Have you ever wondered what really makes an item sustainable? Or debated the qualities of an "it" item? Maybe you've pondered the future of retail in a post-pandemic world?

In a strange cycle of 'normal' life starting, pausing and restarting, more questions than answers have arisen in our daily lives. But in an effort to understand our surroundings better, we've decided to get some answers.  

We're starting with what we know best and that is the questions driving the fashion and beauty industry forward. From topics on sustainability to the merits of organic beauty, we'll be digging into the questions that have perplexed us and piqued our curiosity; and to do so, we enlist the help of industry experts to get the full run-down.

With new advances into biodegradable, plastic-free denim and fibres made of rose petals on the market, there's a clear demand (and need) for sustainable materials. While many brands are embracing the move towards more eco-friendly production, green-washing is sadly still rife, and it calls for consumers to be just as aware as to what is sustainable as brands are.

The first step? Knowing the difference between which materials harm the planet and which ones that don't, hence why we're investigating a trending material of the moment: hemp cotton. Instead of using notoriously damaging regular cotton, many brands have adopted the cannabis relative as their material of choice, but what is it? And is it that sustainable? 

What is hemp?
"Hemp is a natural fibre that is derived from the stalk of the plant – it’s really versatile with many beneficial properties," explains Hana Kajimura, the Sustainability Lead at Allbirds, the brand that revolutionised the trainer market by making them the most eco-friendly. They've recently launched their second drop of apparel made of the material, featuring a matching shirt and short set that is made for balmy summer days. "Since hemp is a tall and thin crop, it needs a relatively small amount of land to grow on. It also enhances soil health because it returns a high percentage of nutrients back into the ground."

How is it more sustainable than cotton?
It's no secret that non-organic cotton is detrimental to our planet, especially as we produce so much clothing made with it. But hemp is the answer to that, Hana says. "Hemp is a great option because it’s renewable and can be used in a variety of products. On the environmental side, it grows quickly under the right conditions and requires fewer resources, such as water, compared to materials like conventional cotton." In fact, it requires less than a third of the water needed for cotton, yields 220% more fibre, and it's also capable of capturing carbon emissions from the atmosphere. Hana is under the impression that it's actually better than the unsustainable alternatives. "We think hemp is an untapped wonder fibre that can compete with conventional cotton due to its durability, versatility and lower environmental impact. Hemp is breathable and also very absorbent, which makes it perfect for hot summer days. Since it’s temperature regulating, it will keep you cool in the heat but warm on chilly nights." 

Why have we not been using hemp all this time?
In the past, hemp has often been dismissed within fashion because it wrinkles easily and it's not always rich in colour. And because it's not regularly used, the price of the material increases due to its exclusivity, creating a cycle that is had to break. 

On the other hand, hemp straw is more often found within millinery. "Hemp straw is a commonly used material in the field of traditional hatmaking," shares a spokesperson from Maison Michel, the iconic French hat atelier. "It is a natural material, easy to prime, to dye and to work with. We notably use this material for creations which require sewn straw. With this method, several reels of hemp straw are spiral sewn and alternated in order to create audacious shapes." Whilst the ready-to-wear market has largely ignored the material, milliners globally have been embracing it for decades. "The hat-making techniques allow us to precisely measure the required materials, which helps avoid waste," Maison Michel tells us. "For instance, prior to the making of a sewn straw hat, the amount of materials is determined depending on the shape and the volume of the hat so that we only use the quantity we need." No-waste production and the use of eco-friendly materials for genuine reasons rather than just marketing – and we at last see fashion industry taking tips.

What's the future of cotton?
Whilst it seems that hemp is the solution to the environmental crisis that cotton has helped cause, disregarding it completely is easier said than done. According to WWF, cotton production provides income for more than 250 million people worldwide and employs almost 7% of all labor in developing countries. Instead, more work needs to be done to ensure that all cotton production is done in the most sustainable way possible, whilst also having brands using different alternatives, such as hemp. Cotton use within the fashion industry is a discussion that can't be quashed with a simple statement, but with other viable alternatives, the conversation around how to make it sustainable is gaining more momentum by the minute. 

Shop the All Birds apparel here, and Maison Michel hemp straw hats below:

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