Why a Hemp Revival Means Big Business for Denim

September 08 2020
Why a Hemp Revival Means Big Business for Denim
It has been well documented that jeans are one of the fashion industry’s worst offenders of environmental damage. Manufacturing those beloved blues uses massive amounts of water. While the figures vary slightly depending on whom you ask, it takes 998.8 gallons of water to produce one pair of jeans (the equivalent of three days of water usage for a U.S. household) according to Levi’s.
Samuel Trotman September 08 2020

It has been well documented that jeans are one of the fashion industry’s worst offenders of environmental damage. Manufacturing those beloved blues uses massive amounts of water. While the figures vary slightly depending on whom you ask, it takes 998.8 gallons of water to produce one pair of jeans (the equivalent of three days of water usage for a U.S. household) according to Levi’s. The H2O sucked up by your jeans begin with the fabric itself. “Cotton is just a very thirsty plant,” explains Katrin Ley, managing director of Fashion for Good, an organization working to make fashion more sustainable. Growing the plant alone accounts for 68 percent of denim’s total water footprint (and consumers laundering their own jeans make up 23 percent). Aside from requiring immense quantities of water for irrigation, the impact of growing cotton also extends to the pesticides and fertilizers required to farm the plant, demonstrating how eco-unfriendly the process can be. As eco concerns continue to grow and consumers demand more transparency from brands, it is unsurprising that vendors are looking to alternative fibres to replace cotton. While organic and recycled cotton have been on the rise and new regenerative fibres innovations like Tencel x Refibra lyocell take hold, a growing number of brands have been turning their attention to a more earth-friendly fiber: hemp. “The environmental benefits and tremendous water savings associated with hemp cultivation are well known, but fabrics made with hemp fiber blends have always been coarse, rough, and a lot less comfortable than cotton,” explains Paul Dillinger, head of global product innovation at Levi's. “We’ve made a hemp-blended denim that looks and feels as good as cotton — maybe even better,” he says speaking on Levi’s Cottonized Hemp collection which launched for 2019 in collaboration with Outerknown. According to Levi’s the end product uses an estimated 821 liters less fresh water than a traditional pair of jeans and the innovative process in creating “cottonized hemp” has also allowed hemp’s texture, which is naturally rather rough, to feel as comfortable as its more famous counterpart. So why haven’t brands been making use of hemp up until now? For decades US anti-marijuana laws have made it very difficult to experiment on and develop new uses for hemp, though, according to the US government, hemp contains less than 0.3% THC, the plant’s primary psychoactive ingredient. However, according to The Guardian, the spread of marijuana legalization across the US has sparked renewed interest amongst US officials due largely to demand for CBD, a chemical both it and marijuana produce in which some see potential as a pharmaceutical and nutritional supplement. In 2018 the US Senate unanimously passed a non-binding resolution acknowledging hemp’s economic value and “historical relevance”. This was shortly followed by the 2018 Farm Bill, which meant hemp was positioned to become a fully industrialized commodity, as the bill allows for the plant to be legally farmed throughout the country. While the global value of hemp is expected to reach $10.6 billion in 2025, hemp’s potential as a textile choice in fashion has always looked better on paper than it does in practice. The crop requires less than a third of the water needed for cotton and yields 220% more fiber. The crop doesn’t require as many pesticides, effectively reducing water contamination and adjacent soil acidification. As well, hemp can act as a rotation crop and has phytoremediation properties, which not only breaks down toxic material in the soil but also acts as a CO2 sink to improve air quality. Alongside that, as a clothing fiber, hemp can also be more temperamental to work with. Its elastic recovery is also very low and it has a structure that can wrinkle very quickly, not to mention a stiff and scratchy to wear which has often deterred designers from incorporating it within core ranges. But as eco lifestyles become more aspirational and consumers adopt more conscious consumption habits, the once hoariest hippie stereotype becomes an attractive proposition. While major retailers have been slow to adopt the useful crop, luxury designers like Mara Hoffman have been making use of hemp within her collections for years. When Hoffman debuted her Spring 2015 collection during New York Fashion Week she told Style.com, “I think cannabis is a beautiful plant. I am all for its medicinal love and think it should have been legalized years and years ago.” Working extensively with linen naturally led Hoffman to start exploring hemp, which was first introduced into her Spring 2018 collection and boasts all-natural, built-in benefits. Hoffman explained to Forbes] in a 2018 interview, “Like linen, hemp moves easily with the body, is breathable and easy to wear across different seasons. Hemp wrinkles less and can start pretty stiff, but softens quickly with each wash and wear. It’s one of the most environmentally friendly fibers because it’s naturally resistant to pests and requires almost no water to grow. It’s also a sister plant, meaning it replenishes the soil for the plants around it.” As one of the fashion industry’s pot-friendly pioneers, Hoffman thinks the growing interest in hemp is two-fold. “I’m not sure whether it’s specific to the legalization of cannabis spreading or the growing demand for sustainability within the fashion industry. But more and more people are [becoming] interested in hemp, especially in the idea of using it as a fiber. There are cannabis and hemp specific magazines like Svn Space that focus solely on hemp and the variety of ways to use it, so clearly there’s an evolving demand.” Other premium denim brands like California-based label Evan Kinori are leveraging hemp’s eco credentials as a way to create durable garments that have the least impact on the earth. “I wanted stuff that was rough and sturdy,” says Kinori in an interview with Hypebeast. “And wanted to make clothes that I could wear.” He doesn’t rely on novelty messaging, but rather wants to let the clothes speak for themselves. “Ecological fashion should be the norm. The word ‘sustainable’ in fashion is insane to use by the industry’s size,” he says. “We should be striving to spread positivity and use fewer words and do more ‘doing.’” One way brands are scaling the use of hemp into the mass market is by partnering with industry providers. For Levi’s Wellthread collection, the brand uses European rainfed hemp, which it runs through its patented fiber technology to imbue its hemp jeans with the softer handfeel that consumers have come to expect. According to an article by Sourcing Journal, the 501 maker is currently working on scaling up use of the fiber “significantly” across its product lines, and it expects to deploy cottonized hemp in greater quantities with each subsequent season. “Blended correctly, cotton and hemp offer a consistent customer-wearing experience,” Murphy said in an interview with Sourcing Journal. “Our research in this area is ongoing and we continue to iterate and improve the processing method.” Turkish denim mill Calik has also been investing heavily into the fibre and see’s hemp as a huge opportunity for brands looking to introduce more sustainable storytelling into their lines. The company cites that as well as being stronger and softer than denim, hemps active antimicrobial properties means it keeps clothes cleaner for longer and prevents it from developing odor-causing bacteria. Having gauged market interest and experimented with fabric developments, Calik anticipates hemp will play an important role in the future of denim and will help drive their own sustainable messaging forward. The company is planning to make a specific hemp concept in future collections and will increase the percentage of hemp with a minimum of 20% hemp in future products. Included in their future innovations Rigid-Comfort, Super-Stretch alternatives and 100% stretch alternatives that they expect to innovate in the market.

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