This super-plant has been misunderstood for too long.
Over the course of American history, hemp has gone from revered to reviled. Hemp was used to make the sails for the boats that brought the first pioneers to North American soil, and every farmer in the new colonies was required to grow at least a quarter-acre of hemp per year. (The same requirement applied to linen.) It was used to pay taxes and was transformed into fabric that clothed a growing nation.
Gradually, as its importance decreased, hemp fell out of fashion. It was viewed with suspicion and confused with marijuana, which has a much higher THC content (25-30%) than hemp does (0.3%). Harmful campaigns – allegedly funded by the DuPont, Hearst, and Mellon families, sitting atop big oil and pulp-and-paper money and feeling threatened by hemp's versatility – led to it being eventually outlawed by the U.S. government with the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. (This was temporarily lifted during World War II.)Now hemp is making a comeback, thanks to twenty years of advocacy by the Vote Hemp group. When the Hemp Farming Act of 2018 was introduced, the U.S. president signed it into law in December, making hemp cultivation finally legal once again.
This is cause for celebration for many groups, including outdoor gear retailer Patagonia, which has been involved in pro-hemp advocacy. It produces a line of hemp clothing (available here), currently sourced from high-quality farms in China, but laments the fact that the U.S. is decades behind the rest of the world when it comes to cultivation and processing. Soapmaker Dr. Bronner's has also said it is "eager to source the 20 tons of hemp seed oil we use annually from American farmers," but of course that will take time.
Patagonia recently released a 15-minute video called "Misunderstood: A Brief History of Hemp in the United States" (embedded below). It describes a plant that has tremendous potential to help heal the planet and improve the eco-friendliness of the textile industry.
Hemp is a super-plant of sorts. It grows to the size of a human within 4-5 months, with thick stalks that pull heavy metals and chemicals out of the earth in a single season. It restores soil health, returns carbon to the ground, and, according to some farmers and advocates, has potential to reduce the agriculture industry's carbon footprint.
Once harvested, farmers tell the filmmakers that it can be used to make everything from concrete, carpets, and clothing, to replacing petroleum, plastics, fibreboard, and more. "Your entire house could be made out of hemp materials."
When it comes to fabric, hemp has three times the tensile strength of cotton, uses much less water, and is naturally antimicrobial. Nor can the fact that it's biodegradable be ignored in this day and age of overflowing landfills. Says one of Patagonia's senior clothing designers, "Ideally, at the end of the day, you can just throw it out in the compost and it just mulches right back in."
It does sound like a dream material, but the U.S. has a lot of catching up to do in the meantime if it wants to compete with hemp producers elsewhere in the world. In the meantime you can support this industry by choosing hemp clothing whenever possible. We should all be wearing clothing that doesn't destroy the environment, and Patagonia's collection is a great place to start.
As activist and hemp farmer Winona LaDuke said in the film, "Hemp is a return to a thoughtful and mindful way to clothe yourself. It offers a way out for all of us that is durable, local, biodegradable... and alive. If we treat this plant with respect, it can help us change the world."