Why Levi’s Might Switch from Cotton to Hemp
Cotton has been the king of fabrics for centuries. But with the recent legalization of industrial hemp, cotton may soon see its throne usurped. Since December of last year, hemp has seen its stock and production levels soar, with reports estimating the hemp industry will be worth more than 13 billion by 2026. Hemp-derived CBD products are popping up everywhere; from the health food store all the way to niche neighborhood boutiques. But the legalization of hemp has many implications, especially for clothing. One company willing to embrace this new fabric frontier is Levi Strauss and Co.
In March of 2019, Levi’s clothing company launched a collection of jeans and a jacket with the Outerknown label. Instead of a pure cotton or polyester blend, these articles were made with 69% cotton and 31% hemp. Although hemp is a more sustainable alternative to cotton, it’s a difficult material to work with. The cotton used to make clothing comes from a fluffy, soft bud on top of the plant, but hemp fibers are manufactured from the sturdy hemp trunk. But that won’t stop Levi’s and probably a range of other famous clothing companies from taking advantage of new product opportunities with hemp.
What is the History of Cotton as a Clothing Material?
Cotton was widely grown throughout India, dating back to ancient times. But it wasn’t brought to Europe until the late 800s. Until the discovery of the Americas, cotton wasn’t grown in Europe and was instead, imported from the East.
During the colonial period, colonial powers planted and farmed cotton throughout the American south. But there weren’t any significant developments in clothing manufacture until the late 1700s when Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. This machine allowed manufacturers to get the seeds out of the cotton. At this time, large plantations were established with slave labor to grow, pick, and sell cotton. With the widespread sale of cotton, clothing became much cheaper for the average person to buy. People were able to change their clothes more frequently and began wearing more underclothes and using cotton for bed sheets, curtains, and other home goods.
After the Civil War, cotton was still required to be picked by hand until the 1950s, when machines were invented that could pick cotton instead. Cotton got even more inexpensive, and the rise of fast-fashion came into vogue. At this time, scientists developed polyester cloth manufactured from oil, and today, a majority of the clothing people wear is made out of cotton, polyester, or a blend of the two.
Why is Cotton not Sustainable?
Cotton is sustainable in that it is a natural plant product. However, growing cotton on an industrial scale causes a range of environmental issues. When it comes to cotton, more chemicals are used to grow it than any other crop in the U.S. Other environmental issues with cotton sustainability include:
- Water Waste
Cotton uses an immense amount of water to process into the wearable fabric. For example, it takes 10,000 liters of water to make one kilo of cotton. For every cotton t-shirt, someone buys, about 2,700 liters of water were used to produce it.
- Heavy Pollution
Pesticides are sprayed on cotton crops and make their way into groundwater, effectively polluting it and making it unsafe to drink. Polluted water sources are also hazardous to wildlife and local ecosystems. In Brazil, rainwater was collected and tested for pesticides. The water that fell in Brazil’s cotton region tested positive for 19 different pesticides. Twelve of those chemicals were used for cotton production specifically.
Pesticides don’t just go into the water supply and pollute it. Hazardous chemicals used in cotton production can also be carried through the air and dust.
- Environmental Consequences
The Aral Sea in Kazakhstan is the world’s fourth-largest lake. But unfortunately, it has shrunk dramatically thanks to cotton production. Considered one of the world’s worst environmental disasters, people who live near the Aral Sea have some of the highest rates of throat cancer in the world from pollution and pesticides.
How is Hemp a Sustainable Material?
Hemp is sustainable in a similar way to cotton in that it is also a natural source for fabrics and textiles. Before hemp was banned in the U.S., people farmed the plant and used it as a food source and to make a variety of materials, including sails for ships, ropes, and even clothing. However, hemp differs from cotton when it comes to sustainability in several ways.
- Densely Growing
Hemp is a very hardy plant that grows densely, so it’s naturally able to choke out competing plants and weeds. It won’t need to be sprayed with harsh herbicides. Hemp is also naturally resilient from most pests and won’t require pesticides to grow sufficiently.
- Less Soil Erosion
Many plants erode the minerals from the soil as they grow. This is one of the reasons why fields have to lay fallow for several years after a crop is harvested so the soil nutrients will not be exhausted. Hemp is a plant that returns up to 70% of the nutrients it uses.
- Less Water
Hemp needs far less water than cotton to grow, and in some estimates, a hemp plant will use up to 50% less water than an equivalent cotton plant. When it comes to processing hemp and cotton into the fabric for clothing, cotton uses four times the amount of water as hemp.
- Less Land
Compared to cotton, hemp can produce twice the fiber yield per hectare as cotton.
What are Levi’s Plans?
By using industrial hemp, Levi’s managed to use ⅔ the amount of water they would have typically used for a cotton garment. However, the use of hemp as a sustainable fabric is still in its infancy, and the clothing industry won’t be able to change entirely to hemp overnight. Research and development into hemp as a sustainable fabric option for large-scale operations is still ongoing.
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