The textile industry produces 1.22 to 2.93 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide every year. But that’s not all! The life cycle of those textiles eventually accounts for 6.7% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. That extent of pollution would be created if every person on the planet took a 2,500-mile flight every year.
The numbers are shocking, but what they represent is even more catastrophic. The future of the planet is at risk. If we keep pumping out carbon dioxide at this rate, soon there would be no one left to wear all these clothes we make.
This is why it is essential to think of a better alternative. And hemp can provide that alternative as a far more sustainable fabric. Instead of pumping out carbon dioxide, hemp absorbs up to 10 tons of CO₂ per acre. Let us get more insight into the carbon footprint of this magic material.
Science Behind Hemp’s Carbon Footprint
Hemp acts as a natural carbon sink. A carbon sink is an ecosystem that absorbs more carbon than it releases.
The amount of carbon absorbed from the atmosphere during hemp’s growth far exceeds the amount emitted by the equipment used to harvest, process, and transport it. This is why the production of industrial hemp is considered carbon negative.
To understand how Hemp does this, we have to know about sequestration. Biological sequestration in plants is the net CO₂ removed from the atmosphere and stored in vegetative biomass and soils.
Biomass is produced when atmospheric carbon is converted and stored through photosynthesis. All plants do this, but hemp is a master in retaining the carbon after sequestration, instead of letting it out.
Hemp does this by a very interesting procedure. The sequestered carbon permanently bonds to the fibers within the hemp plants. This carbon will remain attached to the fibers until it is burnt or composted.
If it is composted, the carbon is absorbed by the soil, consequently enriching it. Thus hemp keeps the atmosphere free of excess CO₂.
It is estimated that one hectare of industrial hemp can absorb 15 tonnes of CO₂ per hectare. Considering this crop’s fast growth rate, two cycles of crops can be easily cultivated within a year. This doubles the yearly carbon absorption. Hemp is hands-down one of the fastest CO₂ to biomass converting tools available to humankind.
What Are the Steps in Producing Fabric from Hemp?
The obvious question that arises in this regard is how a plant becomes an item of clothing. The part of the hemp plant that goes into producing fabric is the stalk. So let us see how Hemp stalks become shirts or pants, in the traditional method of raw hemp textile production.
The seeds are sown densely to produce plants with long, slender stems. These stems contain great amounts of long, fine fibers, which are ideal for fabric production.
Harvesting is done during the early-to-mid flowering stage, before seed formation, when the fibers tend to become coarse. The cutter bars harvest the crop 4 to 5 meters above ground, after which the stalk is cut and baled.
The hemp fibers are separated from the bark, through the process of retting. For this, the pectin that binds fibers to the core of the stem needs to be decayed. Thus separating the long bast fibers from the non-fiber parts.
In natural retting processes (like water and field retting) this is done with the help of naturally occurring bacteria and fungi. It can also be done (faster) using chemicals like enzymes.
- Breaking: Next, breakers or fluted rolls are used to break the stems.
The desired fibers are separated from the woody core by beating or scutching.
The obtained fibers are combed to align the strands and remove unwanted woody particles.
Fiber strength is improved by being twisted, drawn-out, and wound on spinning bobbins.
The fibers are spun together to produce longer and continuous yarns. Wet spinning is used to create a finer yarn, while dry spinning generates a coarser yarn.
This is an optional step wherein hemp fibers are blended with other fibers like silk and cotton, since pure hemp fabric can be quite stiff and heavy.
The fibers can be woven or knitted in numerous techniques to create fabrics. The fabric is then washed and shrunk to tighten up the weave.
Hemp fabric can either be chemically softened using acid rinses or caustic soda, or it can be organically softened using refined combing technologies and biodegradable softening solutions.
Lastly, the fabric is dyed and stabilized. This treats against shrinkage and imparts a finished appearance.
Note: This is the procedure of developing hemp fabric from natural hemp fiber.
Hemp fabric, however, can also be produced chemically and is labeled as “hemp viscose” (also known as rayon).
Hemp fabric and hemp viscose should not be confused since the latter undergoes an intensive chemical process and thus has significant harmful environmental impacts.
Carbon Emission of Hemp Fabric
There are two parts to measuring the carbon footprint of any textile material. These are the stages of cultivation and processing.
These two stages constitute the ’embodied energy’ of the fabric, which is the total energy consumed in each step of the entire process.
One part of the equation is the type of fiber being used which impacts energy consumption in the cultivation stage. The other part of the equation is the processes used to weave the yarns into fabric.
There is no way to provide uniform statistical data for energy consumption and carbon emission in a hemp fabric production cycle. It comes down to the specific procedures and equipment employed in the journey from the field to the store.
In other words, it varies from company to company. Any numbers provided below indicate the results of particular studies and are only meant to provide an estimate.
The main factors to consider in the cultivation stage are as follows,
- Field preparation
- Planting and field operations
- Mechanized irrigation
- Weed control
- Pest control and fertilizers (manure vs. synthetic chemicals)
- Harvesting and yields
Carbon farming uses healthy farming practices like no-till soil growing, livestock rotation, and using ground coverings such as mulch and plastic. This can reduce energy consumption and carbon dioxide production substantially.
Hemp grows pretty fast and consumes drastically less water as compared to other organic fibers, which makes it all the more sustainable.
Research shows that the part of the cultivation process that makes the largest difference in the carbon footprint of hemp is the type of fertilizer used. The (cradle to gate) carbon footprint was 835 kg CO2-eq/tonne of Hemp fiber when mineral/synthetic fertilizer was used, whereas it turned out to be only 682 kg CO2-eq/tonne of Hemp fiber when organic fertilizer was applied.
At hemp Foundation, we don’t use any kind of pesticide or insecticide as we let the Hemp grow, It in natural state. We don’t want to interfere with the this beautiful and wild plant. Besides, we depend only and only on rain water that is is why Carbon Footprint of Hemp clothing produced by hemp Foundation is negative.
Don’t forget that these numbers only indicate how much carbon dioxide was produced without subtracting the amount that was absorbed by the plant.
We have already gone through the specific steps of the processing stage. If you noticed, the majority of those procedures involved little to no use of machines or other heavy equipment.
Most of these steps are doable with manual human labor, which employs people and eliminates energy consumption. That is the path we choose to take at Hemp Foundation.
But of course, as with everything else in today’s world, all those procedures can be automated which would obviously consume energy and produce more CO2. The carbon footprint of this part of the production procedure is therefore variable.
Apart from processing, transportation needs to be taken into account as an ineluctable factor. Although CO2 emission from transport cannot be avoided, it can certainly be reduced. Establishing factories near the fields and optimizing the supply chains are portentous steps in this direction.
Be the Change
The research on carbon footprints of hemp fabric production gives us something more than just the numbers. It gives us a readily available solution. It shows us a natural way of saving the nature that we have contributed to only destroying so far.
The amount of greenhouse gases released in producing our standard clothing, especially from synthetic fibers, is humongous. This compels us to rethink. And it is high time we ponder upon the mark our choices leave on this planet.
Organic fibers have far fewer negative environmental impacts and demands. And when it comes to a natural fiber like Hemp, we have seen that it not only takes in harmful substances from the atmosphere but also gives back nutrition to the soil.
Your simple act of changing your fabric of choice to Hemp will help make a drastic change on problems like climate change and global warming. Hemp is the obvious answer. Are you ready to choose it?