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  1. Analysis
March 1, 2022

ANALYSIS: Will hemp replace cotton as must-have fibre?

The sustainability benefits of hemp are unquestionable. But will it replace cotton? Just Style's Hannah Abdulla investigates.

By Hannah Abdulla

The adoption of hemp fibre in the apparel industry is growing, particularly as consumers become more eco-conscious and the green benefits of hemp over cotton are increasingly being touted. In fact it was a taboo subject not so long ago, however it is fast-becoming something of a fashion icon – literally.

When directly compared, hemp uses a fraction of the water that cotton does and remediates soil for the farmer. It also absorbs more CO2 than any other plant or crop on the planet. As a fabric, it is more durable – longer lasting and keeps its shape. Plus, its fibres also soften with wear. But its adoption into mainstream apparel has been relatively slow.

According to the Preferred Fiber and Materials Market Report 2021′  published by the Textile Exchange, the market share of hemp is less than 0.2% of the total fibre market in 2020. Hemp fibre and tow (a coarse, broken carbon fibre) had an estimated global production volume of around 174,027 tonnes in 2020. The soft, woody bast-fibre hemp is used in various industries including home textiles and apparel.

Peter Miles, hemp expert at eHempHouse, tells Just Style exclusively the slow integration of hemp into the apparel supply chain comes down to a mix of perceptions, and its accessibility.

“It got sort of wrapped up in the “illegal” side of hemp which is marijuana. People stopped growing it,” he starts.

But there’s also been the other issue of processing. Compared to cotton, the textile strands of hemp are stronger and longer. China leads the way when it comes to hemp processing, but Hemp was only legalised in the country in 2010, following a 25-year ban. Since then, the nation has focused on growing the plant and processing it. China now grows about 70% of the world’s hemp and carries a third of the market share, explains Miles.

“What that means is sourcing hemp fabric is significantly more expensive than sourcing cotton fabric, because of the sheer lack of access.”

But that is changing.

Experimenting with hemp fibre

Herve Denoyell of The Flax Co., in France explains that 15 years ago, the group turned its attention to flax after trialling cottonised hemp but receiving a poor market reaction. One of the reasons he believes is that sustainability was not trending as strongly as it does today.

In 2020, Dallas-based Panda Biotech announced plans to construct the US’ first facility to both process and cottonise industrial hemp fibre in commercial quantities.

The Panda Texas Plains Hemp Gin will also be the first facility in the nation to cottonise hemp fibre on a commercial scale for the American textile and apparel industry and export customers. 

It is also likely to be the only facility in the world dedicated to both the processing and cottonisation of hemp fibre in industrial quantities outside of the People’s Republic of China, the company says.

The “cottonisation” process removes the lignin (or organic polymers that form the structural materials) that bind hemp fibres together in bundles and “opens” them for further refinement. Once “cottonised,” the hemp fibre can be blended with other natural or man-made fibres – such as cotton, silk, wool and polyester – and spun into yarns that will be knit or woven into fabric.

Delta Agriculture announced last year it is rolling out a hemp fibre line in a bid to become a full-scale industrial hemp supplier. The announcement marks its transitional growth from a leader in hemp flower production into a full-scale industrial hemp supplier.

And, around the same time, Pakistan’s AGI Denim inked the first global production partnership with Panda Biotech to use its US-grown industrial hemp, which can be tracked and traced back to its American farmers. 

AGI Denim has already made great strides in developing innovative alternatives to traditional denim manufacturing and processing methods, including a Gold Level, Cradle-to-Cradle Certification for its latest hemp-based fabric material, Hemp X. 

Commenting on the collaboration at a recent Kingpins24 panel session, Hassan Javed of AGI says the conscious consumer wants peace of mind in knowing exactly where his/her products have come from and how they have been processed.

“The partnership for our customers, particularly US-based ones, is that Panda’s hemp is easily traceable and it is a homegrown product grown right in the centre of the country from farms that are growing the fibre to the ginning, processing and cottonisation. It offers complete visibility and assurance. This is against the backdrop of an industry that is still trying to address transparency in the supply chain.”

The processing challenges

One of the hurdles presented by hemp is that the fabrics made from its fibres are coarser than cotton.

Denoyell says hemp can be suited to certain applications such as denim, particularly for brands that want to engage a purely mechanical way of processing to maximise the sustainability benefits. “We found the fibre was a bit coarse but worked magically in one sector which is denim since the segment doesn’t require fine counts.

“It’s why we launched it and it is now picking up sharply in the market, becoming a superpower in denim as this sector is more accepting of rough fibres.”

But Carter says as the market matures and more is learned about hemp, blending fibres is also a possibility. She says: “I can see it being blended with anything from cotton to synthetic fibres. I think that’s a great and easily achievable goal to have.”

Bear Fiber for example, is developing a novel alkaline hemp cottonisation process and manufacturing platform to produce cotton-like hemp fibre that can be easily spun with and complement cotton.

There is a lot of gearing up on the part of the industry to prepare for a full-scale adoption of hemp, explains Hassan, discussing whether there is a need for new machines to process hemp.

“I think the industry will have to evolve and make some adjustments. We can’t just process hemp the way we do other fibres. We’ve been equipping our state of the art facility with the latest technology and automation. It has bespoke machinery that can handle alternate fibres. A lot of research and development has to be done as to how to spin the fibres but certainly, when it’s done it can unlock a lot of benefits.”

The key hemp markets

There are a number of key markets for hemp with some that are ripe for growing and/or processing the fibre. China, as previously mentioned, has dominated over the past 10 years, and as such, it has been able to demand a premium price point for hemp-based goods.

As more fashion brands want to adopt hemp as part of their production process, in the knowledge it is more sustainable in the long term, Miles suggests there is no binary switch that can turn the global industry from “this-to-that in a day”.

He says: “It’s kind of chicken and egg. What you need is extensive cultivation of hemp to be able to then supply factories and then invest in the factories to create textiles you can therefore turn into hemp clothing.”

Miles’ eHempHouse is in the process of developing a mobile hemp processing factory in Africa, known as “The SmartBox”.

The SmartBox is said to encourage farmers to grow, harvest, process and sell more hemp products while addressing two of the primary problems that farmers have – water and irrigation and the lack of processing facilities. This is addressed by bringing the SmartBox factory into the cultivation area and allowing it access to power and hemp processing.

Because the process is so data-rich, the SmartBox creates a completely transparent supply chain, telling consumers where their product comes from down to field and farmer level.

Beyond this, there is also a real opportunity in hemp to realise dreams of nearshoring or re-shoring apparel production.

Covid revealed weaknesses in apparel supply chains as China was, and still is, heavily relied upon for apparel component parts, even if the final garment isn’t being made in China. That could not be truer of cotton with China producing 80% of the world’s cotton. This supply chain exposure has forced brands into considering ways to futureproof their supply chains. Bringing production closer to home is one way being considered.

Miles points out that as hemp is a weed, so to speak, it can pretty much grow anywhere.

He says: “It can grow in the EU and UK. There might be shorter growing seasons. You might only get one crop a year. But the ability to grow it is there. There are 300HA for sugar beets in the UK. If you had that for industrial hemp, you’ve got yourself a homegrown textile business. You’d shorten the supply chain dramatically and the shorter the distance that your goods have to travel, the better really.”

Speculate to accumulate

Of course, having a wide pool of hemp to source from and a wide berth of processors will drive down the price. But at this point, investment is the key.

Miles explains: “When you look at China between 2010-2020, it had massive amounts of investment and then dominated the market. There’s no reason you can’t replicate that in another market. Our goal is to do it in Africa where there is 200 million HA of underutilised land – half the world total. Africa is the fastest-growing consumer market in the world. A great place to expand the growth of hemp for multiple uses, one being fashion and textiles.”

While, the Textile Exchange, as part of its report, concludes the pace of growth of the preferred fibre and materials market is not nearly fast enough and calls for the transition to preferred fibres and materials to be a “non-negotiable” decision.

What is the wider opportunity?

Carter remains convinced the present scrutiny of cotton will see investment and focus in hemp rise.

She says: “The environmental problems are not something we can kick down the road anymore. If you ask me about cotton, cotton is always going to play an important role but it’s not sustainable for the long term. We know that by blending hemp in with any natural or synthetic fibre, we will be making not only a stronger product with better benefits but we will also be solving this issue and I really believe the textile and denim industry, in particular, can be a leader in this space.”

Scott Evans, also of Panda Biotech, adds: “We are currently only scratching the surface where hemp is concerned.”

He says: “We use 100% of this plant which is rare. 20 years from now, seeing the products you’re used to and how many now contain hemp – that’s really what excites me about the future.”

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