Fiber is a hot topic among hemp producers looking for new markets—especially since prices have bottomed out for hemp flower and biomass.
But the lack of fiber buyers and the sector’s immature supply chain have industry observers warning that hemp growers who transition to fiber too soon might get ahead of themselves and end up with yet another glut. California-based outdoor-apparel company Patagonia and the state of Colorado are hoping to change that by bringing together farmers, machinery manufacturers, textile producers and hemp researchers.
Patagonia has long used hemp in its Workwear products, sourcing it from China-based Hemp Fortex, which makes environmentally sustainable fibers.
National legalization of hemp farming in late 2018 kicked off the company’s collaboration with the state of Colorado to help move the industrial-hemp supply chain forward through a project called Bring Hemp Home. A documentary about the project was released this past spring, following the project and detailing why reviving a domestic hemp-fiber economy is important to farmers, textile mills and the state.
MJBizMagazine caught up with Patagonia Material Developer Alexandra La Pierre and Jason Gonzales, the head of marketing for Patagonia Workwear, to learn more about the collaboration.
How did Patagonia become involved in the Bring Hemp Home project?
Jason Gonzales: The project began with Workwear as a category being created (at Patagonia) and the decision being made to use hemp in the majority of the styles. From there, the team had done a lot of visioning around how can we bring more hemp into the world from a planetary, mission-based standpoint.
One of the places where it’s been outlawed for so long is the U.S., and of course with the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, that changed. So that was almost what kicked off the project: How can we support and help establish a thriving U.S. industrial hemp industry?
This specific film and this specific project with the state of Colorado was the result of a lot of people communicating and saying, “OK, how can we bring all of these people who are a part of the whole process—not just the farming, not just the fiber, not just the yarn, not just the material, but everybody—to discuss how we can move it forward?” The government in Colorado, particularly the governor, has been very supportive.
So, (in January 2020) it began in this conference room, where there was everybody from Patagonia folks to our Chinese supplier Hemp Fortex, to hemp (businesses) to our yarn spinners, to material suppliers to people from the U.K. All of these folks were interested in a part of this whole thing.
That was the moment where it started, where we said, “OK, how can we work together to actually make this happen?” Gov. Jared Polis actually did come and speak and showed his support, and that’s what kicked it all off. From there, it became email chains moving it forward, but that was the beginning of it.
What inspired the team at Patagonia to bring everyone together?
Alexandra La Pierre: The whole purpose was a vision that came from our business unit director and some work the company had been doing. We were getting these calls every day from farmers who are so passionate about hemp (saying), “Please, what do I do with this hemp fiber? Can Patagonia buy my hemp fiber and put it in their clothes?”
And, of course, every time a farmer calls, I want to tell them I can buy their fiber. But there are so few resources out there right now to help direct them into: What is the correct way to grow? How should they plant? What type of seed should they use? And then, on the other side, I was getting all of these calls from manufacturers, processors, textile people, spinners, who were saying, “All we’re hearing is about this hip, cool new thing called hemp. What is Patagonia using? How much hemp does Patagonia use?”
So, the more calls that we got as a company, we started to say: All right, we need to connect these pieces. And we need to have everyone sit down in a room together and talk to each other, not just through Patagonia.
That’s essentially why we ended up having this conversation in Colorado in the first place. And it was like a collaborative melding of the minds, so to speak, for the hemp industry, bringing each piece of the processing in there.
What is the goal of the Bring Hemp Home project?
Gonzales: One goal is to elevate and raise awareness around industrial hemp. I think just a center of gravity around hemp for fiber is something that would be a really great outcome.
The second thing, in terms of our goals, would be to increase the amount of hemp being grown in the U.S. and also the supporting infrastructure that has to go right along with it to process it. Establishing that supply chain that’s needed—not just from growing it and not just processing bulk. We don’t want farmers and processors to go and spend a ton of money until we really continue to get some additional support from the broader industry … and not just apparel brands.
Hemp fiber and hurd is used for so many things. If people are aware of what hemp can do, then I think you’ll see more businesses starting to support it—which, then again, starts to support the farmers and the processors. So, really, (the goal is) just an expansion and an establishment of the U.S. hemp industry.
La Pierre: We’ve worked with Hemp Fortex for the past 25 years or more as a company. They are our primary supplier for textiles, and they do beautiful things. I’ve been to those manufacturing facilities in China and seen some of the hemp fields. This gave us a unique opportunity to bring that legacy and the knowledge that they have—and the textiles they’ve been making for hundreds of years—and bring some of that back here and see that knowledge get passed on and help jump-start an industry that needed that leadership and mentorship.
How will this project help Patagonia source hemp that is grown domestically?
Gonzales: Patagonia doesn’t traditionally go in and buy retted hemp from farmers or even decorticate hemp from processors. But the purchase of the finished material on the end of it needs to happen, and that’s certainly where Patagonia is a contributor to these projects.
We are planning to use U.S.-grown industrial hemp in our Patagonia Workwear. And we don’t necessarily have a target date specified for that, but it’s definitely less than five years away.
Are other clothing manufacturers involved in the project?
La Pierre: It’s a lot of this chicken-or-egg situation with other brands. They really are looking for that proof of concept. It’s such early days, but to us, that’s OK. You have to just take those first steps and then just continue to evolve and get better. But our hope is that we do include other brands. We aren’t just cultivating a U.S. hemp industry to only have Patagonia make hemp Workwear or hemp apparel. We want all the big brands to look at hemp, for two main reasons:
- It will help support farmers and keep them on their lands.
- What (hemp) does for the soil and carbon capture for fighting climate change.
So, the more folks that can actually support hemp as a fiber, the better. And (we) want to help other brands get access to it if they want our help.