochemical use, monocropping and immense water requirements topping the list of eco-unfriendly growing practices. While organic cotton doesn’t make use of the cocktail of pesticides and fertilisers routinely sprayed on the conventional version, it’s still a thirsty plant with around 256.6 gallons of water required to grow enough to make a single t-shirt. Bamboo is a similarly thirsty but is faster growing and hardy, so doesn’t really benefit from additional fertilisers. As a textile, it has similar properties to cotton but isn’t as widely grown, which makes it harder to get hold of.
In terms of water alone, hemp is by far and away the best choice, although the unappealing cloth it tends to produce is an issue. Organic cotton and bamboo come next with conventionally produced cotton lagging well behind the others. While that has answered your question, it hasn’t totally solved the problem of what’s good and what’s bad in textile terms. As previously mentioned, many believe that second hand is the way forward, although I’d argue that this is equally unsustainable given the large number of people dependent on textile production for their livelihoods. In terms of what to buy, the key things to take into account are avoiding fabrics created using by-products of the petroleum industry – nylon and acrylic for example – and making what you do buy last longer. Look for renewable materials including wool, silk and (organic) cotton, although its worth bearing in mind that silk production usually results in the death of the silkworm which many consumers could find unpleasant. Peace silk is an alternative more expensive but it does allow the moth to leave its cocoon naturally (and alive) before the fibres are harvested, so is probably a much better bet all round. Also worth looking into is Lyocell, – Tencel as it’s more commonly known – which is made from wood pulp. The textile result is long-wearing and comfortable but like organic cotton, it isn’t without its downsides, which include concerns over the amount of chemicals needed to turn the pulp into a viable fabric.
Clearly, textiles are a bit of an ecological minefield and until someone works out how to turn hemp into comfortably wearable cloth, it’s a problem that isn’t going away. For now, choosing upcycled and recycled pieces is a good idea although the expense involved puts them out of reach for many. Pieces made from hemp blends such as Nudie’s fabulous hemp/cotton blend jeans are similarly costly. On the high street aim for organic cotton, Tencel and wool (which has the benefit of being both renewable and locally produced), while sports fans should take a closer look at Nike’s Considered Design range which turns landfill-bound plastic bottles into polyester fabric. Don’t ignore vintage either, as there’s plenty of mileage in the best pieces, most of which are unique to boot. Personally, I like to mix it up, with vintage, upcycled and organic pieces all in my wardrobe. While not everyone will agree with my solution to the textile problem; until I find hemp that doesn’t feel like sacking and doesn’t look dowdy, it’s the one that works the best for me
Green Living Editor Ruth Styles answers your eco-lifestyle dilemmas. This week, we're talking textiles
hemp or bamboo?
Why hemp or bamboo?
The Green Nappy soakers and boosters are made using hemp or bamboo fibres. These natural fibres are ideal for nappies as they are more absorbent and durable than cotton. Both fabrics are environmentally-friendly, requiring little water irrigation or fertiliser to grow and no pesticides. Our bamboo and fabrics are blended with 100% organic cotton, grown without the use of chemical fertilisers or pesticides.
The table below outlines the differences between bamboo and hemp fabrics
Hemp or Bamboo?
About the same. Bamboo slightly more absorbent initially but once the hemp is “washed in” they are about the same.
Hemp is extremely durable and our hemp soakers should last for several children in cloth nappies. As bamboo is a newer fabric, less is known of its durability although it will certainly withstand washing for one child in cloth nappies until toilet training.
Bamboo is the winner here! Bamboo is incredibly soft and retains its softness after washing. Hemp tends to become stiffer once it has been washed about 20 times or more.
Hemp dries much more quickly than bamboo. In our testing on a 28 degree day in Perth, hemp soakers are dry in full sun in 6 hours. Bamboo soakers require about 12 hours of sun. This means that if you choose bamboo you may need extra soakers or to wash more frequently.
Bamboo and hemp have similar natural antibacterial and antifungal properties. This is due to the micro-structure of the fibres which makes it difficult for pathogens to adhere.
Hemp has been used throughout human history.
Chinese archaeological evidence shows that hemp was used for clothes, shoes and rope over 10 000 years ago. Hemp was commonplace in Europe throughout the middle ages. It was used for textiles, clothing and even food. Hemp’s strength, durability and low cost made it ideal for military uniforms, ships’ sails and rope. More recently, hemp was cultivated in the United States during World War II to make uniforms, canvas and rope.
There are no psychoactive chemicals in Industrial Hemp used for clothing
Industrial hemp is grown from a completely different species of plant to cannabis used for psychoactive effects. Industrial hemp cannot be contaminated with THC as its production requires male and female plants to be separated to prevent fertilization. This is obviously not possible in a field of plants.
Hemp is environmentally-friendly.
Hemp grows easily and does not require pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers. It is a very high-yielding crop and can produce 4 times as much pulp per hectare than trees for paper. It also grows rapidly and is drought-resistant.
Hemp fibres are amazing!
Hemp is one of the strongest, most durable natural fibres on the planet. Hemp is highly absorbent and breathable. It is cooler to wear than cotton. It is naturally anti-bacterial and anti-fungal. It is also resistant to sunlight, heat, salt water, abrasion and chemicals. It is fully biodegradable.
Interesting facts about Hemp
The word canvas is derived from the word cannabis (which used to mean hemp). Canvas was originally made from hemp.
The original Levi jeans were made from hemp for Sierra Nevada gold rushers. Levi Strauss took hemp fabric to make into tents to sell to the prospectors, then realized that what they really needed was rugged, durable pants. So he invented riveted pants, known today as jeans.
Hemp was used to help clean up after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, due to its ability to absorb radioactive toxins from the ground.
Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Chrysler now use hemp fibres in the interior panels of some of their latest vehicles.
Hemp paper can be recycled up to 8 times, compared to wood-pulp paper which can only be effectively recycled 3 times.
Bamboo is the fastest-growing woody plant on earth, some species growing at 3-4 feet per day! Like hemp, bamboo is easy to cultivate and naturally organic (requiring no pesticides or herbicides). During growth, bamboo absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere helping to combat global warming.
Bamboo makes a beautiful soft fabric. Like hemp it is naturally antibacterial and antifungal. Bamboo is said to be more absorbent than hemp. It is a relatively new textile and is very popular currently. It’s main drawback is that it takes a very long time to dry, even in warm weather.
Why hemp or bamboo? The Green Nappy soakers and boosters are made using hemp or bamboo fibres. These natural fibres are ideal for nappies as they are more absorbent and durable than cotton. Both fabrics are environmentally-friendly, requiring little water irrigation or fertiliser to grow and no pesticides. Our bamboo a