Hemp versus cotton: Which is better for the environment?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
April 12 2011 5:11 AM

High on Environmentalism

Can hemp clothing save the planet?

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When you add processing into the equation, cotton uses more than four times as much water as hemp. Polyester is difficult to compare, because it's not an agricultural product. But some studies suggest it's the least water-intensive of the bunch, using just one-thousandth as much water as cotton. (In fact, water is a byproduct of polyester processing.)

So where does all this leave us? Without a clear winner, unfortunately. There's an argument to make for polyester, but the nonrenewability of synthetic textiles raises serious concerns. Overall, hemp appears to be slightly easier on the environment than cotton, considering it's superior on water and land requirements, and only slightly worse for energy use. But is the DEA responsible for all of our environmental woes? Hardly.

Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.