Why Isn’t Hemp Fabric Made In America

 

 

At Leaf to Ember, our commitment to social justice always extends to doing our best to support living wage jobs for workers at American businesses. We’re often asked why we use Imported hemp instead of the American-grown plant. The short answer is that there’s still very little hemp produced in the United States, and what is grown and processed in the United States isn’t nearly as high quality as what other countries are producing. We thought it was important to explain why such a small amount of hemp is currently being grown and processed in the United States, and how that is slowly changing for the better.

One of our goals at Leaf to Ember is bringing a message of unity and authenticity along with selling premium hemp clothing, so it’s important to us to be transparent and informative about how we source our materials. The hemp industry is poised for a renaissance that will bring high paying jobs to American workers as well as locally produced sustainable products to the marketplace, but we need to have a little more patience.

What Are the Benefits of Products Made From Hemp?

Hemp is one of the most sustainable fibers that can be used to make textiles. From the same size plot of land, hemp can produce over 200% more fiber than cotton and over 500% more fiber than linen, making it a much more profitable use of limited resources. It is stronger and longer lasting than other natural textiles, so it takes longer to wear out. It also decomposes easily for a low impact on the environment. There’s even some evidence that composting hemp can replenish soil health and remove heavy metals from oil, reducing or eliminating toxicity. More benefits of using hemp are discovered every day as interest in hemp products expands with the increasing movement towards legalizing cannabis throughout the United States. We discuss this a little more in depth here.

There’s Currently Very Little American Grown Hemp

With all the hype about hemp, you’d think it would be easy to source from the United States, but due to a long history of criminalization of the cannabis plant and spotty legalization, it’s still not the case. One might think that hemp production would be a huge industry by looking at all the CBD products in the stores, but these products are produced from another type of cannabis and in a different way than hemp textiles.  It’s so scarce that even the most conscientious hemp loving companies such as Levi are forced to sell products that are made in America but with imported hemp. Historically, hemp was a very popular material for a wide variety of American made goods. It was used to make the original Levi’s jeans, the first American flag and everyday products like paper, rope, and lamp fuel, before the criminalization of marijuana snuffed out production.  The 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp from the list of controlled substances which generated a gold rush of investment but there hasn’t been time to build the necessary infrastructure. The rebound of the hemp industry in the United States is still in its infancy, and it’s going to take decades until the high quality hemp that are necessary for production of textiles are widely available.

Why Is It Still So Difficult and Risky to Grow Hemp in the United States

Efforts to legalize the production, distribution, and sale of cannabis products in the United States have not been unequivocally supported at the federal level. Hemp farmers do not receive the massive subsidies that are extended to farmers of other types of clothing materials. Let’s face it, the only reason that cotton is grown in the United States is due to the massive subsidies from the federal government for this crop. Without these subsidies, it would be completely impossible for cotton farmers to compete with growers using cheaper labor in other parts of the World. Could political change bring subsidies to hemp farming? It’s possible, but producing hemp isn’t as easy as making cotton. Hemp is more durable and longer lasting than cotton, but it’s coarser and stiffer, making it less versatile for textiles. Hemp has been mixed with silk and other textiles to create luxurious sheets, dresses, and men’s suits, but it’s nowhere close to replacing cotton for towels and many other types of high end “fluffy” products. This makes it harder for hemp to benefit from the economics of scale.

There is no Infrastructure For Hemp Production in The United States

There are three ways to achieve the first step in processing hemp: dew retting, water retting, and chemical retting.  The best method is water retting, but there are literally no water retting facilities in the United States - none - zero. The only way it’s done here is dew retting, which is simply laying out the stalks in the field allowing weather and microbes to do the job, a process that is labor intensive, time-consuming, and does not produce the finest textiles.  Water retting creates higher quality hemp textiles, but requires specialized equipment and produces some waste products that are toxic to the environment if not properly disposed. This is what makes it expensive to produce hemp in highly developed countries with strong environmental regulations. There is now an environmental certification standard for water retting, and it’s becoming more common in China, Turkey, Romania, The Netherlands, Bangladesh, India, Germany, Bulgaria, and Poland. Scutching is the removal of the fibers from the inner core of the hemp plant. There is currently only one scutching machine in use in the whole country. It’s in operation in Pennsylvania and the company is taking some orders for hemp textiles, but other companies in possession of  scutching machines are filing for bankruptcy. The final step in the process is dipping the hemp into a caustic bath of soda to remove the gumminess from the fiber, a process that’s also not readily available in the United States. 

How To Build the Hemp Industry in The United States

The first step needs to be full legalization of hemp either through federal law or by laws in every single state. That's what will open the door to large scale farm subsidies, making it competitive with cotton. Once hemp is grown on a large scale with subsidies, the economy of scale can lead to investment in modern processing and manufacturing facilities that can produce desirable high quality fabrics. Once production is up and running, tariffs could be used against foreign competitors to further support the hemp manufacturers in the United States. There is intense demand in the United States for products that are “made in America.” Once it’s possible to source hemp in the United States, it will be possible for many more companies to produce 100% American hemp products. For now, even the most ethically conscious companies that sell hemp products will have to settle for choosing the Chinese, or other foreign producers, with the best labor and environmental records.

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