What we wear can either help battle climate change, or exacerbate it.

This article was originally published in Issue 6 of HEMP. Subscribe HERE or find in a local grocery store.

We’re killing our planet. That shouldn’t really be news to anyone now. 

Unless you choose to utterly reject science and bury your head up your… well… in the sand, that’s a current reality, not a future projection. 

Whether it’s climate change, environmental degradation, or simple resource exhaustion, we’ve been hearing for decades that our current models of production and consumption as humans have to be modified. If you’re brave enough to frequent the news these days and push past hyper-partisan debates, you’ve probably noticed that study after study from the U.N., the U.S. government, and nonprofits are ringing the town bells, begging the public to understand and care. 

Visualize the causes of this situation, and what do you see? Deforestation in the Amazon, billowing smoke clouds from coal-fired power plants, the Pacific’s plastic soup? 

What we wear doesn’t pop up in the mind so quickly. But, our clothes — and how they’re produced — play a significant role in adding to the planet’s problems. 

Is Hemp the Solution We’ve Been Waiting for?

According to a Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) report in 2017, agriculture accounts for roughly 24 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions each year. The FAO number is similar to previous reports from multiple agencies regarding the percentage of emissions coming from agriculture. What this tells us is that year after year, emissions from agriculture are rising. 

The impact of livestock is by far the largest contributor to those emissions. While the FAO report doesn’t explain what percentage of ag emissions are due to textiles, an Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) study found that by 2015, the global textile industry’s percentage of worldwide carbon emission had risen to 2 percent. 

That number is on the rise, however. “Currently, steady production growth is intrinsically linked to a decline in utilization per item, leading to an incredible amount of waste,” according to the same EMF study. “It is estimated that more than half of fast fashion production is disposed of in under a year, and one garbage truck full of textiles is landfilled or burnt every second.”

What we wear has to be planted, harvested, and grown prior to being processed, produced, shipped, and put on a rack.

We’re also using more plastics in our fabrics, and globally people are buying way more clothes than they used to. The EMF study estimates that if we don’t alter the way we produce and use textiles, the industry will account for 26 percent of global emissions by 2050. Obviously, something has to change. 

Now’s the part where I tell you that hemp will save the planet, right? I’ll say that cotton is the culprit and ‘the fabric of our lives’ uses twice as much water as hemp to produce half as much fabric? Sorry, but not so fast, my friend.

Yes, evidence points to the fact that hemp is indeed a more environmentally friendly crop than cotton. And expanding its cultivation and further integrating it into our textiles would be beneficial, particularly if the hemp is raised in a responsible manner. But when it comes to the climate crisis, the problems that we face are incredibly complex. So, no, on its own, hemp will not save the planet. That’s a bumper sticker, not a plan. 

But thankfully, there are people with plans, and those plans do involve hemp. To understand what needs to be done, first you have to understand how our clothes contribute to the climate crisis. 

The Soil Problem

What we wear has to be planted, harvested, and grown prior to being processed, produced, shipped, and put on a rack. The farming practices employed to produce those preliminary crops play an enormous role in the environmental impact of producing those goods. And whether we’re talking about ag for food or textiles, one of its most profound effects is on the soil.  

Topsoil might not be a sexy topic, but it’s an important one. Globally, we’re projected to run out of it in the next 50 years or so — depending on which study you read — if current methods and consumption level projections don’t change. And because it can take anywhere from 200 to 1,000 years (depending where you are on Earth) to produce three centimeters of topsoil, that’s a serious problem. 

Tilling soil can have a detrimental impact on topsoil health.

Topsoil is incredibly useful in carbon sequestration. What scientists didn’t know until recently is that by tilling topsoil, farmers both release carbon into the atmosphere and kill the beneficial microbes that help plants grow. When you kill those microbes, you need more fertilizers and pesticides to produce. And that opens up another bountiful basket of environmental problems. 

Combatting this, says Zoe Schaeffer, media relations specialist at the Rodale Institute, is one of hemp’s primary benefits. 

“One of the great things about hemp is that it has so much biomass. Just physically, it’s bushy, and tall, and it grows fast and is low maintenance,” she says. At the Rodale Institute, Schaeffer says they use organic no-till methods, which means they harvest by cutting the base of the plant to kill the plant and then leave all of the plant matter on the field. 

“[The plant matter] then naturally decomposes, feeds the soil, builds the soil, and also helps suppress weeds that would otherwise grow,” she says. “We’re finding that hemp grows super fast and is super low maintenance, which makes it one of the best tools for building soil when it’s managed organically.”

Sunshine hits the verdant fields at the Rodale Institute, where they’re hoping regenerative organic farming can help stem the tide of worldwide environmental degradation.

The Rodale Institute, along with companies such as Patagonia, Dr. Bronner’s, and others, are looking at more than hemp and soil though. They’re looking to completely transform the way that we produce crops, whether for food or fabric, with a new framework called the Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC).

Making Organic Great Again

Over the last two decades, the organic movement has gone from a small group of dedicated enthusiasts to a catchy buzzword to a mega-industry, where the very word “organic” is more marketing than ethos, according to Schaeffer. 

“The problem with organic is that I don’t think that the founders of the movement knew how large a movement it would become,” she says. “So now, whereas the early adopters still passionately cared about the philosophy of doing right by the Earth and building the soil for future generations — doing things in lockstep with nature — now all of the sudden there’s this whole other group of people that are like ‘Hey, that makes me more money. I’m just going to go and do that and sort of scrape by the rules in any way that I can.’” 

To illustrate the issue, she says, “For example, a farm can raise 2,000 chickens in a small space and give them a little door and say that’s outdoor access, because in order to be certified organic, there has to be access to pasture. People are finding all these loopholes. People in the organic community agree, that’s not organic, that’s not the philosophy behind why the organic movement was started.”  

Chickens spread out under the sunshine at Spring Creek Farms, which is focusing on the regenerative model.

In large part then, ROC is an attempt to bring the organic movement back to its roots while creating additional pillars to further mitigate agriculture’s negative effects. 

“It’s very holistic. There’s no agriculture standard out there like it,” says Cara Chacon, vice president of environmental responsibility at Patagonia

“It covers the building of soil health so you can sequester more carbon and have healthier plants that are resistant to climate change,” she says. “There are a lot of economic benefits tied into that for farmers: higher yields, less inputs, less usage of water.”

Chacon says that beyond soil health and land management, ROC addresses additional concerns within the world’s agricultural systems. “There’s an animal welfare aspect required if you have animals that you raise for commercial purposes. And then there’s also fairness for farmers and farm workers, which is the social responsibility pillar of the standard,” she says.

Schaeffer echoes the sentiment of ROC going above and beyond. 

“We see regenerative practices as a way to address this whole suite of concerns,” she says. “It’s not just that my food or my fabric was grown without synthetic chemicals. Not only that, but this product was grown in a way that actively regenerates the resources that are being used and makes them better for future generations.”

Plants with long root structures are key to restoring topsoil vitality. (Photo Jim Richardson, Courtesy Patagonia).

Launched at Expo East, a Baltimore-based trade show featuring “natural products” in 2018, ROC is currently in a pilot program phase with the goal of getting products to consumers in 2019. The initiative currently has “90 different farms, brands, and companies interested in piloting the standard, and we narrowed that down to 21 across food, personal care products, fiber, beverages — all sorts of different products there,” Chacon says. 

While no hemp companies signed up for the pilot program, Chacon is hoping that will change in the near future. 

“Hemp is a really resilient crop,” she says. “The way it grows, it has regenerative properties in it. It regenerates soil, so it’s a perfect crop for [ROC].”

Hemp Is Helping in New, Innovating Ways

Beyond the hemp farmers’ work on improving the topsoil, a few companies creating hemp textiles are also working to help mitigate climate damage. 

At Thomas Jefferson University’s Lambert Center, Mark Sunderland, was conducting research on industrial hemp in collaboration with Ecofibre USA and Jefferson Strategic Ventures a few years ago when he discovered that similar properties existed in hemp and biochar made from hemp. Biochar, a type of charcoal created by applying heat without oxygen to organic material, is a highly permeable, absorbent, carbon-rich biomass. Most biochar is made from wood, but Sunderland has been one of the few people to research hemp biochar.

“The biochar of hemp is significantly different in weight, mass, and surface area than other biochars,” he says. “That led me to the path of asking, ‘Well, what is somebody going to be able to use this biochar for?’”

Sunderland is now the chief innovation officer at Hemp Black, a U.S.-based clothing company and subsidiary of Ecofibre, which is using hemp-derived biochar in its textiles. 

Like the Rodale Institute and Patagonia, reducing the negative environmental impacts of producing textiles is central to their mission, as is proving that hemp can be a difference-maker.

“People talk about hemp being sustainable, but nobody really proves it.”

Mark Sunderland, Hemp Black

“I was really trying to move away from that crunchy, scratchy, ‘I’m gonna smoke my t-shirt’ idea,” says Sunderland. “People talk about hemp being sustainable, but nobody really proves it. There’s a good message there, but nobody really has the data to back it up. The data comes from hemp organizations. There’s bias in that.”

So using their proprietary process, along with organically grown hemp, Hemp Black is attempting to prove that hemp can be planet-beneficial, while also creating high-performance textiles.

Sunderland explains that the process to produce a textile out of hemp-derived biochar is new and complex. While they’re not giving away any of their secrets yet, in its most basic form, Sunderland says “The biochar and full extract hemp oil are integrated into a variety of substrates and textiles platforms delivering advanced performance.” 

“The whole time we’ve been doing that we’ve been keeping our carbon footprint in mind,” he adds. “We’ve been growing our own hemp in Kentucky, we’re processing our own hemp in Kentucky, we’re going to be biocharring our own hemp in Kentucky, and our fiber producer is here in North Carolina. So we have a really wonderful carbon footprint. The outcome will be that the heat and energy generated from the biochar process will be used in other subsequent operations, or on the farm itself.”

Steps in the Right Direction

With an increasing number of clothing manufacturers considering their environmental impact and hemp cultivation now completely legal throughout North America, it’s likely that even though acreage for CBD will dominate, hemp grown for textiles will see an increase. 

In both Hemp Black’s hemp biochar-to-textile process and the new ROC designation, we have the possibility to start to move the textile industry’s needle in the right direction. Both consumers and companies are increasingly thinking about how their choices effect the planet, says Chacon.

“The main reason that Patagonia, and I think others, got involved in ROC is the climate crisis. We’re all trying to figure out what is the best way to mitigate climate change. And we know scientifically that soil can sequester carbon if it’s taken care of. There are hundreds of ways that you can mitigate climate change, but it’s near the top of the list,” she says.

“Intensive agriculture farming is ruining our planet,” she continues. “All of the stakeholders involved with this standard want to change that paradigm. With the climate crisis, we can’t do anything less than that because of the seriousness of the situation that we’re in.”

Schaeffer says that the Rodale Institute’s decades of experience prove that ROC can make a difference. 

J.I. Rodale, an early advocate for organic farming practices, and founder of the organization that would later be named the Rodale Institute.

“We’ve been running something called the farming systems trial here on our farm for the last 40 years,” she says. “It’s the longest running side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional farming on the same plot. What we’ve found is that organic both reduces greenhouse gas emissions and consumes less energy by 40 – 45 percent. And that’s just looking at organic. ROC goes above and beyond, so you can imagine that those numbers could increase.”

So, can hemp (or anything) save the planet? By being part of a larger drive to change the way that we cultivate and process crops, the answer is a hopeful “maybe.” 

But it isn’t as simple as hemp replacing cotton, says Sunderland. “In our sustainability mission, we’ve looked at all the fibers and not only compared them to hemp, but taken a really granular look at how they fit in with the sustainability mission. We don’t want to say cotton is bad and we love hemp. That’s not the whole point.”

If there is a point, it’s simply that something needs to be done. Chacon says, “That millennial generation and Gen Z, they definitely know so much more and they’re demanding so much more. They want to have jobs that have purposes. They want to have clothing that has a purpose. It’s a different world. I think they’re going to be the ones that are going to turn things around. But man, our generation, we have to give them a big head start.”

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