Hemp is back – removed from the US Schedule 1 controlled substances list and available for broad cultivation. But what’s an opportunity for its use in apparel, and what’s just hype? Writing exclusively on just-style, Roian Atwood, director of sustainability for Wrangler and Lee jeans, takes a closer look.

Last December, the US Government signed into law the 2018 Farm Bill. The sweeping agriculture and nutrition measure provides more than $800bn in aid to US farmers, funds federal food stamp programmes, and legalised hemp. Hemp, not to be confused with marijuana.

A multi-purpose crop, hemp’s rich heritage in the US dates back to colonial days. The industry was undermined in the US by the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, and then completely eradicated in 1970 when all varieties of cannabis, including both hemp and marijuana, were listed as Schedule 1 drugs under the Controlled Substances Act.

Now that hemp is back – and removed from Schedule 1 – there’s understandably a lot of excitement. To separate what’s an opportunity for its use in apparel and what’s just hype, I spoke with growers, processors, retailers and industry advocates.

What’s the difference between hemp and marijuana?

From a plant biology standpoint, hemp and marijuana are close relatives with significant differences. Hemp can be bred to take advantage of certain characteristics, such as a high-yielding woody pulp interior – called hurd – for paper, long strands of bast fibre for textiles, hemp grain for human or livestock consumption, or a productive flower for cannabidiol (CBD).

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Growing anecdotal and clinical evidence suggests CBD and other cannabinoids and/or flavonoids derived from hemp may be effective in treating a wide range of medical conditions, including neurological disorders, cancer, inflammation, pain, and mood disorders.

While marijuana proponents claim its own health benefits, marijuana is unique in that it contains high levels of the the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Hemp extracts like CBD do not elicit a psychoactive “high.”

Growth despite regulatory hurdles

Hemp was legalised again primarily in response to growing demand for hemp extracts like cannabidiol (CBD). The Hemp Business Journal reported that the US hemp market was $820m in 2017, led by hemp-derived CBD products at $190m. Estimates for 2022 show CBD products growing to $646m while the entire industry reaches $1.9bn. While legalisation is important to driving the growth of the US market, the 2018 Farm Bill’s hemp provision also makes it possible for farmers and processors to access crop insurance and business loans, while the entire industry can benefit from marketing, increased research, interstate trade and (perhaps) less red tape.

According to Marty Clemons, president of the North Carolina Industrial Hemp Association, the US is well positioned to ride the wave of growing demand despite trailing far behind established hemp industries in other nations. China dominates the market for hemp fibre, Canada does the same for food and grain, and Europe is primarily focused on hemp as a building material, she says. This means the US, with our strong market infrastructure and a global reputation for high quality and regulatory control, could absorb much of the new demand for hemp extracts and dominate the emerging market.

But what about hemp textiles?

While extracts will continue to lead the market, it’s worth noting that hemp consumer textiles already have a large portion (13%) of the US hemp market. However, most of these products are likely rugs, upholstery and other home furnishings imported from China, or made with imported fabric.

It appears that integrating hemp into an apparel supply chain will not come to maturity without a significant amount of effort. Trey Riddle, CEO of Kentucky-based hemp processor, Sunstrand, says there are compelling advantages driving the adoption of hemp for non-woven, industrial technical textiles. (Industrial applications like this are expected to grow nearly as fast as the CBD market to reach $527m by 2022).

But the same isn’t true for apparel. For hemp to integrate with the current spinning infrastructure in the US, it has to be processed to look like cotton. This is feasible, but adds a manufacturing step and processing cost without necessarily adding any considerable performance. The common opinion is hemp is more durable than cotton, but not as soft.

Growers who want to plant a hemp crop specifically for fibre will undoubtedly confront start-up constraints. Challenges include finding and learning to grow a regionally appropriate variety; working with other regional growers to be sure varieties chosen for good fibre production don’t cross-pollinate with varieties chosen for extract-producing flowers; ensuring crops don’t “go hot” and surpass the 3% federal THC limit before they’re inspected; purchasing new harvesting equipment; and finding a regional processor with demand to fill.

There’s also the issue of whether or not existing US mills will spin yarn with processed hemp. I conducted an informal survey of nine mid-sized yarn spinners and found that 63% already had some experience with hemp. But nearly all had concerns about the potential for contaminating the manufacturing environment for cotton and synthetic products with the very fine fibres that hemp sheds. Separately, Riddle mentioned there may also be concerns about additional wear and tear on equipment, though I didn’t encounter that mill reaction in my survey. Similar to the development of any novel fabric, mills would need a nudge in the form of significant contracts from brands or big manufacturing customers to commit to spinning hemp.

What’s the upside, and why would brands want hemp?

If you’ve read this far, you may be wondering if hemp will have a significant future in apparel at all. I think it can. But it’s going to take time to develop the industry infrastructure, knowledge and relationships. It’s also going to take commitment from large manufacturers and brands to adopt the fibre into their product lines and create steady demand.

For those with a commitment to sustainability, hemp offers a compelling new product story. It’s one that has potential to connect with younger demographics, while also benefiting from the market buzz that will likely surround the larger, emerging hemp market. Matt McClain, founder of niche hemp brand Recreator, says his company focuses on two primary story elements. The first is the plant’s minimal environmental impact and potential for regenerative farming. According to McClain, growing hemp for fibre requires little to no chemical pesticide inputs, making it easier to grow organically. Considering the larger biomass yield, he says it requires about half as much water as cotton while yielding up to twice as much fibre per acre.

Secondly, McClain says the fibre has better performance attributes than commonly believed. He says Recreator’s 100% hemp T-shirt (cut and sewn in California from fabric sourced in China) has a softness and drape similar to nylon. Furthermore, he says hemp is naturally hypoallergenic, anti-microbial, odour resistant and moisture wicking. As the most durable of natural fibres, he says it “wears in, not out.” He adds that he believes broader adoption of hemp apparel will be led by eco-conscious luxury brands like Stella McCartney, followed by performance brands like The North Face and Patagonia, and then denim brands.

While both on-farm environmental benefits and fabric-performance benefits are commonly attributed to hemp, at this point there’s limited scientific evidence supporting claims within the context of the textiles industry. One anticipated outcome from the Farm Bill is increased research in the US into the viability of these promising claims. I personally hope to see a comparative life cycle assessment (LCA) between a cotton and hemp crop in similar geographies with like growing conditions for soil, rainfall and thermal units.

Hemp apparel can have regional story appeal

McClain’s insight also comes from his consulting work with Bastcore, a Nebraska-based company developing hemp processing technologies and regional supply chain relationships. He says in 2-3 years he expects a handful of US hemp processors will be feeding the supply chains of the large, early adopters. At the same time, everyone from plant breeders to fashion designers will be learning to optimise how we grow, process, spin, weave and sew hemp fibre into better and better garments. Then in 3-5 years, he believes numerous US regions could have their own complete supply chains.

This regional vision is what I find really exciting.

The economics of hemp apparel will likely demand a price premium over cotton and synthetics for at least a decade, if not longer. This is partly because the economics of the CBD market currently overshadow hemp apparel, incentivising US farmers to grow flowering hemp varieties for the existing and growing extracts market. However, further agroecology development and plant breeding of hemp could lead to dual-purpose crops that effectively supply both the extracts and fibre supply chains from the same field.

In the meantime, there’s an opportunity for hemp to get a foothold in the market through high-value, regional products with great customisation. A pair of hemp pants or a hemp skirt grown and sewn in North Carolina, for example, can appeal to the same growing consumer base that takes pride in supporting and drinking regional craft beer.

Craft brews command a premium over beers that have become household names over the last 60 years, and they support regional jobs and cultures. Regional hemp apparel products could be a similar strategic fit for the apparel industry as it continues to look for reshoring opportunities and to increase mechanisations that allow for greater customisation.

About the author: Roian Atwood has more than 15 years’ experience as a sustainability practitioner within apparel and footwear companies. Roian is currently the director of sustainability for Wrangler and Lee jeans and also a lecturer and executive-in-residence at Wake Forest University’s Sustainable Graduate Program in North Carolina. With previous roles at American Apparel and Sole Technology, Atwood leads brand sustainability strategy, engages suppliers globally to drive greater social and environmental performance, and works cross-functionally with product development and marketing to create more sustainable products and share brand relevant stories. In addition to being an avid outdoorsman and naturalist, he holds a Master’s of Environmental Management from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.