Sustainability has fast become the vogue of the fashion industry. Many brands are redefining themselves, moving away from the waning world of fast fashion and towards greener alternatives. And so with an industrial hemp industry set to explode, hemp clothing producers are primed and ready to take over.
With so much potential around the corner, David Chick, the founder and president of the Industrial Hemp Western Australia Association, speaks optimistically about the future of hemp clothing: “It’s environmental. It’s ethical. And one day it’ll be economical too,” he says.
“What can come from [the hemp clothing industry] is really infinite, because once people can access those materials, it’s going to go nuts.”
The report Global Hemp Clothing Market: Industry Trends and Forecast to 2030 by Data Bridge Market Research predicts a rapid and “surprising growth” in the hemp clothing market of around 32 per cent over the next seven years. And considering that the world’s clothing consumption contributes to around 10 per cent of our overall climate emissions, this resurgence is in partly because hemp clothing is an environmentally-friendly alternative to fabrics such as cotton and polyester. Australia is behind, however, when it comes to capitalising on the growth of the hemp clothing market. Government restrictions, lasting stigmatisation and a dependancy upon foreign manufacturing have hindered the progression of Australia’s hemp industry. But things are slowly changing and producers are optimistic about the future.
Industrial hemp is not a new phenomenon. Cannabis sativa, or just hemp for short, has been around for centuries and at surface level still outwardly looks to be the same plant as its infamous cousin, often called weed or marijuana. But looks can be deceiving. Hemp, cultivated today, is used for food, building material and clothing amongst other things. Whilst marijuana is grown with the express purpose of raising the natural amounts of cannabis’ psychoactive ingredient THC, of which hemp possesses negligible amounts.
Dr John Jiggens in his book, Sir Joseph Banks and the Question of Hemp: Hemp, Sea-Power and Empire, argues that hemp, during the Age of Sail — a 400-year period beginning sometime around the turn of the 16th century — was as important a commodity as oil is to us today. So much so, that the First Fleet — destined to establish convict colonies at the end of a journey lasting more than 250 days at sea — arrived upon Australia shores with stores of hemp in their holds.
Hemp during this time was second only to wood in the shipbuilding industry. Mixed with tar, hemp was used to plug watertight a ship’s hull in a process called caulking. Sailors wore hemp clothing, pulled upon hempen ropes and raised canvas sales made out of hemp. Captains wrote in hemp logs and read hemp bibles, all under the light of lanterns burning hemp oil. And hemp seeds were often essential on long voyages for emergency purposes; being edible and relatively easy to grow, they meant food for shipwrecked sailors and the possibility of longterm survival or escape.
A wonder product, hemp has, nonetheless, had a troubled history. The coming of a new age called the Age of Steam —beginning at the end of the 18th century, during which coal became a prominent fuel — saw the slow but inevitable deconstruction of hemp’s monopoly of the shipbuilding industry. This paired with misleading propaganda, among other reasons, effectively demonised hemp within much of the developed world.
The stigmatisation of hemp has, however, declined at what seems to be exponential rates. And the hemp clothing industry in Australia has been helping to make it happen.
“You’ve got to realise that some people still don’t know the benefits of hemp clothing,” says Georgina Wilkinson, owner of the Margaret River Hemp Co.
Sitting between shelves of colourful hemp clothing — colours she says have developed a lot over the years — Wilkinson seems sure of herself and the industry she has been a part of for more than 20 years. The door to her shop is open; the passing life of a busy Margaret River, in Western Australia’s south west, is bustling by.
“We are still a throwaway society,” she say. “We can buy our cheap t-shirts and they’re gone within two to three months.”
Wilkinson, who is also the vice president of the Industrial Australian Hemp Alliance, says hemp clothing just about ticks all the boxes.
She says it is highly durable, up to four-times stronger than cotton. It is naturally antibacterial and anti-fungal and doesn’t require chemicals to process. It is moisture wicking and odour resistant whilst being UV resistant. It is biodegradable, compostable and resistant to mould and mildew. And it retains its shape thanks to its aversion to shrinking. But perhaps most bizarrely, hemp clothing is breathable and yet insulating at the same time.
Chief operating officer and co-founder of Hemp Farms Australia Lauchlan Grout says hemp clothing is something which he can wear from morning through to night.
“It’s the only material that I don’t sweat in when out west visiting crops,” he says. “And I can also stay warm in it when it gets cool out there.”
He says hemp clothing lasts longer than other alternatives and feels better.
“Every time you wash it, it gets softer and softer. It gets nicer every time. It’s like a bit of an experience with your clothing.”
Founder and director of Hemp Clothing Australia Chris Martin says after being in the industry for seven years, the desire for hemp clothing is definitely increasing.
“When I first started out people thought I was a bit nuts but you could tell it was already growing overseas and Australia was just delayed in catching up.”
He says hemp will continue to better its relative position in the Australia clothing industry, taking market share out of cotton, bamboo, flax and synthetic fibres.
Martin explains that Australian brands, to the best of his knowledge, are entirely dependent upon foreign markets, as no hemp clothing is actually made in Australia out of locally-grown hemp fibre. The fibre, otherwise called the bast, is the part of the plant needed to make clothing. It wraps around the stalk’s woody core called the hurd, used primarily for building products, and sits under the plant’s flowers which go into the making of hemp foods.
“For Australia to catch up, we need to invest heavily into new infrastructure and equipment to be able to process locally,” Martin says. “We are talking about major investment between government, industry and growers. It must be a unified vision.”
The biggest producers of hemp clothing in the world and the original inventors of the fabric, 6000 years ago, are from China. With a market share of around 70 per cent, China effectively supplies the vast majority of the world’s hemp clothing. This, despite the industry only effectively beginning in 2010, after a 25-year ban on hemp production.
Georgina Wilkinson says many people are disappointed when they find out that the hemp clothing she sells is all made in China.
“But if you want to manufacture any cloth here — any cloth, not just hemp — it’s a multimillion dollar manufacturing that you have to be set up.”
She says the risks and costs involved with such an operation paired with the need to compete internationally make it immensely difficult to establish a successful and local hemp-clothing manufacturer.
Lauchlan Grout agrees.
“I don’t think the manufacturing side will ever be on Australian shores unless someone decides that they want to pay more for employment and more for ingredients and more for power and more for everything — and that they can sell it for more as a result.”
He says, except for Europe, which produce hemp clothing at three-times the price point, no one produces hemp fabric quite like China.
And yet globally, the relative numbers for hemp fibre are still very low. The worldwide market share of hemp when compared to other fibres such as cotton, polyester and flax was just 0.2 per cent in 2021. While, within Australia, the total area designated to hemp farming peaked in 2019-2020 at 4,200 hectares before oversupply encouraged a slight drop off. And of that total area, it is estimated by Agriftures Australia that only three per cent was used for fibre.
Industrial Hemp Western Australia Association founder David Chick says he would like to see homegrown hemp processing facilities become a reality one day soon.
“Everyone wants hemp because it’s become vogue,” he says. “More and more people are learning why it’s a good choice.
“But [The Australian hemp industry] is growing slowly,” he says, a touch of disappointment entering his voice. “And it’s growing slowly because of red tape and a lack of support.”
Chick says restrictive government regulations and lasting stigmatisation have hindered the industry’s progression. He says the delay in legislation allowing for the consumption of hemp food — only passing in 2017, years after the UK, US and Canada — has set Australia significantly back in its attempts to keep up with international competition.
Chairperson and ex-executive officer for WA Hemp Grower’s Co-op Gail Stubber adds that Australia’s hemp industry is behind because of investors coming into the industry with higher expectations than it is immediately able to deliver.
“Everybody wants to be running 120 per cent now, and the industry has been going so long that you would expect that it should be. But there’s been a lot of setbacks.”
She says Australians are very reticent to develop an industry that doesn’t yet have sufficient proof of concept, boots on the ground and jobs ready to be filled.
And yet, Stubber sees money coming in from overseas. “There is definitely overseas money coming back into the eastern states,” she says. “There are some bigger projects happening over there because they already have the proof of concept working a bit.”
Stubber says if the industry is to thrive, businesses need to learn how to “value add” by providing more essential services along the supply chain.
James Vosper explains the closer any business gets to the consumer, the more profit they can make.
“We’ve got to get away from the commodity side of the industry and move closer to the consumer,” he says. “And that means having brands that you can actually sell to the consumer.”
He says Australia can still capitalise on the growing hemp industry but there has to be more education, so that people can learn where the profit is to be made.
Vosper says that a growing proportion of people are looking for the sustainable option these days. Which in light of the fact that Australia has just over half of all the organic farm land in the world puts Australian hemp in good stead. “A lot more people are now looking for certified-organic products, whether it be for clothing, food or medicine,” he says. “And we have a natural advantage there, whereby we can compete with anybody in the world.”
Beyond the benefits that hemp clothing has as a fabric, hemp as a crop works wonders for the environment.
Lauchlan Grout says hemp is one the most effective plants when it comes to carbon sequestration; a process through which carbon is taken from the atmosphere and stored by vegetation. He explains that hemp can sequester more carbon than trees can, while growing to maturity in 90 to 120 days compared to 20-odd years for forestry.
Grout says carbon credits — that will soon be awarded to Australian businesses, based on their ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and work sustainably to reduce environmental harm — will have a major impact on the industry.
“It just adds another revenue stream into the production cycle for a farmer without them actually having to do any extra work,” he says.
According to the Australian Industrial Hemp Strategic RD&E Plan (2022-2027) report, hemp is also very effective at removing harmful metals from the ground in a process called phytoremediation. For two decades, it has been growing around the Chernobyl nuclear power station, helping to remove radioactive elements from the soil. Moreover, hemp requires little to no chemicals to farm compared to traditional cotton crops which use around 10 per cent and 22.5 per cent of the world’s pesticides and chemical insecticides respectively, despite only occupying 2.5 per cent of the world’s cultivated land. Industrial hemp also needs up to four-times less water to grow when compared to cotton, significantly outweighing the greater water it requires during processing. Put simply, calling hemp a weed is no misnomer; it’s a sturdy crop and, in turn, fabric because it works hard to survive.
James Vosper says industrial hemp could play a huge part in bringing Australia and the world in line with offsetting our carbon production by 2030.
“If we grew a million hectares, which is very feasible, we could actually offset all of our emissions from everything that Australia does in terms of carbon,” he says.
“If we’re going to meet our commitments by 2030, planting forests now will not help. But hemp, hemp grows in 90 to 120 days.”
Lauchlan Grout says hemp clothing tends to be a bit pricier than most alternatives but is a no-brainer when all the pros and cons are accounted for.
He explains hemp clothing is in part more expensive due to a variation in supply and demand. “There is probably 10,000 times more hectares of cotton growing than there is of hemp,” Grout says. “Meaning, a hemp t-shirt might last four years longer and be warmer and what not, but when compared to a t-shirt from Uniqlo, is likely going to cost you double.”
Grout says it is going to take a lot of time and traction to make hemp clothing a greater staple in the clothing industry.
James Vosper, who is also the chief executive officer for Carbon Futures, says fast fashion is waning.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to see hemp t-shirts in stores for $10. But then again, that’s not going to be our market,” he says. “Our market is quality, durability and functionality.
“For example, the uniforms for the Chinese government and army, are made from hemp. Imagine the size of the market if the Australian army, air force and navy were to commit to having their uniforms made from hemp grown in Australia. That would be enormous.”
Vosper says the Australian hemp industry will continue to grow alongside desires to shop locally and sustainably.
“But we’ve got a lot of catching up to do,” he says. “We are moving towards fibre but that’s a global phenomenon.”
In terms of the future, Vosper is optimistic. “Australia is in a position to compete, but there’s not been the level of investment needed, so far, to actually build a fibre industry.
“But it will happen — It will happen.”