When the Farm Bill passed in 2018, industrial hemp could once again be legally cultivated in the United States after an 84-year-old ban on the crop. Before 1937, hemp was grown widely across the country. People wore it, braided rope with it and made canvas ship sails from it. Historians report that America’s first flags were woven with hemp cloth. Though America’s history with hemp is hundreds of years old, we lost touch with the plant and the processes needed to get the crop from field to factory efficiently.
The 2018 Farm Bill rekindled America’s relationship with industrial hemp; today, we use hemp fiber, grain and seed across several industries like construction, animal care, pharmaceuticals and, more recently, fashion.
In the fashion industry, in particular, consumers and retailers are eager to get their hands on hemp because it offers a sustainable alternative to cotton or synthetics. Before hemp fiber can be mass-produced, however, America needs to rebuild a forgotten infrastructure.
Hemp is Trending in the Sustainable Fashion Industry
There’s an environmental crisis in fashion. Because synthetic fibers are a lot cheaper to make on a large scale, they make up 60% of the world’s fiber consumption. However, tiny pieces of plastic coming off our synthetic sweaters in the wash also make up the lion’s share, 34.8%, of microplastics in the ocean. Other natural fibers like cotton demand a lot of resources; it requires about 713 gallons of water to produce the cotton for one T-shirt.
“When you grow hemp, the practices are naturally sustainable and almost entirely regenerative,” says Alexandra LaPierre, Patagonia’s Materials Developer. “It requires very little water, it doesn’t need pesticide application for most insects, and it is a low-till crop.”
Many farmers in the U.S. use hemp as a rotation crop because it replenishes soil nutrients. To mitigate climate change and reduce waste caused by fast fashion, companies like Patagonia are looking for more sustainable ways to bring soft, sturdy, and trendy styles to consumers with less waste. Hemp is part of the solution.
This season, Patagonia announced 68 of their newest styles include hemp, but it’s not the first time Patagonia has used hemp in its styles. The Fortune 500 company was one of the first fashion brands to ever include hemp in their products in 1997 when it sold a 100% hemp long-sleeved shirt. Now you can find shorts, sweatshirts, jackets, overalls, aprons, and hats that are woven with a blend of hemp, cotton, and/or recycled polyester in Patagonia’s online store.
Consumers are Making it Clear: They Want More Hemp
Customers have flocked to Patagonia's hemp line since they launched the fiber in workwear styles four years ago.
“We noticed more customer feedback around hemp when we launched hemp in our Workwear line in 2017. These pieces are so much more comfortable for workwear, compared to traditional burly, cotton canvas workwear,” LaPierre says.
Weaving hemp into the fabrication of sturdy jacks and overalls has made the clothing more durable.
"Our customers have noticed the difference, and we hear about it often,” she says. The more demand there is for hemp, the more momentum hemp farmers and their partners can put behind building an infrastructure that supports U.S. industrial hemp on a larger, more competitive scale.
However, the bulk of Patagonia’s hemp comes from a trusted partner in China. They hope to source more of their hemp from the U.S., but there’s a problem. The field-to-factory infrastructure of hemp in the U.S. is lacking. With breaks in supply chains and a lack of processing technology and facilities, the U.S. can’t supply hemp efficiently or sustainably to retailers on a mass scale.
Sourcing Hemp Requires Trust and a Working Infrastructure
Hemp Fortex in China has been Patagonia’s primary source of hemp since 1997. China is the world's largest hemp producer and exporter across the globe. It's estimated that China is responsible for more than half of the world’s entire supply of hemp. For Patagonia, it’s not just about the quantity of hemp, but the quality of the partnership.
“One of the most important things in choosing a fabric partner at Patagonia is having trust in the partner in knowing that they can supply a quality fiber and do so in the most responsible way possible,” LaPierre says. “Knowing that from the beginning, Hemp Fortex was very open and honest about how they were processing their hemp has kept our relationship with them very strong.”
Patagonia hopes to include more U.S. farmers as their source for hemp, but broken supply chains and weak infrastructure make this difficult. Industrial hemp was only legalized just a few short years ago. Because the market is still so young, many farmers won’t grow it unless they are sure the demand and processes exist.
“Hemp doesn’t have the standards and grading systems that something like organic cotton does. We have farmers that are so excited to grow it but costs are all over the place and there are so many missing pieces in the domestic supply chain,” LaPierre says. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic furthered severed the supply chain.
However, LaPierre says they are still committed to figuring out a way to connect the dots within the U.S. hemp industry. There’s progress, but more studies of the plant, its biomass, properties, and innovations in processing would all help establish the hemp supply chain in the U.S.
Processing Hemp for Textiles is Sticky
Hemp is well known for being naturally sustainable. It doesn’t require excessive amounts of water to grow, is resistant to pests and is resilient against heat stress and wildfire smoke. Once hemp is harvested, the plant is moved to a processing facility where the fiber is separated from the woody core through a process called retting.
Patagonia’s goal is to use clean retting and degumming processes, as well as repurpose crop waste into other uses like building materials and alternatives to plastics.
“At Patagonia, we prefer to support hemp that is field-retted and not water-retted,” says LaPierre. This method uses less water and so is better for the planet. “Field-retting relies on the micro-biome in the soil. The bacteria start to break down the stalk and loosen it up for decortication.”
Decortication stripes the outer layer, but the next part is where the hemp process gets sticky, in more ways than one.
After decortication, hemp fiber needs to be degummed so it can be used in finer yarns and knits that Patagonia needs to weave warm-weather styles. Right now, LaPierre says, the U.S. doesn't have a sustainable way to degum hemp and so a lot of energy is being used in the process. Degumming is necessary to separate the fiber from the woody core, removing sticky lignins and pectins (compounds responsible for the sturdiness and growth of the plant).
Most of the hemp fiber Patagonia uses needs to be degummed and from that point on, hemp undergoes the same processes as other natural fibers like cotton, depending on the end-use of the fabric. "The degumming process is currently where we see the most energy going when we look at the lifecycle analysis of hemp,” says LaPierre.
Hemp uses less water to grow and process than cotton and is quickly biodegradable, unlike synthetics like polyester. Overall, its environmental impact is a lot less when you look at the entire life cycle of hemp, from field to factory.
"With some innovations to degumming it would easily put hemp at the top of the fiber sustainability list," says LaPierre. “We hope to see it used more widely and be more adopted so that the supply chain becomes more established and there is more incentive to innovate on the processing.”
Fashion’s Hope for Hemp
Some companies are already working to find solutions to build an ecosystem around industrial hemp. They are connecting farmers to partners around the country, linking the supply chain, and investing millions of dollars to advance hemp processing technologies.
Alabama-based Bastcore announced nearly $3 million in funding to support their proprietary decortication and degumming technology. Their goal is to hire a substantial workforce to meet future market demand for industrial hemp. In northwest Texas, Panda Biotech built a processing and decortication facility. They are also working with A&M Agrilife Extension to conduct important research about soils, regions, growers, and varieties of hemp. Panda Biotech's goal is to level up the U.S. infrastructure and get hemp fiber on the U.S. market more competitively.
Organizations in other states like Missouri and New Mexico are following suit. By putting the pieces of a broken chain back together, more farmers can supply hemp to bigger companies like Amazon, Coco-a-cola, Nike, and Patagonia. A functional infrastructure in the U.S. means more money for farmers and more growth in the hemp market for all kinds of products including building materials, mulch, animal bedding, moisturizers, soaps, shoes, and clothing items. It’s a work in progress, but the future is bright for the hemp fiber industry and soon American consumers will have more of what they want: products that look good, feel good, and are better for Earth.