On the surface, the fashion industry had a good year in 2018, with Americans spending $391.5 billion on clothing and footwear. That was a 4% increase year-over-year and the highest level of growth since 2011 when spending increased 5.1%, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis NIPA table 2.3.5.

But digging into the data further, Americans have steadily decreased their share of disposable income on clothing and footwear, sliding from 3.8% in 2007 to 3.0% in 2019, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey. Even more alarming though is at the turn of the century fashion’s share of Americans’ spending was 4.9%.

In simple terms, American consumers are losing their interest in what fashion brands have on offer. Otherwise they’d be devoting a greater share of their wallets to updating their wardrobes. The fashion industry needs some radical new ideas to get back on American’s shopping lists.

Hemp may be one of those radical new ideas. Hemp would give fashion brands a new story to tell their customers, one that is first and foremost sustainable and good for the planet.

With the fashion industry getting such a bad rap in environmental responsibility, often said to be the second most polluting industry worldwide, and consumers, most especially the younger generation, demanding more sustainable and environmentally responsible products, hemp fabrication could open the door to more American’s closets.

“Hemp is a more sustainable, organic and regenerative agricultural crop and most everything that you can make with cotton can be made with hemp, with way less impact on the Earth,” Morris Beegle, cofounder and president of WAFBA (We Are For Better Alternatives) told fellow Forbes.com contributor Natalie Parletta.

The science is indisputable. Hemp, not to be confused with cannabis plants grown for its psychoactive THC properties, contains less than 0.3% THC, so you can’t get high on it.

Unlike cotton which is a demanding crop to cultivate, requiring much water, chemical fertilizers and insecticides, hemp grows like a weed, because it is one. It grows fast, it grows clean and it naturally resists insects.  

Cotton also depletes the soil, while hemp plants enrich it. Hemp is also claimed to able to remove pollutants, like cadmium, from the soil in a process called phytoremediation.

The Ministry of Hemp calls Hemp a “super-plant” and they aren’t just blowing smoke.

Fashion needs a sustainable alternative

The fashion industry is dragging its feet in its sustainability efforts, according to Boston Consulting Group’s (BCG) latest Pulse of the Fashion Industry Update 2019, produced in partnership with the Global Fashion Agenda and Sustainable Apparel Coalition. The study tracks the fashion industry’s progress in environmental and social responsibility using a Pulse Score, which only rose four points in 2019, having advanced six points the previous year.

“The pace of sustainability progress in the fashion industry has slowed by a third in the past year and is not moving fast enough to counterbalance the harmful impact of the fashion industry’s rapid growth,” the report states.

The report further notes that most of the Pulse score improvement in 2019 was credited to early-stage efforts by fashion companies just getting started on their sustainability journey. However, larger companies’ progress has slowed as the report called out their need to “figure out how to scale disruptive business models and harness innovative technologies.”

It is a bad time for the leading fashion brands to slow down progress. A consumer survey among 5,000 consumers in five countries conducted by BCG in association with the Pulse report found that 75% rated sustainability as very or somewhat important in their purchasing decisions.

Further, the survey found 38% of consumers have switched from a favored brand because another offered a more positive environmental or social stance. That percentage rose to 48% for the younger consumers surveyed and half of consumers surveyed, both young and old, said they expect to switch brands in the future toward those that are more environmentally or socially responsible.

“The question is no longer whether it is necessary to improve sustainable business practices, but rather how long it will take before consumers stop buying from brands that do not act,” the report concludes.

Hemp is a sustainable substitute for synthetics and cotton

Getting hemp from the field to the factory is a more sustainable and environmentally sound alternative to cotton, not to mention better than how synthetic fibers are produced. Today oil-based synthetics (acrylic, polyester, nylon, spandex) make up 62% of worldwide fiber consumption, with cotton accounting for 26% of the fiber market. Wood-based fibers, such as rayon, modal, and viscose, account for 6%, wool 1%, and other natural fibers, like hemp and linen, the remaining 5%.

Hemp could fashionably stand in for a sizable share of those less-sustainable fibers at a reduced environmental cost. While pure hemp fiber can sometimes produce fabric that doesn’t feel quite so soft to the touch or doesn’t drape well, it can be mixed with other fibers to overcome such limitations, which would still help the industry’s sustainability posture.

Hemp is not just for hippies anymore

Government regulators’ confusion has kept hemp out of the fashion supply chain for too long. In 1937 growing hemp in the United States became illegal under the Marihuana Tax Act, then in 1970 it was designated a schedule 1 banned substance, like its cannabis-cousin marijuana grown for its THC. That law made it a felony to cultivate or sell hemp regardless of use.

Finally the 2018 Farm Bill opened the doors to U.S. hemp cultivation once again, though companies like Envirotextiles were permitted to import hemp fiber grown in other countries for industrial purposes. The company has long offered a wide range of hemp fabrics and hemp blends for the fashion and home furnishings industries that pass its Sustainable Biodegradable Products Certification process.

Hemp’s bad reputation due to being classified incorrectly as an illegal drug has kept it largely under wraps among established fashion brands, though hemp fashion has gotten a foothold in niche markets. Recreator, Hoodlamb Hemp Tailors, Hempy’s, Jungmaven, Wama underwear, and Tact & Stone are some of the leading hemp-forward fashion brands. And some established brands have flirted with hemp fabrication, including Stella McCartney and Eileen Fisher.

Then this past September during New York Fashion Week, the industry was shown that hemp is ready for the runway. Former Project Runway designer Korto Momolu introduced a 26-piece collection in sustainable hemp, jute, linen and cork. Momolu developed the collection in partnership with Women Grow, a network whose mission is “to cultivate women leadership within the cannabis industry.”

Other early movers in the fashion “hemp-isphere” are Patagonia which offers an extensive collection of hemp clothing for men, women, and children. The company describes its hemp fabrication as yielding “a beautiful linen-like fiber that’s strong, flame retardant and antimicrobial. We find it makes clothes more durable, breathable, and broken-in from the first time you wear them.”  

And earlier this year Levi’s introduced its first “cottonized hemp” denim jean in collaboration with Outerknown under its Wellthread x Outerknown line. “This is the first time we’ve been able to offer consumers a cottonized hemp product that feels just as good, if not better, than cotton,” Paul Dillinger, vp of product innovation at Levi’s said in a statement. The blended fabric is 70% cotton/30% hemp.

I expect we will see more hemp fashion entering the mainstream and none too soon. Hemp may be one way the fashion industry can save the world and itself.

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