Cannabis has long been considered a green industry, ready for the future.
More and more places are decriminalising cannabis and the UK has become awash with CBD products. There has even been a growing market for hemp-based clothes as demand for sustainable fashion has eschewed cheap products. Hemp, a variety of cannabis, is an extremely versatile and robust crop.
It uses far less land and water than other common crops, and even captures carbon dioxide and regenerates soil. Approximately 20,000 products can be made from its seed, fibre and flower, from biodegradable plastics to food supplements. So far, so good, then for its environmental footprint.
Yet, with the high demand for water, land and artificial lighting, cultivating cannabis en masse can leave a frighteningly large environmental footprint.
Many firms, rushing to capitalise on the growing market, are failing to correctly treat and apply chemical fertilisers and pesticides, using a machine-gun approach to growing their crops. The resulting waste can kill microorganisms crucial for biodiversity, contaminate soil, water and other vegetation. Strict guidelines attached to packaging products of a medical or pharmaceutical nature also mean a proliferation of single-use plastic for their products.
Still relatively new, there is still huge growth potential in cannabis. The global cannabis market was valued at US$10.6bn in 2018 – it is projected to reach US$97.3bn billion by the end of 2026. Yet as the industry grows, so too will its footprint. So as the CBD, medical and recreational cannabis industries become increasingly mainstream, there is a risk an inherently sustainable product will be tainted by unsustainable practices.
Given the huge competition, companies vying for precious investment and fighting to be at the top of the food chain often forget about one of the main drivers of the industry – its sustainability. Of course, there is a moral question here, but it’s also a poorly calculated business decision.
In the same way fast fashion houses have had to turn their attention to creating – or at least appearing to create – sustainable clothes, cannabis companies who cave into environmentally damaging practices will be playing catch up. Last week, Credit Suisse CEO Thomas Gottstein warned the pandemic had accelerated the trends towards sustainable investment and both individual and institutional clients were shunning environmentally damaging sectors and businesses.
The people trying to make their mark in the cannabis industry should be focused on harnessing the natural ways of cultivating plants, rather than rushing to produce cheap and dirty products. Growing outdoors should be the first port of call, so as to avoid energy wastage through artificial lighting. Water, of course, is also one of the biggest stumbling blocks. Hemp requires 50 per cent less water than traditional cotton, but it is still a thirsty plant. Indoor operations can use systems which recycle close to 100 per cent of the water by capturing the perspiration from the plants. But this is a trade off: indoors, with more energy requirements but less water, or outdoors with the opposite problem?
One of the benefits and drawbacks of being a new commercial industry is there is no standard practice for growing cannabis. There are few in-depth studies on how to do it in the most sustainable way and there will no doubt be myriad mistakes made in an effort to be environmentally friendly. The challenge, however, must be met. It’s taken hard work to reverse a toxic image of cannabis, so cultivators must take the necessary steps to ensure their own success for years to come.