Apparel manufacturing is one of the largest sources of pollution in the world. Fast fashion – the topic du jour when it comes to the health of the adventure sports and outdoor industries – has been criticized for leading this destructive statistic.
But the reality is that most traditional apparel manufacturing practices are harmful to the environment. Many materials, like cotton, require massive amounts of water and other resources (not to mention the use of pesticides) to be farmed and produced into clothing. Combine that with the fact that global apparel production has doubled since 2000, with the average person buying 60 percent more clothing than the year previous and keeping clothing for only half the amount of time they did just 15 years ago – and you see how this is a fast-growing problem manufacturers should be trying to solve.
One of the companies leading change in the apparel manufacturing industry is Southern-California-based prAna, a brand that has been working with hemp since 2001 – long before its recent rise to popularity in today’s exploding cannabis market. The brand’s founders are credited with early adoption of the fast-growing plant, which requires little-to-no pesticides, insecticides and water to farm and produce into a super-soft fabric.
Today, hemp is becoming more readily available – although legal restrictions still cast an impeding shadow on hemp farmers and product use in the United States – and people’s stigmatized view of the plant is beginning to lift.
Always looking for ways to reduce its footprint, prAna has increased the amount of hemp in its collection to include roughly 50 styles and 200 colors and prints for Spring 2019 – a number that they say will only continue to grow as the quality and availability of the fabric continues an upward trend.
"Hemp has the potential to be the king of crops in the apparel industry, and we couldn't be more excited," prAna’s Brand, Engagement & Partnerships Andre Walker told TransWorld Business.
As the company continues to ramp up its efforts in this space, we caught up with the prAna team – including Walker, Director of Sustainability Rachel Lincoln and Design Director Andrea Cinque-Austin – to understand more about hemp, and how it is furthering the company’s mission to lead the #SustainableClothingMovement.
Can you explain why hemp is such a logical fabric to utilize when it comes to making apparel?
On top of being incredibly sustainable, it also has a ton of amazing properties that are inherent in the fiber without having to add additional finishes like you would with other fibers.
Hemp naturally inhibits bacteria. It has a thermo-conductive property, similar to wool, that allows its fibers to keep you cool in hot weather and warm in cold weather. Hemp is being used as insulation in houses and luxury cars now because of this natural property.
It’s also the fastest drying natural fiber. With its natural UV-resistant properties, it eliminates the extra step and additional resources of adding a UV-resistant finish.
Hemp is extremely strong compared to other natural fibers resulting in longer-lasting clothing. When blended with polyester it takes on some additional performance features, making it 99.5% resistant to Staph bacteria and increasing its quick-drying capabilities (compared to a polyester shirt blended with cotton).
With that being said, where is the hemp you are using grown and manufactured and how – if at all – does that play a role in the end product?
Our hemp is grown and manufactured in China. It's grown as organically as possible with no pesticides or insecticides.
China is one of the most advanced countries manufacturing apparel goods and this technical expertise helps us go to market with amazing products that are comparable in style and hand feel to others’ garments made with more common fibers.
From a sustainability perspective, why is hemp superior to using other materials like organic cotton?
Hemp requires very little water to grow – unlike cotton. It also produces more fiber per acre than cotton (and trees). The crop is not hard on the soil: other fibers need a cover crop or fertilizer to replenish the soil after a crop is farmed. Hemp actually acts as a cover crop, putting nutrients back into the soil while absorbing C02, extracting toxins and pollutants from the soil, and ultimately leaving it healthier than before planting.
Hemp uses half as much land and water to grow versus cotton, resulting in more crop yield. Using less land and resources enables farmers to make more of a profit to support their families.
The plant doesn't have any predators, so it is very easy to grow and requires little to no pesticides or chemicals. Some farmers in China will actually grow hemp around their corn to protect it from pests and predators.
Our hemp is run through a process called dew retting, which is much better for the environment than the alternative of using chemicals like caustic soda.
Hemp's natural performance features mitigate the need for harsh chemical finishes that are used on alternative fibers to get the same performance features.
Looking at the manufacturing process, is using hemp more complicated or difficult than traditional fabrics?
Every fiber is manufactured differently, so hemp isn't necessarily more complicated or difficult, it's just different machinery and processes. Compared to other natural fibers, the amount of work and resources required to grow hemp is significantly less, due to the fact that it needs less water and is naturally resistant to pests and disease. It also grows much faster than plants like cotton, which increases the amount of outputs per square foot in any given season.
Can you speak about the barriers to entry with using this material and whether you see it becoming more accessible in the coming months and years?
There are definitely some barriers and hurdles when it comes to using this material in products. Specifically, the amount of fiber actually being grown, as well as the lack of manufacturing facilities that have the knowledge and technology to process and grow it. We continue to adapt and evolve our process. We believe hemp has a bright future in the apparel industry, and are excited to be leading the charge.
From a 30,000-foot perspective, how do you see what prAna is doing as a case study for something that could be applied at a larger level within the apparel industry?
It really comes down to doing the right thing for people and the planet. In the last 50 years, the modern apparel industry has done tremendous damage to global waterways, soil and people's health. At prAna, we strive to mitigate and reverse that damage by raising the sustainability bar and helping other companies do the same. We all need to wear clothes, but we don't need to do the kind of damage that fast fashion is currently causing.
How is it shaping change outside the walls of prAna?
Hemp truly embodies our sustainable movement rally cry: “Clothing for Positive Change.” It is making a huge resurgence in modern society and in the apparel industry. Companies like Patagonia, Chiefton, Hoodlamb and Hemp Fortex, along with prAna, are making major strides in bringing this highly sustainable fabric to market. The stigma and misinformation that started in the 1930s has been largely debunked by the digital generation. We can thank the internet for access to information and a growing global desire for transparency in the products we purchase.
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