This article is co-authored by Emily Roberts and Alice Wright.
Hemp has an image problem. It’s a cousin of cannabis, the narcotic drug that is still entrenched in its own battle of legalisation; thrown around in a verbal battle between medicinal properties and social scourge, depending on where you stand. However, that really shouldn’t matter. Hemp is not marijuana. It is physiologically different to marijuana. It has no narcotic or psychologically active properties. It is also potentially the answer to cotton’s damaging domination of the fashion industry.
Hemp requires less water which is important in a country like India where water has state dependent water shortages and resulting environmental factors. Its growth requires 180 gallons of water for every shirt in comparison to 720 gallons for every cotton shirt equivalent. Cotton uses 26% of the world’s harmful pesticides, hemp growth requires none. It is a carbon neutral if not negative product. This means that the amount of CO2 it absorbs counters that which is produced in its farming and manufacturing process into clothes. It is also decomposable and continues to absorb CO2 even when it has been cut down. Hemp does not bleach the soil of nutrients like BT cotton which means that crop rotation is firstly not necessary but also it does not impact the future growth of crops in the area.
Durable and soft, hemp is a perfect candidate for clothing, providing value for money and comfort. Like cotton it also holds dye so is accommodating to designers and artisans. Crucially, the plant could break cotton’s stranglehold over the fashion industry but the Indian government must give up its subsidising of damaging BT cotton and help the emergence ofa new industry. We have so little time left to reduce our carbon emissions, Hemp can help us with this, let’s invest in hemp. Let’s make hemp sexy. Helping with that is BOHECO, the Bombay Hemp Company. Founded in Mumbai but gradually making its way into the international fashion industry.
BOHECO is a social enterprise committed to reforming India’s agriculture towards a sustainable future by expanding the country’s hemp production. By working with farmers and local artisans and creating their B-label range of hemp products, they promote hemp as the sustainable alternative to cotton and linen.
For sustainable development to be effective, it needs to work alongside social development – which is why BOHECO are empowering workers in rural areas to minimise the disparity in job opportunities between India’s overpopulated cities and its countryside. Already, they have trained 70 female artisans in Uttarakhand, India’s newest state, and work to develop the sector which employs half of India’s workforce: agriculture.
The transparency in their supply chain, from seed to product, is what makes BOHECO so progressive. Lack of traceability throughout the chain is a huge problem in the fashion industry; the minimal information about where our clothes come from allows fast fashion brands to get away with a continuous stream of unethical practices.
If, like most companies, their focus were to generate profit, they could simply source hemp from China and create a sustainable clothing brand. Instead, they strive to expand the hemp industry worldwide and educate consumers, governments and corporations alike on the environmental, economic and social benefits of hemp. To appeal to consumers on a global scale, with a view of popularising hemp, they make their B-Label products affordable; their prices match up to the likes of Zara to ensure they’re accessible. Currently, BOHECO could not continue their dedication to social change without donors and investors. As their business expands, simultaneously with the hemp industry – and the sustainable agricultural economy it provides – they will be able to make a profit, showing the potential for hemp to revolutionise the fashion industry.
So, if hemp is the future, why hasn’t is taken off already? The biggest barrier to mass production is the government’s perception of hemp. Because of the stigma attached to cannabis and its illegality in most countries, this stigma is also wrongly attached to hemp. BOHECO are working to inform the government and break through the misconception that the plant isn’t always dangerous. After more governments open their eyes to the benefits of hemp, it can be grown on a larger scale; more farmers will be provided with an agricultural alternative which, unlike cotton, has a future, and the sustainability of the fashion industry will dramatically improve.