The Role of Hemp in the Rising Sustainable Fashion Industry

Catheryn Snyder bustles around, tidying the eclectic collection of bags, jewelry, and clothing in racks that span the ceiling to the ground. Snyder, co-owner of Perpetua, a small clothing boutique on South Fourth Street in Ann Arbor, is the only one staffing her store on a brisk Tuesday afternoon. At first glance, a passerby may not notice the overarching theme of Perpetua Boutique Organique. A closer look reveals clothing fashioned from organic blends of cotton, bamboo, and hemp; handbags created from vegan leather; and fair-trade jewelry made in South America. Perpetua only carries brands that are socially and eco-conscious – her vested interest in these qualities stems from her background in social work, her life as a vegetarian, and her desire to use alternative fibers that have a reduced impact on the environment.

Several other businesses, like Clothing Matters founded by Marta Swain in Grand Rapids, Michigan, have also risen upon learning about the pollution derived from the clothing industry. Cotton, which accounts for half of the textiles made, requires 20,000 liters of water to produce a t-shirt and pair of jeans, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Cotton consumes the largest share of pesticides out of any crop; it accounts for 2.5% of the world’s arable land, but 16% of the world’s pesticides, according to the Environmental Justice Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund. “I decided I would never invest another dollar into such an insidious problem,” Swain said. An alternative to such fabrics is hemp, a plant fiber that requires little to no pesticides, according to Everett Swift, the executive director and treasurer of Michigan Industrial Hemp Education and Marketing Project, or MI-HEMP.  “It’s a very hardy and healthy plant… It’ll grow anywhere but polar icecaps,” Swift said.

Swain is an avid buyer of hemp for Clothing Matters. “Hemp can now be everything from incredibly light and flowy to the classic substantive hemp that we have known and everything in between,” Swain said. In addition to hemp, she boasts of a wide variety of fibers from modal, which is a soluble wood based fiber, to recycled plastic bottles. Often, high prices deter consumers from buying sustainably produced clothing. The average price of clothing in Perpetua is $100, and prices range from $30 – $300 in Clothing Matters. However, Swain believes that a piece of clothing from her store can take the place of three to four in terms of versatility and durability, and thus is worth the greater investment.

Like Swain, Jennifer Lantrip, assistant professor in Apparel and Textile Design at Michigan State University, saw her life take a change in direction upon discovering hemp and alternative fabrics. Her interest in sustainability stems from her perspective on today’s consumerism culture – “We’re kind of to the point that our society is consuming all the time. We don’t ever think about the longevity of anything.”

Lantrip first encountered hemp while doing custom work, such as clothing accessories and small wholesale orders. From there, she found a community of people who desired dyed fabric, and then started Noonday Textiles in 2008, as an Etsy store. She produced dyed eco-friendly textiles with patterns inspired from nature for a customer base that ranged from buyers creating children’s clothing to handmade wedding dresses. She used low water immersion dyeing techniques, which require only one gallon of water, rather than dyeing her textiles in a conventional washing machine, which can use 14-25 gallons of water.  “I personally like it because the patterns are a surprise every time. The dye works its way into fabric at different rates,” Lantrip said.

While hemp has allowed both Lantrip and Swain to create companies based on sustainable practices, the crop itself has a controversial history. According to Swift, the production of hemp was disallowed due to it being regarded as a relative of marijuana even though it does not share its psychoactive properties. In 2006, Swift began working with the legislature to pass HB 5439 and HB 4400, bills that would allow the research of industrial hemp to be completed by the Michigan Agriculture Department and universities, and stop the association of industrial hemp with marijuana within state law. The governor signed both into law in February 2015. However, the Michigan Department of Agriculture has required that any university that wants to do research on hemp must obtain a permit from the Drug Enforcement Agency. “The DEA will never approve… you’ll spend $4000 bucks and wait a year to be turned down basically,” Swift said. Swift is eager to farm hemp on American soil to decrease importation costs in products made from hemp.

James Pruden, from Cotton Incorporated, a national company dedicated to increasing the profitability and demand for cotton, believes that cotton has a worse reputation than it deserves.  He thinks that several statistics have been misconstrued, and reports that cotton only accounts for 3% of specifically agricultural water use. Pruden has studied the drawbacks of using alternative materials: the chemical process involved in separating the strands of hemp, the destruction of eucalyptus trees to produce rayon fabrics, and the low yield associated with producing organic cotton. “There’s no saints in textile fiber. Everyone’s got some challenge,” Pruden said.

Bethany Nixon has circumvented this problem by addressing sustainability from a different angle – vintage clothing. Nixon is the owner of Reware Vintage, a store in Detroit that provides its shoppers with unique, up-cycled clothing created from vintage material found in thrift shops. She has numerous product lines, ranging from jewelry made from records to scarves made from vintage materials. Nixon’s interest in thrifting stemmed initially from financial reasons – a major difference from the high costs in consuming clothing made from eco-friendly textiles.

The possibilities of maintaining a wardrobe of environmentally conscious clothing are numerous, although locally produced hemp and affordable prices are goals that have yet to be met. However, Swain puts investing in sustainable and fashionable clothing like this:  “It makes it easier than ever to get dressed, look better than you have to, be more comfortable than you’ve ever been, manage less clothing, and not have a nasty impact on personal, social, and ecological well being.”

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