What Are Plant-Based Fabrics? What Is Hemp Fabric, and Can You Smoke It?
Are plant-based fabrics in India the new thing, or just a new passing trend? With the rise of more conscious and responsible consumers, we have a whole bunch of young designers and fabric makers who are working to reduce the fashion industry’s climate impact, and to answer the question, “What are plant-based fabrics?” Upcycled, ethically-made and cruelty-free being the keywords, many young Indian brands are embracing sustainability with zero-waste designs, small-scale production and above all, natural or plant-based fabrics.
So, What Are Plant-Based Fabrics?
Very simply put, plant-based fabrics are fabrics made from different parts of a plant. Cotton and other natural fabrics have been used forever, but, with ‘green’ being the favourite adjective of the decade, the textile industry in India is seeing a shift from traditional fabrics with a surge of plant-based fabrics made from bamboo, hemp, rose petals and even algae.
In response to the waste problem in the fashion industry, new biodegradable textiles are being created using natural byproducts to combat the destruction caused by millions of garments that end up in landfills each year.
In order to gain a broader perspective of plant-based fabrics in India, I spoke to Neha Rao, head of The Hemp Fabric Lab. The Hemp Fabric Lab or HFL is a one-stop-shop for designers and creators to buy hemp fabrics. The Hemp Fabric Lab specifically deals with 100% hemp fabric and fabric blends, as the textile division under the Bombay Hemp Company (BOHECO). The Bombay Hemp Company, incorporated in 2013, is an agro-based enterprise reimagining the future of Indian agriculture and sustainable living with hemp as their focus.
How do you think India perceives plant-based fabric? What are plant-based fabrics in India?
“The Indian economy is heavily influenced by the textile and apparel industry. India has a noteworthy position as one of the major exporters of natural fibres like silk and cotton. India currently commands a share of about 4.5% in the world for exports of textiles. This is still a very nominal share despite the textile sector in India being one of the oldest sectors in the country. Rigorous efforts have been made to establish the ambitious ‘Make in India’ program which is wishing to make India a ‘manufacturing’ and ‘sourcing hub’ in the coming times. Natural fibres are appealing to the classes, due to the rise in prices of natural fibres. This makes it challenging for us to offer competitive pricing in the market and reach a wider audience.”
So what is it that The Hemp Fabric Lab is trying to achieve?
“The Hemp Fabric Lab is a 2-year-old division, and our vision is to become the foremost player in the hemp textile industry in India and create an ecosystem for designers, consumers and innovators to come together in a collaborative spirit and find interesting new ways to use hemp. Being a product of BOHECO, our mission is to educate people about the wonders of hemp and banish any myths surrounding it. We want hemp to be the no.1 fabric option for brands, designers and consumers because aside from being a far more sustainable option than most natural fibres, it’s also a great USP for any brand to have.”
The idea of hemp fabrics is a revolutionary one, especially in India. Hemp is an overachiever in the realm of plants, it can be used to produce paper, biodegradable plastic, health food and fuel. It is not only a godsend to the world of medicine, but also to the world of fashion. However, our societies and communities often paint the therm ‘hemp’ in a dark and unsavoury light due to its association with Marijuana and Cannabis.
Does the negative connotation towards ‘Hemp’ ever cause hurdles?
“Our motto is ‘educate, cultivate, elevate’. With every individual maker and creator, our journey starts with educating them about the crop! This crop has been around since 800 BC, but you will be surprised at how little people know about Hemp and its benefits. Pre-covid when we had a pop-up, where we used to entice people by asking them -‘ Have you heard about bhang clothes?’ This would catch their attention and then we would educate them about the cannabis plant and how we use it for making clothes. Hemp and Marijuana belong to different species of the Cannabis family and are vastly different from each other.”
Neha goes on to explain the difference between Marijuana and Hemp. They both come from Cannabis but are vastly different in terms of composition and use. THC is what gives marijuana its psychoactive properties, i.e. the thing that makes you high. The amount of THC in Hemp is basically non-existent. Hemp can grow in nearly any condition, while marijuana needs a very controlled and specific condition to grow. Hemp has a staggering amount of applications, including skincare, fashion, construction and food, while marijuana is used medically and for recreation. And no, you cannot smoke clothing made of hemp! With the capacity of disinformation and misinterpretation in our country, is it really worth it?
How is plant-based fabric better, and why is it something that deserves the spotlight?
“ Fibres from plants can be considered to be totally renewable and biodegradable. Besides this hemp has additional environmental benefits, like taking very less water and pesticides to grow, growing at a faster rate. Hemp is the fastest CO2-to-Biomass converter. We all need to strike a balance between manmade fibres and natural fibres. These fabrics should be utilized based on your application and use, to reduce the overall environmental impact.”
How has Covid impacted the industry? What is the future you see for plant-based fabrics?
“COVID has taught us a lot indeed, we are more mindful of the current resources and capital for the future, the mindfulness towards sustainability is definitely increasing. With microplastic being one of the biggest issues right now, natural fibre seems to be the only answer.”
Even before COVID hit, the Indian fashion industry was headed towards a more sustainable and ethical future. Apart from hemp, India is beginning to see a huge surge in the use of plant-based fashion to satiate responsible shoppers. No Nasties, a brand from Goa, in response to the increasing number of farmer suicides across India, aims to use organic cotton and provides fair trade prices to the farmers. In fact, they are the first clothing brand to get a Fairtrade license in India. Sui is another such label with the aim to combine travel to the cleanest, most sustainable designs. Sui’s core philosophy is responsible fashion that’s always in sync with the times. Hemp being their ‘star fabric’ is an integral element to most of their designs. Gujarat-based Bhu:Sattva is an organic clothing brand that makes use of a variety of sustainable fibres including hemp, bamboo, aloe vera, soy fibre and more. Their core philosophy is slow fashion.
These are just the tip of the iceberg, with the rise in conscious fashion amongst millennials, we are likely to see a plant-based future for India, especially owing to our heritage and abundance of textile-based talent amongst craftsmen.