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Could Hemp Be The Answer To Our Fast Fashion Addiction?

The growing consumer demand for the newest styles is destroying the planet. Fast fashion— the mass-production of trendy clothing pieces— is responsible for 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon emissions and 92 million tonnes of waste a year.

With the climate crisis becoming an increasingly topical conversation, sustainability is becoming a bit of a marketing buzzword. We’re now seeing high-street fashion brands shifting towards a more eco-conscious ethos, but is this enough? With the current impact of fast fashion on the environment, we need to completely transform the way we shop.

leafie sat down to chat with Laura Bossom, founder of the eco-conscious fashion brand Cultiva Kingdom, to learn more about the use of industrial hemp in the textile industry and its potential to reshape fashion as we know it.

Hemp, its history, and its resurgence

Though it appears that hemp fabric is relatively new to the textile scene, this isn’t the case. Laura informs us that industrial hemp “has been used by humanity for thousands of years as a natural fibre and is known for its durable fibrous strength.”

The UK used to have a huge hemp production during World War II. “With over 20,000 uses, hemp has been used for industrial fabrics such as sails for ships, canvas, sacks, rope, bedding” and more.

“Due to globalisation after the war, producing textiles abroad became much cheaper. Much of the industry collapsed and its processing equipment was shipped out to Asia.

“There is a generation— probably of about 80 years— where there is a huge gap in our history and all of the [hemp textile] methods were eradicated. My purpose is to bring it all back.”

Laura studied Design at Goldsmiths University. She shares that, during this time, “I was lucky enough to volunteer and learn at Hempen Co-operative, a local hemp farm based in Reading. Here I was able to learn about the plant and how it has helped many people.

“Since finishing University, I decided to set up my own sustainable design business, Cultiva Kingdom. I was driven to make a difference in the fashion industry and decided to develop my own product line working with experienced textile producers overseas.”

Hemp as the future of fashion

So, what makes hemp sustainable? The short answer is how it grows. Laura tells us that “hemp is a plant that is capable of putting nutrients back into the soil and is extremely fast-growing.”

“Hemp can absorb 4x as much carbon dioxide as the average plant” and “its natural resistance allows the crop to be grown without pesticides, herbicides and with minimal water use”. But perhaps “the best thing about hemp textile crops is that the entire plant can be utilised to make other products.”

The hemp plant is a species of Cannabis sativa that is specifically grown for industrial purposes, and it has countless uses. Hemp fabric is made from fibres within the plant’s stalk, but CBD can also be extracted from the plant and can be used therapeutically.

We must also compare hemp fabric to other materials used by the fashion industry. Both hemp and cotton are natural fabrics, but cotton farming accounts for 69% of water use in the textile industry. This relies on water supplies in local communities which, as Laura explains, means that “it’s depleting the environment— whereas hemp is the complete opposite.

“Hemp can produce 250% more fibre than cotton”, so it uses less water. And because of the multifaceted uses of the hemp plant, Laura claims that “you are utilising that land”, which cannot be said for cotton farming.

Another major issue in the fashion industry is the use of synthetic fabrics. Laura tells us that “63% of garments made today are created with synthetic fibres. These fibres are becoming a part of the plastic pollution problem as they take many years to break down.

“Although synthetic materials are recycled, this actually encourages their production and harms the ecosystem; fish in the sea are swallowing plastic and this then goes into our system because we eat the fish.”

In contrast, “hemp is 100% biodegradable. The whole idea of hemp is working with a natural fibre that reduces the amount of waste going into landfill and the amount of plastic produced.”

Is it too good to be true?

It appears not. I was intrigued to know whether there was any way in which industrial hemp could be considered harmful to the environment. Laura explained the ongoing ethical debate about land use for textile production.

“To work with hemp and other natural fibres we need to grow the plants on land”, she shares. But it is often argued that this land should be used for agricultural production as “food security is an ongoing crisis; in 2020, between 720 and 811 million people faced hunger”.

It is estimated that the fashion industry is set to use 35% more land for fibre production by 2030. To reduce their land use, companies will “create [synthetic] materials using fossil fuels, which removes the need to grow the fibre on land. This allows more crops to be used for agriculture.” So, some will argue that synthetic materials are preferable.

But fossil fuels are undoubtedly harmful to the environment. Their extraction releases immeasurable amounts of carbon dioxide; the fast fashion industry is said to be responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions.

Therefore, whilst land is necessary for the production of industrial hemp, it arguably has a much smaller environmental impact than both cotton and synthetic fibres. And with it being biodegradable, hemp fabrics won’t be occupying landfill sites.

It is also important to consider where we buy our clothes. Sustainable clothing brands will strive to offset any environmental damage from within their supply chain. For example, Cultiva Kingdom has created a circular loop system to minimise waste; their garments and packaging are biodegradable, and other products are made using recycled materials. Cultiva also operates a Circular Policy, where used garments can be returned and are remade into new products.

Education: the driving force behind the hemp industry

What is next for Laura Bossom and Cultiva Kingdom? “I want to use my education and experience to now empower an industry”, she shares.

“The [hemp textiles] industry has not developed as quickly as we hoped over the last couple of years. After three years of developing such products, I now want to share my experiences and teach others to help grow an industry full of hemp textile designers and knowledgeable professionals. The aim is to teach them how to create their own hemp textile products, understanding the processes and properties of this ecological natural fibre.”

“It is a part of Cultiva Kingdom’s mission to re-educate these skills and ensure that the history of the hemp fibre industry lives on”, Laura explains. For those interested in the use of industrial hemp in textiles, Cultiva Kingdom is offering a Hemp Master Class, a series of workshops aimed to educate others on sustainable fashion design— and you can get your tickets for Laura’s upcoming online talk here.

“My mission has always been to bring hemp textiles back to the UK”, Laura explains. “The textile industry was once one of the UK’s biggest exporters and during the industrial revolution, Britain was internationally trading hemp all over the world.

In regard to whether there is a future for hemp in the UK textile industry, Laura says it is clear that “politicians are not listening to the experts about fashion. The UK is not looking very good, but I have noticed a lot of development in other parts of the world. So that gives me hope.

“The government needs to back [hemp] more, to give farmers an incentive to grow it.” To do this the consumer demand must be there. People need to know that hemp garments exist, and their environmental benefits must be shouted louder— which is exactly what Laura is striving to do.

Sustainability: what can I do?

Most of us are making more informed decisions about our consumption, so how can we apply sustainability to our fashion choices? Laura suggests to “start renting your clothes. I used to work for My Wardrobe HQ. They’re encouraging people to rent clothes— not just for smart occasions— but also day-to-day wear, or maybe ski wear if you’re going on holiday. They are pioneering this idea of sharing and taking care of clothes. [Cultiva] works with that model really well because hemp is such a long-lasting, strong fabric. You can get loads of uses out of those clothes and they can be rented really easily.

“Another thing is to not buy plastic. I encourage people to look at their labels and make sure that they know what is in their clothes. It’s always best to avoid polyesters and synthetics and focus more on natural fibres. It’s all about wearing clothes that biodegrade rather than going into landfill.”

By crafting high-quality garments designed to protect the earth, Cultiva Kingdom is clearly setting standards for the sustainable fashion industry. Laura Bossom’s passion for her work is undeniable and her desire to educate others will pioneer the future of hemp textiles.