By Dustin Rhodes
I have lived in a hippie town for so long, there are things I no longer notice: the sea of rainbow-hued tie-dye, the jam bands blaring from concert venues, the fact that tarot card readers and reiki practitioners outnumber therapists or doctors. This hippie culture is sweetly amusing, but it’s turned me into a deep skeptic, because I was raised by a teacher and taught to trust science. My town is so hippie there are two annual hemp festivals, but I have been to neither.
Hemp is not something I paid very much attention to, until more recently and then with reluctance. As you might imagine, where I live it’s touted as the plant with the potential to save humanity—a claim that inspires eye rolls. But my attitude shifted a few years ago when I went to purchase some summer t-shirts, and landed at a local boutique that had a display of brightly colored, soft-as-vegan-butter organic hemp t-shirts that stopped me in my tracks.
A caveat: I love linen clothing. This love affair is nearly lifelong, and the majority of my summer wardrobe is comprised of linen (and now hemp)—because the humidity alone, in the South, is cruel and punishing, and linen acts like a highly-breathable sponge. Linen is as close as you can come to the feeling of wearing nothing while being completely covered. The never-ending wrinkles are worth it.
I discovered hemp almost identical to linen, even though they come from different plants. Linen comes from the flax plant; linen is also considered an easy to grow, sustainable plant. But hemp is even more efficient and typically only requires rainwater—pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers are not required to grow hemp—making it an exceptional crop as we endure the climate crisis at hand.
The finished product—hemp fabric—is indistinguishable from linen; the differences between the two can only be seen under a microscope, not by the naked eye. Hemp has been used by humans as a fabric for more than 10,000 years, even though its burgeoning popularity is only recent.
It turns out hemp is not just a beautiful, comfortable fabric—the science is on hemp’s side as well.
Remarkably, it possesses some pretty impressive sustainability credentials. Hemp absorbs and traps carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—more CO2 per hectare than any forest or commercial crop; hemp requires about half the amount of water cotton uses.
Hemp is also fully biodegradable and compostable: it actually replenishes the soil, imparting nutrients during its growth and cultivation cycle. And it’s not just clothing that can be crafted from hemp: rope, shoes, biofuel, paper, bioplastics and insulation, among other things, can be made of hemp.
There’s a compelling argument that we humans should, at this point, be buying as few new clothes as possible, as the clothing industry remains one of the most polluting, exploitative and resource-intensive industries. Hemp is considered to have a very low negative impact on the environment. One of the hemp industry’s grandest claims is how long-lasting and durable it is as a fabric.
I have found this to be 100% true: hemp garments, like linen, are easy to care for and can last many years without typical signs of wear. Hemp is UV-resistant, anti-mold and anti-fungal, too—making it an excellent fabric for those with sensitive skin. If you are going to purchase a new garment, making it one composed of hemp is a sound, ethical choice.
The disadvantages to hemp are similar to those of linen: yes, it wrinkles easily. This does not bother me, and yes, I do own a steamer (which I only use on occasion). I have even come to embrace the wrinkly-ness of hemp as a sign of character, not a character flaw.
It’s also fairly expensive, because it’s a small industry; this is changing, as more companies commit to more sustainable fabrics—hemp being among the best there is. But probably hemp’s biggest disadvantage is one of perception: the fact that many people think hemp and marijuana are the same plant—which they are not. Industrial hemp—the plant that produces the fabric and other products—is the sober cousin of cannabis sativa, the plant known as marijuana. Industrial hemp is federally legal and contains only trace amounts of the psychoactive compounds of marijuana.
The moral of the story: The hippie’s are right, I begrudgingly admit. But I will never ever believe in jam bands. That’s a hill I will die on.