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Kingpins NY: Denim Experts Debate Fiber Alternatives

Denim may no longer be the monocrop industry it once was, but it’s far from becoming a zero-cotton garment, and experts aren’t sold on it ever needing to be.

At Kingpins New York last week, experts from denim mills and brands debated the future of alternative fibers such as hemp and linen. Despite being ancient fibers used in apparel thousands of years ago, the bast fibers pose new challenges and opportunities for the denim community on a never-ending quest for a silver bullet to solve its environmental woes.

“I think it would be nice if 100 percent cotton jeans in the market were rarer,” said Adam Taubenfligel, Triarchy co-founder. “There’s so many alternatives I don’t know why we’re still only using cotton.”

Following Levi’s 2019 launch of cottonized hemp jeans, the fiber has become a mainstay in denim mills’ collections with the percentage of hemp in fabric compositions climbing each season. There are plenty of reasons why the industry is drawn to hemp. It uses about half as much water per season as cotton, requires no pesticides or herbicides and offers a wide range of use cases from paper and textiles to medicine, skin care and even construction materials and fuel. Taking to just about any soil, it grows fast—very fast. Hemp sprouts from seed to harvest in 90 to 100 days, compared with 150 to 180 for cotton.

But what it lacks is certification, said Miguel Sanchez, Kingpins Show technology leader, which leaves the fiber vulnerable to false claims. “Greenwashing is like covid—it’s everywhere,” he said.

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Whereas cotton has benefited from years of engineering and fine-tuning, Boyish creative director Jordan Nodarse said denim still has a lot to learn and navigate with hemp. “We’re still pushing innovation through—it’s the early days,” he said. “It’s like the Wild West.”

“There’s room for mills to improve systems so their hemp production is more efficient and affordable,” said Sedef Uncu Aki, Orta Anadolu director. For example, hemp produces more waste in the spinning process compared to cotton. Rather than replace cotton with hemp, Orta is focusing on “having hemp next to cotton,” she said.

Rowan Hunt, Denim Research’s responsible denim specialist, believes there’s room for both. “I think we need to diversify,” he said. “Hemp is like a forgotten fiber that we’re digging back up.”

Though hemp is being used more and more each season, the cost of the fiber still poses challenges. “Hemp requires more processing compared to cotton and that comes with a cost,” Hunt said.

Costs will come down as demand increases, but Nodarse said brands must do their part to support innovation and challenge mills and chemists to achieve better products and results.

“Mills already struggle with cost neutrality, so it’s challenging to add new machinery,” he said.

A cash injection for marketing alternative fibers can also make miracles happen, Taubenfligel said.

“If you look back at the marketing history of cotton, we all know the logo. There’s a marketing machine behind [the fiber],” he said. “For any alternative fiber to gain steam, they need [that level of] marketing.”