Is hemp the new alternative to cotton? Levi's believes so. In early March, the iconic denim brand launched their Wellthread x Outerknown collection, the company's first attempt at using a special kind of hemp that has been "cottonized" to feel like cotton.
However, Hemp is known to be a far more sustainable material. It can produce two to three times more fiber than an acre of cotton; can detoxify soil by removing harmful chemicals and pollutants while enriching the soil with nitrogen and oxygen; and is a more durable material, making products last longer.
According to the Stockholm Environmental Institute, hemp also uses less water. An estimated 10,000 liters of water is used to produce 1kg of cotton compared to about 300-500 liters of water to produce 1kg of dry hemp matter. Also, about 30% is suitable for fiber production. While speaking with Levi's VP of product innovation Paul Dillinger, he confirms that the hemp used in their Wellthread x Outerknown collection "came from a rain fed field so it actually has no ground water use, and uses substantially less water than cotton." Nearly 70% less water, to be more precise.
In the long term, the choice of using hemp over cotton will help combat water scarcity, a growing threat around the world. 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to water, and a total of 2.7 billion find water scarce for at least one month of the year, World Wild Life reports. It's a crisis that will continue to rise if we don't start acting now. According to Levi's LCA, a pair of 501 cotton jeans use 3,781 liters of water in its full lifecycle; 70 percent of the water used during a single lifecycle is solely for cotton agriculture.
What makes matters worse, globally, is that consumers miss out on $460 billion of value each year by throwing away clothes they could continue to wear, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. It also states that some garments are estimated to be discarded after just seven to 10 wears. "Imagine if seven out of 10 jeans are being thrown out every year. The average consumer per year is discarding 31 years worth of drinking water," says Dillinger.
With the growing decriminalization and legalization of cannabis across the U.S., hemp has become more accessible within the manufacturing process and has the potential to knock cotton off its throne.
"We've always known about the tremendous sustainability benefit of cultivating hemp versus some of the other fibers that we use," Paul adds. "We really focused on, can we integrate the fiber to the highest level that is meaningful, and can we do it in a way that doesn't degrade consumer experience?" The answer is, yes.
The jeans and jacket in the Wellthread x Outerknown collection are made from a 70/30 blend of cotton and hemp, a method that softens the fiber using very little energy or chemical processing to make it look, and more importantly feel, almost indistinguishable from cotton. Also, every piece is recyclable, which includes the embroidered jacket, pocket tee, board shorts, western stitched yoke, and the 511 slim fit jeans.
Going forward, Levi's plans on continuing to experiment and implement hemp into future collections and minimize water use in production overall. "I think solutions to cotton are going to become the norm, and cotton is going to become the exception," Paul tell us. Since a farm bill was signed to legalize hemp in the U.S., analysts have predicted that the hemp market, currently valued at around $800 million, will be worth $20 billion by 2022.
As the hemp revolution continues to kick off, Levi's is hard at work in the creative kitchen looking at better ways to to get more use out of the material.
"Next season, we will be working with how does this dye? What is the dyeing process like? Is it different, is it harder to manage? And then the following season after that we'll take on the challenge of how to wash it? Does it finish differently than cotton? So we'll do this really careful, staged approach where me and my team are happy to modify our design process as needed to work through these challenges."
He concludes, "If you look at the garments, they're impactful, they're beautiful, they're comfortable, they're wearable. So we got the first season out the door, so keep an eye on us next season, and the season after and you'll be able to see this story build."
The Levi's Wellthread x Outerknown collection is now available. Hit the link below to shop the full lineup of sustainable apparel.
For a deeper dive into the topic of sustainability, watch the video below.