California Legalizes Hemp Cultivation, but Is Fashion Ready to Embrace the Fiber?

Hemp's Legal Hurdle to Fashion

As of Tuesday, November 5, 2013


HEMP SHIRT: Los Angeles–headquartered label Jungmaven makes hemp-blend garments such as this long-sleeve shirt.

After being celebrated as a wonder plant and reviled as a public danger, hemp could be on the cusp of mainstream acceptance with the passage of a new law in California.

Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed Senate Bill 566. It will allow California farmers to cultivate industrial hemp and to sell it to manufacturers, who will make it into a myriad of products ranging from soaps to foods, building materials and fashion. However, the law will not be implemented unless hemp cultivation is authorized by the federal government.

The bill’s co-authors, state Sens. Mark Leno (D–San Francisco) and Allan Monsoor (R–Costa Mesa), said SB 566 is something of a first step toward the legalization of hemp. While the sale of hemp products is legal in America, the cultivation of hemp is currently heavily restricted by the federal government.

If grown without approval from the feds, hemp growers might have to forfeit their property to the government or serve time in prison. However, the law is rarely enforced, said Patrick Goggin, a San Francisco–based lawyer and a board member of the hemp-advocacy group Vote Hemp.

With this passage of SB 566, Leno said it is only a matter of time before the feds give the cultivation of industrial hemp the green light. “It has great potential to revitalize family farms, create new jobs and stimulate the economy,” he said.

Goggin was equally upbeat about a change in hemp’s legal situation. “We’re optimistic that we’re going to see authorization within the next year. We feel that there has been positive movement in Congress and by the Department of Justice to open the door to hemp production in states that have passed laws normalizing industrial hemp.”

Hemp has intrigued fashion for some time. High-profile companies such as Vans produce a couple of styles of hemp shoes every year. Actor Woody Harrelson wore a hemp Armani suit to the Golden Globes awards show back in 1997.

But hemp fabrics have never been put into wide use despite the crop’s major benefits, according to hemp advocates. Hemp’s fibers are stronger and longer lasting than cotton, advocates say. Cultivation of hemp is more environmentally sustainable than cotton. Hemp needs much less water to thrive and requires almost no pesticides and fertilizer to survive. It also is popular as a rotational crop, and it reinvigorates depleted soils.

Supporters of hemp say that it has been unfairly demonized by association. The plant is related to marijuana but carries miniscule levels of THC, the intoxicating ingredient in pot. With SB 566, California joins nine other states—including Washington, Colorado, Kentucky, Maine, North Dakota and Kentucky—that have removed barriers to the production of hemp. They have petitioned the feds to change a Nixon-era law, the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which placed strict controls on the production of hemp, making it illegal to grow the crop without a permit from the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Hemp’s fashion future

A handful of hemp businesses that are headquartered in California believe they are on the ground floor in the next wave of a big business.

“It is going to be a race to corner this crop in California. It will go through the roof,” said Isaac Nichelson, a consultant on sustainable fabrics and designer of eco label Livity Outernational, which uses hemp in a range of its products, from fleece to T-shirts. However, Nichelson forecasts that it will take time, perhaps a decade, before U.S.-grown hemp becomes commonplace in fabrics and a host of other products.

Rob Jungmann, the founder of Los Angeles–based hemp and eco-T-shirt brand Jungmaven, forecast that the legalization of hemp could resuscitate the economies of mill towns across the United States. Currently, he imports his hemp-blend fabrics from China, where the vast majority of hemp is cultivated. Jungmann said the imported hemp fabrics are more expensive than domestic cotton. Time also is a factor in boosting costs. It also can take more than eight weeks for it to arrive from China, Jungmann said.

However, the market is growing. Jungmaven sold 100 percent hemp polo shirts to high-profile boutique brand Steven Alan. The hemp/cotton-blend shirts have been popular at Los Angeles boutiques such as Wittmore, which is located on the stylish fashion retail thoroughfare West Third Street. Retail price points for hemp-blend Jungmaven shirts range from $29 for a basic tee to $64 for a long-sleeve pocket tee. Jungmaven makes small runs of 100 percent hemp shirts—perhaps 500 units per season. The shirts are strong but feel like a sheer, soft garment, Jungmann said. They retail for $92. To bring down the price, hemp is blended with other fabrics, such as organic cotton and recycled PET (fabric made from recycled plastic).

“Hemp comes in many different shapes and sizes. It can be made incredibly soft when blended with cotton and silk. You can make it scratchy if blended with wool,” Jungmann said.

Other fashion executives have explored the potential of hemp. Jeff Shafer of denim brand Agave, which is headquartered in Washington but manufactured in California, was intrigued by hemp’s ecological benefits. “Cotton’s water consumption is astronomical, ” he said. “With water shortages, cotton will become more of a luxury. Hemp is infinitely more sustainable. Hemp doesn’t need nearly the amount of water [as cotton].”

In 2006, he designed three hemp-blend selvage jeans in his Agave label. “They were fantastic jeans,” he said of the 60 percent hemp/40 percent cotton blend of Japanese selvage denim.

He stopped the experiment after one season. He thought that the jeans were too expensive for the majority of consumers. His hemp jeans retailed for $245. There also was a problem with retail relations. “Stores equated hemp with weed,” he said. “It was hard to explain that I was selling them denim, not marijuana.”

But the possibilities of hemp continue to intrigue. In a July 2013 study, “Hemp as Agricultural Commodity” by the Congressional Research Service, a non-partisan division of the Library of Congress, study author Renée Johnson quoted U.S. Department of Agriculture and University of Wisconsin studies that forecast hemp could be slightly more profitable than other crops. It also referenced Canada’s experience. Hemp cultivation was legalized in Canada in 1998. Since then, it has been regulated by that country’s Office of Controlled Substances of Health Canada. While the market is still young, the acreage of hemp has fluctuated. In 2006, 48,000 acres of hemp were planted in Canada. In 2011, 39,000 acres were planted.