Hemp in the Fashion Industry: A Brief Overview

Hemp most often refers to Cannabis sativa (Cannabaceae). Hemp and marijuana are both common names that have loosely been applied to the various forms of the plant (which makes the nomenclature complex), but for the purposes of this article we will refer to the ‘hemp’ that is primarily used for fiber cultivation. This type is commonly referred to as industrial hemp (<0.3% THC).

Hemp is a fast-growing, resilient and high-yielding crop. The plant fibers can be created into materials comparable to cotton’s softness, feel and look—with a greater fiber durability. Compared with cotton’s need for 9,800 liters of water per kg of usable fiber, 1kg of hemp fiber requires just 3,000 liters. On top of its performance in textiles, hemp is extremely versatile and able to be created into over 50,000 different products (see fig.1). 

Figure 1 from Small & Marcus 2002

A 2020 study out of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York found when compared with medium agricultural activity and medium yield estimates for cotton, hemp enables a 77.63% reduction of cost associated with agricultural activities. This is accomplished through less pesticides, fertilizers, less water and quicker grow times.

However, due to politics and policy dating back to the early 19th century in the United States, the cultivation of the plant was largely phased out. This was the reality until the 2018 Farm Bill legislation approved the cultivation of hemp.


Crini, G., Lichtfouse, E., Chanet, G. et al. Applications of hemp in textiles, paper industry, insulation and building materials, horticulture, animal nutrition, food and beverages, nutraceuticals, cosmetics and hygiene, medicine, agrochemistry, energy production and environment: a review. Environ Chem Lett 18, 1451–1476 (2020).

Duque Schumacher, Ana Gabriela et al. “Industrial Hemp Fiber: A Sustainable And Economical Alternative To Cotton”. Journal Of Cleaner Production, vol 268, 2020, p. 122180. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2020.122180.

Shuvo, I.I. Fibre attributes and mapping the cultivar influence of different industrial cellulosic crops (cotton, hemp, flax, and canola) on textile properties. Bioresour. Bioprocess. 7, 51 (2020).

Small, E. and D. Marcus. 2002. Hemp: A new crop with new uses for North America. p. 284–326. In: J. Janick and A. Whipkey (eds.), Trends in new crops and new uses. ASHS Press, Alexandria, VA.

How Much Clothes are Really Recycled?

30%? 25%? Let’s begin with the United States. In the year 2017 (data analysis can be delayed by a couple years) just 15.6% of textiles were recycled.

In Europe, the rates are similar—15-20% of textiles are collected (50% downcycled, 50% reused). The rest (~85%) are incinerated or tossed in landfills. These facts are especially alarming given that 63% of textile fibers are made from petrochemicals. Germany, however flexes recycling rates around 70%.

In China, the world’s leading producer and consumer of textiles, the reuse and recycling rates are <1%.

These statistics sound grim—but they provide opportunity for innovation, creativity and human brilliance. For example, partnering with the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA), H&M is developing ‘garment-to-garment’ recycling processes, employing fungal enzymatic processes.

Everlane, a direct-to-consumer brand (no storefront) exhibits transparent production and recycles plastic bottles into sustainable materials—the company estimates 100 million bottles to be recycled through their supply chain. Arguably the largest titan in the business, Zara (Inditex-Zara), has committed to sourcing 100% sustainable materials by 2025.

Furthermore, consumer behavior in disposal of clothing is experiencing positive trends. The secondhand market is exploding, donations, resale as well as new avenues of acquiring one’s style are sweeping across the industry. Here, the power of the consumer is growing.

How would you design solutions to best use both new and old resources sustainably?


“9 Brands Rethinking Textiles For The Circular Economy”. Current Daily, 2018,

“Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2017 Fact Sheet”. Epa.Gov, 2019,

“Chinese Textile Recycling: The Night Is Darkest Just Before Sunrise”. Global-Recycling.Info, 2019,

Sandin, Gustav, and Greg M. Peters. “Environmental Impact Of Textile Reuse And Recycling – A Review”. Journal Of Cleaner Production, vol 184, 2018, pp. 353-365. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2018.02.266.

The Life Cycle of a Cotton T-shirt

Cotton is the most common fiber used in apparel production. But what is the cost of one of those plain white-tees in your closet?

Cotton is a resilient, adaptable, but water-intensive crop. As a result of this demand, 2.6% of global freshwater supply is consumed for the growth of the plant. This demand places stress on freshwater reservoirs and water infrastructure.

The cotton industry has a deep history all over the world. Millions are employed by the various work that encompasses the natural fiber. As the world’s population has grown, so too has the demand on water for cotton (see fig. 1). With 20% of the world’s land declining in productivity, and 8,000,000 acres of farmland dedicated to cotton in the United States alone—much room remains for innovation.

Fig. 1 from Hallett & Johnston 2014

Yet cotton has a myriad of benefits over its less-water intensive competitors; the material is versatile, soft and biodegradable. So, how much water does it take to produce a single t-shirt? The figure below details an in-depth life-cycle assessment.

Fig. 2 from (Ali et. al, 2019)

As seen in (fig. 2), the total energy required throughout 1 kg of cotton’s lifecycle is about 7 kWh—or the amount of electricity required to power a 100W lightbulb for 70 hours. While sustainable energy production (e.g. solar, wind) or efficient use can aid in reducing the energy footprint of cotton’s journey, the intense demands on water leave room for solutions like vertical farming and permaculture.

How would you innovate cotton’s resource heavy lifecycle?


Ali, Ayub & Anjuman Ara, Zinia & Khan, Ayub & Rakib, Abdur. Lifecycle Analysis (LCA) of a White Cotton T-shirt and Investigation of Sustainability Hot Spots: A Case Study. London Journal of Research in Science: Natural and Formal, Vol 18, Issue 3, 2019.

Daystar, Jesse S. et al. “Sustainability Trends And Natural Resource Use In U.S. Cotton Production”. Bioresources, vol 12, no. 1, 2016. Bioresources, doi:10.15376/biores.12.1.362-392.

Hallett, C., & Johnston, A. (2014). Fabric for Fashion. Laurence King Publishing.

Muthu, Subramanian Senthikannan. Assessing the Environmental Impact of Textiles and the Clothing Supply Chain. WOODHEAD Publishing, 2014.

Oliveira Duarte, Larissa et al. “Textile Natural Fibers Production Regarding The Agroforestry Approach”. SN Applied Sciences, vol 1, no. 8, 2019. Springer Science And Business Media LLC, doi:10.1007/s42452-019-0937-y.

What is Viscose?

Viscose Rayon has been a leading material in the textile world since the discovery of the viscose process in 1891 and its introduction to commercial markets in the early 1900s. Viscose Rayon is sought after for its versatility, dye-retention, flame retardance, cool properties, affordability, and its silk-like appearance.

Viscose is a hybrid fiber used in a wide array of products that is derived from cellulose (mostly wood pulp) and processed using various compounds; the material is neither manmade nor natural. Cellulose is a polysaccharide made up of repeating D-glucose building blocks and is a crucial structural component in plants’ primary cell walls.

The name ‘Viscose’ comes from the viscous solution that the rayon fibers are processed through necessary to manufacture the fabric. During this stage, the material is treated using chemicals that allow it to exhibit the properties discussed above. The figure illustrates the various chemical reactions necessary to carry out viscose production.

Figure 1 (Tasnim et. al, 2012)

Given its complex properties and derivatives from natural sources, the literature surrounding metrics tracking environmental impacts of this material is vague at best. Pollution during the process through carbon disulfide, zinc, and sulfur emissions along with intensive water and energy requirements contribute to the footprint of this material. Furthermore, zinc places workers involved in viscose production at risk for cancer. Many of these laborers are located in loosely regulated regions (China, India, Southern Asia) and subject to unsafe or unsanitary conditions in addition.

The versatility and flexibility of Viscose Rayon is an appeal to companies and designers alike in the fashion industry (and even tires). However, as with all industries—these benefits should be weighed pragmatically with the accompanying impacts on the environment, communities, and individuals alike.


Klemm, Dieter, et al. “Cellulose: fascinating biopolymer and sustainable raw material.” Angewandte chemie international edition 44.22 (2005): 3358-3393.

Perepelkin, K.E. Ways of developing chemical fibres based on cellulose: Viscose fibres and their prospects. Part 1. Development of viscose fibre technology. Alternative hydrated cellulose fibre technology. Fibre Chem 40, 10–23 (2008).

Shaikh, Tasnim et al. “Viscose Rayon: A Legendary Development In The Manmade Textile”. Ijera, vol 2, no. 5, 2012, pp. 675-680.,

Wedin, H., Niit, E., Mansoor, Z.A. et al. Preparation of Viscose Fibres Stripped of Reactive Dyes and Wrinkle-Free Crosslinked Cotton Textile Finish. J Polym Environ 26, 3603–3612 (2018).

Why You Should Care About Where Your Clothes Come From

The global fashion industry is dominated by massive entities. According to the McKinsey Global Fashion Index, the leading 20 companies in the fashion industry account for 97% of the profits. Inditex (Zara), Adidas, Nike, LVMH (Louis Vuitton/Dior), H&M, etc, top this list of elites, bringing in massive profits each year.

Models of quick turnaround, multiple season, cheap materials and labor outsourcing through the supply chain has seen these companies dominate the global market. A 2015 research case on Inditex-Zara’s Brazil supply chain found workers in São Paulo under conditions akin to slavery. With growing middle-classes across the globe, garment production increased 400% from 1994 to 2014 to 80 billion garments per year, indicative of these titans’ continued success.

The production of fashion presents challenges across the globe, specifically to developing countries with loose regulations and an absence of enforcement for workers’ rights. In addition, few recycling or efficient life-cycle techniques are employed through the fast fashion model. Emphasis is placed on fast, cheap, and trendy products. As a result, 85% of garments are thrown into landfills; some never having been worn once.

Where, what, and how much these leaders of industry consume in order to meet their demands is paramount in understanding the footprint that looms over the industry.

Why does it matter?

The storefronts at the mall, department stores, the inventories found within— all come from and end up somewhere. Having a cognitive eye towards the major players and the production techniques involved in dressing the world benefits you, the planet and your children. Everybody wears clothes. Exploring the reality of the present fashion industry equips you to change that reality through your actions as a consumer.

Shopping second hand, lending, borrowing, donating, buying from companies practicing sustainable production and cherishing things we already have are all steps that the consumer can take today; regardless of the industry. These actions have the potential to shape and change the market; into one that values the limited resources of the planet and champions human well-being.

How can the industry improve its fragmented global supply chain?

Campos, André. “From Moral Responsibility To Legal Liability? Modern Day Slavery Conditions In The Global Garment Supply Chain And The Need To Strengthen Regulatory Frameworks: The Case Of Inditex-Zara In Brazil”. Researchgate.Net, 2015.

Palm, C., Cornell, S.E. & Häyhä, T. Making Resilient Decisions for Sustainable Circularity of Fashion. Circ.Econ.Sust. (2021).

Strähle J., Hauk K. (2017) Impact on Sustainability: Production Versus Consumption. In: Strähle J. (eds) Green Fashion Retail. Springer Series in Fashion Business. Springer, Singapore.

TED-Ed. The Life Cycle Of A T-Shirt. 2017, Accessed 14 Aug 2020.

“Textiles: Material-Specific Data | US EPA”. US EPA, 2017,


Global Impacts of Fashion

All humans wear clothes. Clothes are amongst the few staple elements of human culture, all around the world. Our ancestors used fibers, animal skin, etc., to survive and to cope with the different challenges the environment threw their way; to maintain body temperature during cold winters or to block harmful ultraviolet radiation from the skin in harsh arid climates.

Through the help of technology, techniques, and evolution of fashion textiles have ballooned into a $3 trillion-dollar industry3. In present society, the industry is a titan of resources.

Assessing a whole industry is no small effort. Part of the reason why environmental impacts are often discussed in vague, inaccessible terms can be attributed to the difficulty in measuring and quantifying impacts. The sheer size of the industry adds complexity in assessments of impacts—from farming operations to factories for processing down to the retail storefronts saturated with this season’s trends. This massive, globally distributed supply network employs 4% of the world’s population1: 300 million people.

Accompanying this enormous industry, as with all others, are externalities and impacts transferred to local and global environments. 20% of wastewater worldwide2 can be traced back directly to fabric dying and treatment, composed of potentially toxic chemicals, abrasive compounds and microplastics.

Beyond wastewater, the operations of supply chain entities all over the world contribute to making the fashion industry one of the most polluting industries in the world. The industry accounts for 10% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions2—more than maritime shipping and international flights combined.

There is no way around it, these are daunting facts. One of our most important challenges as stewards of this planet is to constantly review and innovate the ways we do things, in order to secure the blessings of resources for those that come after. The fashion industry presents significant opportunity for innovation. To wrestle with questions like “how do we deliver the same function and value sustainably?” or “how do we create an industry that benefits all life on the planet?” is a worthy challenge for human brilliance.

Where would you start to improve fashion’s supply chain?


  1. Gazzola, Patrizia et al. “Trends In The Fashion Industry. The Perception Of Sustainability And Circular Economy: A Gender/Generation Quantitative Approach”. Sustainability, vol 12, no. 7, 2020, p. 2809. MDPI AG, doi:10.3390/su12072809.
  2. “How Much Do Our Wardrobes Cost To The Environment?”. World Bank, 2019,
  3. Maloney, Carolyn. THE ECONOMIC IMPACT OF THE FASHION INDUSTRY. U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, Washington, D.C., 2019. Accessed 11 July 2020.
  4. Park, H., Kim, YK. An empirical test of the triple bottom line of customer-centric sustainability: the case of fast fashion. Fash Text 3, 25 (2016).


Polyester is a broad term for polymers containing the ester group. Specifically—polyethylene terephthalate is the common polymer widely used in clothing. The material also finds uses in bedding, shower curtains, conveyor belts, etc.

Polyester can be derived straight from crude oil and gas, or recycled plastics. In short, plastics are melted down and spun into long threads. With the help of compounds/petrochemicals (e.g. caustic acid), the fibers are processed and woven into sheets of fabric with properties that appeal to manufacturers and fashion designers; along with its low-cost of production.


The material is often blended with natural fibers such as cotton to increase wrinkle resistance, reduce shrinking and hold color better. Some polyesters are biodegradable, but most are not.

Polyester’s water footprint is massive and much of the greywater produced during the process contains toxins not properly treated before discharge. This further complicates its impact with the fact that most manufacturing operations are located in water-pollution hotspots—with 92% of global polyester fiber production occurring in Asia.

Besides these facts, polyester has been under scrutiny for its role in releasing microplastics (<5mm in length) into the environment. Compared with acrylic and nylon, a 2017 study showed that polyester sheds the greatest amount of microplastic fibers. Washing 6kg (13.2lbs) of material could shed 700,000 fibers. Extrapolate this to countless washes throughout a piece’s lifetime coupled with the large share of manmade fibers in the textile industry (as seen in the figure) and one can begin to imagine the constant flow of pollutants into systems that support all life on Earth.

Many studies exist demonstrating the potential harm that microplastics carry into marine and terrestrial life as well as ecosystems as a whole. Polyester is a versatile and useful material—however, it pays to keep a cognitive eye towards the impacts that the products we consume have at all stages of its lifecycle.

How do we combat synthetic textiles’ negative impacts on the planet?


Carney Almroth, Bethanie M et al. “Quantifying shedding of synthetic fibers from textiles; a source of microplastics released into the environment.” Environmental science and pollution research international vol. 25,2 (2018): 1191-1199. doi:10.1007/s11356-017-0528-7

Freitas, Alexandra et al. Water Footprint Assessment Of Polyester And Viscose And Comparison To Cotton. Water Footprint Network, 2017, Accessed 30 July 2020.

Muthu S.S., Rathinamoorthy R. (2021) Sustainability and Fashion. In: Bacterial Cellulose. Sustainable Textiles: Production, Processing, Manufacturing & Chemistry. Springer, Singapore.

Palacios-Mateo, C., van der Meer, Y. & Seide, G. Analysis of the polyester clothing value chain to identify key intervention points for sustainability. Environ Sci Eur 33, 2 (2021).

Where do our clothes come from?

A broad overview

Where do textiles and clothes come from? From what source do stores fill their inventories and shelves with? These are cognitive questions that may cross your mind, and enormous ones at that.

In a broad stroke, China leads the pack with exports of $118.5 billion in textiles alone, followed by the 28 countries that make-up the European Union.

As seen from the below figures, China’s share of the world textile industry is massive. Brands like Nike, Adidas, L.L. Bean, New Balance, Calvin Klein, etc., source much of their goods from the country’s manufacturing infrastructure and labor.  



Regulations, labor and workers’ rights legislation all factor into the conditions which drive much of the market to China for textile and fashion production. Labor has long been a driving force in the evolution of where markets source, operate and thrive. These facts are not new—see the 2012 Congressional-Executive Commission on China ( for further reading.

The flexible interpretation and enforcement shortcomings of China’s labor laws are another factor that spur the growth of production of textiles and clothing in the country.

While this growth and manufacturing has catalyzed jobs and growth within China, its outlawing of independent unions, localized enforcement and squashing of activists demonstrate the lengths the country will go to secure its stake of market dominance in the fashion and textile world. Of course, China is but one piece of the larger fashion industry.

What changes can countries make to improve the operating model of the industry?


Fernie J., Perry P. (2011) The International Fashion Retail Supply Chain. In: Zentes J., Swoboda B., Morschett D. (eds) Fallstudien zum Internationalen Management. Gabler Verlag, Wiesbaden.

WTO Reports World Textile and Apparel Trade in 2018

Vural C.A. (2019) Sustainability Issues in Asian Fashion Supply Chains: Retailers Versus Suppliers. In: Shen B., Gu Q., Yang Y. (eds) Fashion Supply Chain Management in Asia: Concepts, Models, and Cases. Springer Series in Fashion Business. Springer, Singapore.