Hemp’s Tentative Footprint at a Contentious Outdoor Retailer Convention

global fiber production

By Eric Singular, Director, Hemp Business Journal

This month, the Outdoor Retailer (OR) trade expo and conference in Denver marked its sixth and last in Colorado before a scheduled return to Salt Lake City next year. But more notable than what the expo featured was what went missing, as two dozen of the top outdoor and recreational manufacturers boycotted the event, including Patagonia, the VF Corporation, The North Face, Arc’teryx, Prana, La Sportiva, Scarpa, MSR, SmartWool, and Therma-Rest.

Already being at a reduced capacity because of the pandemic, the event occupied perhaps half of the Denver Convention Center’s square footage compared to previous years. While OR released a statement saying that it was committing revenue from the next three years of Outdoor Retailer events in Salt Lake City for programs to support outdoor recreation and protect public lands in Utah, there are already those saying that we may be witnessing the demise of OR.

Established in 1982, the OR moved from Utah to Denver in 2017 as a protest to then-President Donald Trump’s slashing of the protected lands of the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments (by 47% and 83%, respectively). At the time, outdoor industry leaders already sensitive to environmental politics (since wilderness protections were stripped from six million acres in Utah in 2003) expressed overwhelming support to protect public lands by threatening to stop exhibiting at OR altogether.

A boycott of OR would be unfortunate for the nascent hemp industry. If hemp producers and marketers cannot get the outdoor industry and its associated consumer demographic base to use more hemp and natural-based fibers, it’s unlikely to draw the attention of the mainstream athletic brands like Nike or fast-fashion giants like H&M to cut into cotton production or reliance on synthetic materials.

American consumers spend $890 billion on outdoor recreation annually. Given the outdoors industry’s prediction for sustainability and the progressiveness of brands like Patagonia that make clothing out of hemp fabric and snacks out of hemp food ingredients, hemp was expected to have a significant footprint at the 2022 OR. While the crop’s presence was in fact underwhelming, the potential still exists for the crop to find wide adoption within the outdoor industry.

In 2021, the Outdoor Industry Association’s Climate Action Corps released its first Annual Impact Report, with the goal to become the world’s first climate-positive industry by 2030. Since its inception, the Corps has grown to more than 100 members representing more than $25 billion in annual sales revenue.

Plant fibers account for nearly 30% of global fiber production, with cotton making up 24% of that figure. Yet, cotton is also accused of being as unsustainable as synthetic fibers, due to the amount of water its production requires. According to a 2005 study by The Stockholm Environment Institute, a nonprofit, independent research and policy institute, hemp – compared to cotton and polyester – has the lowest ecological footprint. Unfortunately, the feasibility of hemp textile production on a broad scale is afflicted by technological constraints and limited cultivation.

According to the Textile Exchange, hemp fiber had an estimated global production volume of around 174,027 tonnes in 2020. That same year, according to the Hemp Dashboard in Equio, New Frontier Data’s cannabis business intelligence platform, hemp accounted for only 0.2% of all fiber production in the U.S.

However, research is underway into hemp as feedstock for man-made cellulosic fiber, which accounts for nearly 6% of total global fiber production, and biobased leather imitations (animal fibers make up less than 2% of total global fiber production).

On the Horizon

When you look at global fiber production, and U.S. fiber production volume, hemp has ground to seize within the space. Though its already finding footing with Fibershed, a non-profit organization that expands opportunities to implement climate beneficial agriculture, rebuild regional manufacturing, and connected users to the source of our fiber through direct educational offerings.

Erin Axelrod, partner at LIFT Economy, has worked with the Fibershed Project as a contributing author for an Economic Feasibility study for implementing a bioregional-scale regenerative textile mill in California. She notes, “Wool, cotton and hemp are superior performance fibers for recreational activities, without the negative externalities and climate consequences of synthetic fibers. There is a movement afoot of farmers, especially indigenous and person of color-led farming initiatives like Winona’s Hemp, that are doing the hard work of growing these natural fibers, all against a backdrop of increasingly erratic climatic weather events and uncertain farming conditions.”

With respect to the efforts of the outdoor industry to be sustainability stewards, she comments, “The outdoor industry unfortunately is lagging in the leadership and effort it will require to move the textile supply chain back to these natural fibers, and customers who care need to do even more to request and advocate for traceability and integrity of materials. Farmers are really the ones leading the innovation. At LIFT Economy, we feel so honored to be working with some of the few companies, including Patagonia, who are supporting and partnering with these innovative farmers with the larger goal of rebuilding domestic natural fiber supply chains, like hemp.” As regional hemp fiber production and processing expand in the United States, Fibershed may become an ally to help spur outdoor brand’s’ adoption and utilization of American-made hemp fabric.

At present, a handful of hemp fiber applications use residual biomass from grain production as a feedstock for biofibers. A few examples include India-based AltMat, which has commercialized biofibers made from hemp stalks that were a byproduct of July 2021 grain production. Another is Circular System, which in January 2020 launched its Agraloop Biorefinery pilot facility in Belgium. That facility uses food crop residues as feedstock and is powered by 100% renewable energy. Agraloop BioFibre products hit the market in 2020, and now include three hemp-based fabric offerings.

North Carolina-based Bear Fiber is developing a novel alkaline hemp cottonization process and manufacturing platform to produce cotton-like hemp fiber that can be easily spun with and complement cotton.

China-based Hemp Fortex is a leading supplier of hemp textiles that uses hemp grown in China and manufactures yarn, knitted, and woven fabrics made from the plant’s bast fibers.

While hemp’s share of global fiber production is nominal, these innovative advancements represent a glimmer of hope for how plant-based fiber may grow in the years ahead. A Means & Matters survey that gauged how much outdoor enthusiasts care about climate change found that 74% of outdoor consumers believe advocacy groups and outdoor brands are part of the climate solution. For an industry that’s aiming to be climate-positive by 2030, there’s a steep road to climb for kicking petroleum addiction. This will likely prove a major driver that will expand global production of plant-based fibers beyond cotton, like hemp, jute, and flax. For hemp fiber and food advocates, the outdoor industry is an easy adopter. Or at least it should be.

Though the Biden administration restored both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante to their original sizes in October 2021, industry leaders have maintained that they will boycott OR if the event returns to Utah (slated for June 19-21, 2023). Assessing the footprint there, hemp still has a long rope to climb.