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This Startup Wants to Make Hemp the Face of Wearable Tech

Is hemp the next big thing in fashion?

With farmers and entrepreneurs scrambling to plant acre upon acre of this renaissance, it seems everyone’s hoping to grab a piece of the action in the wake of 2018 federal legislation that flings open the door to commercializing a plant broadly vilified for its kissing-cousin relationship to marijuana.

And Hemp Black, a Philadelphia-based subsidiary of Australia’s EcoFibre, is banking on the oft-maligned plant as the solution to many of fashion’s sustainability ills and the new face of “high-performance textiles.”

Michael Savarie, the brand’s sustainability enterprise catalyst, emphasized the need to abandon hemp’s longstanding reputation as scratchy, crunchy “I’m going to smoke my T-shirt” hippy fare and instead unlock the plant’s potential to create good-for-you and good-for-planet fibers and fabrics.

It might help that Hemp Black sees itself as a technology company first and a fashion and textile creator second, Savarie explained at the Fashinnovation conference Wednesday at New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology.

The startup, borne from a grant to Thomas Jefferson University to sponsor a research project, threw R&D dollars into coming up with way to get new fibers from hemp—whether by carbonizing it or using oils from hemp to produce fibers and fabrics, he added.

But all of the technology in the world isn’t going to matter if consumers aren’t on board. Educating people that hemp is a “safe, reliable plant to use that has millions of benefits that can save the world” will help change the conversation, said Savarie.

Beyond hemp’s inherently antimicrobial properties—it naturally counteracts 99 percent of bacteria, Savarie pointed out—the plant also demonstrates electrical conductivity. That finding isn’t entirely new, as British researchers have been exploring hemp’s capabilities as an energy source in batteries, he added, but Hemp Black has come up with a way to convert hemp byproducts into conductive fibers and conductive inks.

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Silver’s long been one of the go-to sources for conductive threads—it’s among the most conductive metals in existence—but because it’s not particularly skin-friendly or easy to mine from the earth, hemp-borne products could emerge as an attractive alternative for wellness-minded brands, not to mention consumers.

“When we’re talking about adding wearable technology into soft goods,” Savarie said, there’s a lot of promise in “these technological innovations such as using a plant that’s been around for 10,000 years, flipping it on its head and make conductive fiber out of hemp.”

As Hemp Black awaits a pending B Corporation certification, it’s forging ahead with a mindset that puts sustainability and transparency front and center because that’s all anyone’s talking about these days, Savarie explained. Sustainability “is what we believe in as right,” he added, “and we’re hoping everyone else believes it’s right as well.”

Hemp Black executes on that mission by operating transparently from sharing its fiber suppliers to caring for the people in its supply chain. But beyond that, it’s dedicated to sharing its innovation, all in the name of the greater good.

“We have technology that I believe can revolutionize the world in terms of safety and health,” Savarie noted. “And by us not allowing others to have that, it’s not even sustainable for a socially responsible company. “

The sustainability evangelist touched on how Hemp Black thinks about inclusivity—another buzzword permeating the fashion industry. Inclusivity means “building brand that takes everyone’s considerations into mind and moves us forward,” Savarie shared.

Hemp Black’s claim to fame be could be the resume of one of its parent company’s executives. Chief science officer Alex Capano holds the distinction of being the “world’s first doctor of cannabis,” Savarie said of the EcoFibre researcher, whose bio notes she “was the first doctoral candidate of any discipline who focused on cannabinoid science under the guidance of the Lambert Center for the Study of Medicinal Cannabis and Hemp at Thomas Jefferson University.”

The startup is focused on scaling its operations and plans to launch its first product in March, Savarie said.