Ask Our Experts: Hemp as a Wood Alternative


Q: Given the massive losses of lumber from the Pacific Coast’s raging wildfires, to what extent might hemp help fill the demand for wood alternatives?


By William Sumner, Hemp Content Manager, New Frontier Data

A: Lumber prices have jumped more than 170% since mid-April, fueled by the most destructive wildfires in American history. California and the Pacific Northwest (PNW) – one of the most productive areas for the American lumber industry, which produced 44.5 million board feet of lumber in 2018 – have been the regions hardest hit. To date, more than 7 million square acres of American forests (including several lumbermills) have been destroyed by wildfires this year, and fire season remains far from over.

Such threats to the stability and extended outlook of the lumber markets, while alarming, may wind up providing opportunities for the emerging hemp fiber industry. Hemp advocates have long identified the crop’s sustainable characteristic as a key selling point, claiming that hemp could be used to diminish reliance on hard-to-renew resources like lumber. Hemp can be grown and harvested in about 120 days — compared to the 50-100 years it takes for an oak tree to reach maturity — and the hemp stalk can be used to manufacture low-carbon alternatives to products such as particle board, flooring, and paper. In addition, hemp-based products can easily achieve carbon-neutral (or even carbon-negative) status, as the carbon captured by the plant during photosynthesis is stored in the structure of whatever product is being manufactured.

Some of those products have already hit the market. Kentucky-based Hempwood manufactures a wood substitute made from hemp that it claims is 20% harder than oak, and a viable substitute for anything that oak is used for. The primary obstacle for wood-alternative products has always been achieving a competitive price point. As the climate crisis worsens, however, so too will the frequency and scale of such fires, creating supply shocks to the lumber markets that could make hemp products price-competitive for the first time in history.

Hempwood Boards

The 2020 U.S. wildfires have brought new urgency to the market’s increasingly nervous search for market-based solutions to climate change. As the ecological crisis worsens, the attractiveness of carbon-neutral, hemp-based construction materials will grow, and they will become more prevalent in the market.