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Hemp Textile and Apparel Industry Ready to Grow, Expand Reach

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Hemp Textile and Apparel Industry Ready to Grow, Expand Reach

By Elaine Lipson

The story of hemp textiles and clothing began thousands of years ago, and continued well into the 20th century. But in countries throughout the world, legal prohibitions on growing Cannabis sativa put an end to this ancient story and took hemp textiles and apparel out of the market for many decades. 

Today, as regulations on hemp farming change to allow growing and processing of Cannabis sativa (with THC and cannabinoids under a threshold) as hemp, textiles and apparel are back on the radar throughout the textile supply chain. The ​​Global Industrial Hemp Market Report and Forecast 2021-2026 by Expert Market Research estimated a value of USD 4.7 billion for the global industrial hemp market in 2020. The report projected market growth at a CAGR of 22.5 percent between 2021 and 2026 to reach USD 14.6 billion by 2026, supported by regulatory changes that are likely to foster market success. 

Textile Exchange, a global nonprofit working to accelerate the use of preferred fibers across the global textile industry, found in its Preferred Fiber & Materials Market Report 2021 that the market share for all preferred fiber and materials, including hemp, grew significantly in 2020. “We support hemp that’s grown with best practices,” says LaRhea Pepper, Textile Exchange’s CEO. The organization is forming a task force on bast fibers such as linen and hemp to address the category’s unique challenges. “It is a great fiber, and we want to make sure it’s responsibly produced and not making more greenhouse gas … to be sure that as we’re adding hemp into that portfolio of preferred fibers, we’re not adding more problems.” 

The Textile Exchange task force will explore best practices for growing hemp as well as identifying marketing claims that can be substantiated. Pepper notes that Rodale Institute has conducted extensive trials on hemp and recommends that hemp be grown organically to fulfill its potential as an environmentally beneficial crop.

At the consumer level, hemp textiles and garments are becoming more visible through brands large and small, from Patagonia’s Workwear line made with blended hemp fabrics to couture fashion designer Naeem Khan’s 100% organic hemp jeans, seen on the runway at New York Fashion Week. Other brands offering hemp garments include Madewell, Levi’s, and numerous smaller-scale producers. 

Upcoming Hemp Textile Expo Focuses on Intrinsic Link to Carbon Capture
For Ramon Granados, founder and CEO of Hemp Engineering Pty Ltd of Perth, Australia, and organizer of the virtual Hemp Textile Expo to be held this Sunday, September 19, hemp textiles are both a market opportunity and a world-changing mission.

Granados says that what he most wants people to understand about hemp textile production is the intrinsic link to carbon capture through hemp farming. “That is #1. That is the rational technological path we need. We have a problem with the atmosphere and we need to reverse it, from the soil up,” Granados says. “We can do everything from hemp. We need more scientists, researchers, more engineers, more people who understand that, okay, this is not going to make me rich in three years but … the idea is to create a green economy. It’s the right time for all of us. We should be proud of wearing hemp clothing.”

Pioneers With a Belief in Doing Right
Granados has assembled a global who’s who of a dozen speakers — he calls them pioneers — to address opportunities and challenges in the supply and production chain, tell their stories, and share learning curves for the emerging and entrepreneurial industry. Among them is Guy Carpenter, president of Wilmington, North Carolina-based Bear Fiber, a leading hemp supply chain management company for hemp fiber, yarn textiles and apparel manufacturing. Carpenter plans to talk about spinning hemp fiber, and what makes a good textile grade hemp fiber from the field through first processing — and why. 

While navigating the multiple challenges of an emerging industry, Carpenter says he is “very, very, very cautiously optimistic” about the future of hemp textiles. “I’ve been in the apparel manufacturing/fashion industry for over 35 years and it is a cutthroat business at the best of times,” he says. “One of the best times of my life is right now because I’m involved with making clothes for people that not only are comfortable and perform but now they’re gonna last longer. We are using natural fibers and we are creating the actual story from the seed to the ground to the farmer to the methods of agriculture, processing — the entire value chain, person by person, in a network that I like to call tribal because we all believe we are doing the right thing.”

Opportunity and Conviction Build the Market
In his decidedly lean operation, Carpenter says, he is grateful to organizations that have helped fund his small business startup, and to grantmaking organizations supporting research and development. And significant initiatives are on the horizon. “As of last week we received a funding proposal to develop a new Marine Corp Utility Uniform (MCUU) from the Department of the Navy/Department of Defense. That’s an exciting project. Of course that fabric can be re-interpreted in the civilian world and in all sorts of outside and outdoor activities. [It will be] American-grown hemp.”

There’s more. “Now we have a commitment from a major brand for thousands and thousands of yards of fabric for just the first prototype run for them, which is a big deal. It’s the first truly commercial order for a fabric with hemp fibers in it in the U.S., of true commercial magnitude.”

Carpenter believes that a conscious consumer base exists that will embrace companies with conviction and authenticity. “I’m gonna talk about a story with hemp that lets us connect directly to people … We’re talking about a network of friends. They go all the way to our sewing lady or sewing man who puts the button on the shirt or the pants. I’m not gonna buy any raw fiber from anybody if I haven’t shaken their hand or looked at their fields. That’s my intent. I need to be able to say with authority that this is correct. The point is that we’re nascent and we’re building the chains. This is the way it should be done.” (Read more about hemp and the North Carolina textile industry here.)

A Vision of Scale With Technology’s Help
Another of Hemp Textile Expo’s scheduled speakers from North America is Robert Ziner, founder and CEO of Canadian Industrial Hemp Corporation, which is developing an advanced hemp stalk processing and optimization system. Ziner recently authored How Growing 50 Million Acres of Hemp Can Change the World, a white paper that advocates for “a technology-driven, cost-effective hemp industry.” This will, Ziner writes, “… be able to redefine the economics of production to better serve the market. Besides the many, large, existing markets, many new opportunities will surface when costs are lowered, quality control is automated, and delivery is “guaranteed.””

Conveying a Message of Change
Though each has a different slant on the market, these hemp pioneers share an optimism and ambitious vision for hemp. Challenges of scale, production, and processing remain throughout the industry, but these proponents say that hemp has unlimited potential in the marketplace to succeed and to reach consumer hearts and minds. A necessary part of this will be a marketing message that helps end users of hemp products to understand the power in making a genuinely sustainable choice — and to ensure that all sustainability claims are backed up with evidence. 

Granados, from his home in Perth, finds inspiration in a historic weaver who used the technology of his own time, the hand loom, to carry a message of radical change: “Remember, Gandhi defeated the British Empire by just changing their clothes.” When we’re wearing hemp textiles, he goes on to say, it’s very simple — we’re saving the planet. “When you grow hemp, you capture CO2, and then the rest is history.”

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Elaine Lipson is a Colorado-based writer and editor. She wrote The International Market for Sustainable Apparel, the first comprehensive market view of the sustainable apparel industry, in 2008, and Slow Cloth: An Alternative to the Politics of Production. Elaine was previously senior programming manager and acquisitions/content editor for Bluprint, an NBCUniversal company, and organic program director for New Hope Natural Media.

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