The world's most sustainable fiber in shoes.
Posted at 11:00 • 30th Mar • Guest Post: Sustainable Jungle • Hemp
Hemp is one of the world’s oldest and most versatile fabrics, but shoes made from hemp are a relatively recent thing, mostly due to the challenges of processing the hemp fiber into fabric. Nonetheless the fabric's natural properties make this a great material to build shoes made out of hemp.
You probably heard of Hemp before and it is likely that you saw someone smoking it before. What most people don't know is that hemp has a long history of industrial appliances ranging from cars, textiles, construction and many others.
Obviously, the industrial hemp is not the same variety of hemp used for consumption, and they are not even the same part of the plant. But that's the beauty of it, the endless possibilities of the plant.
What is industrial hemp?
Hemp is derived from the Cannabis sativa (yes, THAT one).
Instead of controversy, we get a plant that’s as good for the planet as the fabric is for your sustainable sneakers.
The first traces of hemp were found in 8000 BC in Asian regions that are now modern day China and Taiwan. If you consider that human agriculture started about 10.000 years ago, then you can assume that hemp was one of the first agricultural crops.
Although hemp was a big part of human history, from clothing to ropes, to ship sale sails etc etc., atitude towards the crop started to change in the early 1900s. Due to hemp’s genetic relationship to marijuana and some people’s inability to comprehend the differences between the two plants, individual states, as well as the U.S. federal government, began to criminalize all cannabis which lasted for almost 50 years.
Benefit 1: Hemp farming requires few inputs
Hemp is, first and foremost, an easy crop to grow, requiring little water. It needs half as much water as corn and less than a third as much as cotton.
It doesn’t require high-quality soil and can grow well in almost any temperate climate (or those prime vineyards) closer to the poles than the Equator. Hemp is also an efficient crop with higher yields from smaller spaces (up to 8.7 tons per acre!), which prevents more agricultural deforestation.
Not only is it robust and resilient against the environment, it’s naturally resistant to pests and fungi, meaning it doesn’t need any pesticides. And because it grows in tight clumps, it doesn’t leave room for weeds, so herbicides aren’t necessary either.
Because of the no-to-low chemical requirements of hemp, hemp farms attract honey bees and other pollinators, improving biodiversity.
Benefit 2: Hemp farming is no-waste & carbon negative
Hemp isn’t just a crop with a minimal carbon footprint, but with a negative one!
Hemp is a self-offsetting crop, absorbing more CO2 from the atmosphere than trees. Hemp farms on the larger scale then become “carbon sinks”, capable of helping combat climate change.
Because the hemp industry is still somewhat small and tightly regulated, most farming is contracted by manufacturing labs, so there’s little chance any crops will go unsold and wasted.
In fact, no part of the plant is wasted. While the stalks are broken down for hemp clothing and fibers, the woody parts can be used for building and biofuel, and the leaves are left in the field for some good ol’ bioremediation.
Benefit 3: Hemp farms are powerful bioremediation tools
Possibly the most sustainable aspect of hemp is that it doesn’t leave the soil dead and depleted after multiple plantings. Quite the opposite, actually. After the hemp stalks are harvested, the leaves are left in the field to biodegrade as we mentioned above. During this composting stage, hemp actually restores soil nutrients (particularly nitrogen). For that reason, we could even rotate hemp farms with other, more consumptive crops without having to wait seasons in between plantings as with regular crop rotation.
The strongest empirical evidence comes from the experience of testing hemp’s decontamination properties on one of the world’s most severely contaminated sites: Chernobyl. The company Phytotech started planting hemp at Chernobyl affected sites in Ukraine in the late 1990s and found that it removed significant parts of the radioactive components from the soil.
Benefit 4: Hemp farms are highly supportive for communities
Because hemp is so high-yield and grows so quickly (in as little as 60 days), it has an incredibly high-profit margin, almost twice that of other crops.
More than that, many hemp farms stray toward natural farming methods. Rather than machines, they employ a huge workforce to hand harvest and dry the hemp.
This creates a large number of jobs in environments where the workers won’t be exposed to agricultural chemicals.
Introducing hemp shoes
As explained earlier, Hemp has been used for centuries in the textile industry, and that is mostly due to the plant's accessibility: fast and easy to grow. But the process of transforming hemp fiber into clothing is not the easiest, and that is one of the reasons why high quality hemp footwear is a relatively new thing.
Hemp fiber to hemp fabric
The entire process is challenging and can take a few months, but there's a lot of optimization and new machinery being developed that can speed up the process. The relatively high amount of processing needed to transform the fiber is one of the reasons why hemp footwear is still quite expensive compared to cotton or wool shoes.
1. Harvesting hemp plants
Most plants used for hemp fabric are harvested with specially developed machinery.
The fibers are separated from the bark and are then allowed to rett in the field for 4-6 weeks.
3. Carding into strands
The separated bast fibers are then carded into strands, and are cleaned to remove impurities.
4. Pulping, matting or steam
Manufacturers may use pulping to produce paper products, matting to make fleeces, or steam explosion to render raw hemp into a weavable fiber.
5. Weaving into textile
Hemp is ready to be spun into yarn and woven into textile.
Why hemp shoes?
By now it's pretty clear that hemp is a pretty sustainable fiber, not only because it captures CEO and consumes way less water, but also because it requires no pesticides and it helps restore the nutrients in the soil, unlike most plants.
But there's more... Hemp is one of stronger, if not the strongest natural fiber existing. It is so strong that sailors used it to build ship sails and Henry Ford used it to built cars.
Hemp is also anti-bacterial and anti-microbial. Because of its capacity to not absorb humidity, it won't let organisms and bacteria develop on it, avoiding infections and smell. That is a huge reason to build shoes made of hemp.
Last but also important is the waterproof properties of the fabric, which is a great added benefit in the case of the Explorer V2 from 8000Kicks. The chart below explains how this particular hemp shoe stacks against other different types of footwear.
Final Thoughts on hemp shoes
Shoes made from hemp are a relatively new thing, and the more brands start using this fiber, the more and better fabric we will have in the future.
Given the natural strength, sustainability and anti bacterial properties of hemp, a company that manufactures shoes using hemp can immediately position its product's quality above other shoe brands that use cotton, polyester, wool, or leather.
Although the hemp advantages are unequivocal, there is still a lot of stigma that needs to be broken and a lot of education that needs to be provided around the plant. That is part of the burden of using hemp as the main material of choice..