Industrial hemp, a strain of the cannabis plant, is gaining traction in the fashion industry as a more sustainable substitute for cotton in jeans. But while the crop has fascinated the business, when it comes to denim-friendly fibers, hemp is still playing hard to get.
Despite the fact that hemp currently has a more complicated and less robust supply chain than cotton, Pakistan-based premium denim manufacturer AGI Denim is embracing the emerging fiber in blended materials as interest in alternative yarns takes off. “The market has been recently captivated by this idea of hemp, this magical cellulosic fiber that requires so little input to grow,” said Henry Wong, director of product development and marketing for North America at AGI Denim, formerly Artistic Fabric and Garment Industries.
Hemp is an attractive alternative to cotton due to its comparably low-resource cultivation. It takes about 2,600 gallons of water to produce 1 kilogram of cotton—or a pair of jeans and a shirt—compared to just 80 gallons to 130 gallons for the same amount of hemp.
According to a report by the Stockholm Environment Institute commissioned by the BioRegional Development Group and Worldwide Fund for Nature – Cymru, industrial hemp is “low maintenance.” Hemp also has a short grow cycle, about 110 days to cotton’s 150-day growing season. As there are more calls for organic agriculture, hemp also boasts the benefit of being naturally pest-free and therefore pesticide-free.
Another aspect propelling hemp into the spotlight is changing legislation. Industrial hemp has a low concentration of THC, which gives marijuana its psychoactive properties, however growing hemp as a commodity in the U.S. was challenged economically by the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 and formally outlawed in the 1970s during the war on drugs. This changed in 2018, as the farm bill legalized industrial hemp production nationwide.
Even with this legalization, which has made buying hemp easier in general, it is still hard for denim mills to buy hemp that can easily be spun. “While hemp crops are increasing, the processes involved in converting it into fiber which cellulose spinning mills can easily use are still not readily accessible, especially close to either the crop source or to many important denim-production center points,” Wong said. “We would like to avoid a supply chain where crops are produced in one part of the world, shipped to another part of the world for processing, and then have the resulting fiber shipped to different denim production regions.”
One of the challenges of working with hemp for denim is yielding fibers that are soft yet strong enough. The preferred form of hemp for jeans is cottonized, or put through a chemical process to make the fibers more greatly resemble those of cotton, allowing them to be spun on the same machines. This cottonization produces shorter fibers, which are not as strong. While there are some growers cultivating species of hemp that produce longer cottonized fibers, Wong says these are in short supply.
This has led to a balancing act for AGI Denim, as it seeks to maximize the percentage of environmentally friendly hemp in its materials while also ensuring that they are strong enough. While it is challenging to create a soft yet strong hemp denim, AGI sees it as an opportunity to be seen as a mill that succeeds in the face of these hurdles.
Showing signs of the hunger for hemp, since AGI Denim began bringing its hemp denim to trade shows and client meetings, these blended textiles have become some of the most selected concepts, despite a typically higher price tag. “At the moment, we’re seeing that hemp is in fact a little bit pricier than traditional cotton denim, but I believe that’s just because…for denim, hemp is a relatively new fiber,” Wong said.
Per Wong, many of the challenges surrounding hemp today—from the price and quality to availability—will be resolved if there is greater demand at the end of the supply chain. One of the things that hemp has going for it is strong storytelling potential, but it’s largely up to the consumer-facing retailers and brands to communicate the benefits and create the desire for more responsibly made products.
“If the market says, ‘We simply need hemp denim,’ and [everybody is] willing to support it, spend the early adopter costs to develop it, live through the pain of developing that supply chain, we’ll solve it,” Wong said. “It’s just a matter of how badly we want it. Not just us as a supplier, but brands, retailers, consumers.”