Weaving Hopes for Reshoring U.S. Hemp Textiles

hemp textiles trade

By Eric Singular, Director, Hemp Business Journal, New Frontier Data

Throughout the past 10,000 years of human civilization, bast fibers derived from the stalks of hemp plants have represented as valuable material in the weaving of textiles. In modern times, hemp yarn’s many uses from sailcloth to apparel have served as rallying cries for returning to widespread industrial use of the versatile, natural, plant-based fiber.

Yet, prior to the 2018 Farm Bill, the plant had for decades been federally prohibited in the United States despite its long, even celebrated history. Early colonists were required to cultivate the plant, founding fathers including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew it among the cash crops at their plantations, and even after its being banned in 1937, it was called into service on behalf of the war effort during World War II.

Fast-forward to 2021: Unsurprisingly, during the nearly eight decades of hemp’s prohibition, the textiles industry has evolved dramatically. While dreams of establishing a domestic supply chain capable of bringing to market a completely “Made in the USA” hemp apparel product is very much alive, obstacles abound. The decades after WWII ushered in an era of neoliberal policies. This was spurred by the creation of intergovernmental organizations, like the World Trade Organization, and trade agreements, like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), both of which came to fruition in the 1990s. These free trade market forces, paired with a growing population and a greater penchant for consumerism, demanded cheaper labor and an exhaustive supply of raw materials.

This was made possible by the emergence of large textile mills and factories in China and other countries in Asia and Latin America in the mid-1970s. In 1980, about 70% of apparel bought by Americans were buying was still made in the U.S. With the advent of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the 1990s, it was decided to phase out the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing quotas by 2005, marking the end of trade protections for U.S. textile manufacturers.

Big retail chains began developing vast global supply chains. The goal was to divide each step of production, sourcing the cheapest labor wherever it was offered. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 1990 and 2011, the U.S. had outsourced nearly 750,000 apparel manufacturing jobs. By 2003, global retailer The Gap had a supply chain spanning 1,200 factories across 42 countries. Today, a reliance on such global supply chains keeps the costs of manufacturing, labor, and production low.

Enter the dilemma of reshoring American manufacturing. Today, hemp fiber processors are trying to re-establish their roots across the United States. In the short term, processors are trying to dial-in the mechanics of decorticating, or separating, hurd from the interior of the industrial hemp stalk. Hurd is the short fiber found in the inner woody core of hemp stalks, typically containing 20-30% lignin. It has a wide variety of nonwoven applications as wood alternatives – including construction and building materials (hempcrete), paper, bioplastics, furniture, animal bedding, flooring, etc.

More profits will come when hemp fiber processors attain the ability to decorticate the long bast fibers of the hemp stalk. Those fibers are high in cellulose and low in lignin, and are used for weaving and spinning fabric for the textile industry. China currently dominates the global hemp fabric industry, along with some competition from Western Europe. The processing technology to accomplish textile-grade hemp fiber is lagging in the U.S.

As cited by the New York Times, textile manufacturing in 2020 worldwide surpassed $1 trillion ($1,000,300,000,000 USD), with expectations to reach nearly $1.042 trillion in 2021. By 2025, that figure is expected to grow to nearly $1.207 trillion.

The U.S. is China’s biggest hemp-fiber customer. With no intention of slowing down, China’s 13th Five-Year Plan sets its sight on producing over 3 million acres of hemp fiber for the global textiles industry by 2030. China’s dominance in textiles is partially driven by its lack of environmental regulations: While farming for fiber withdraws over 3 trillion liters of water, textile dyeing represents one of the most polluting aspects of the global fashion industry.

While the U.S. apparel market is the world’s largest, comprising about 28% of the global total, there remain only a handful of textile mills. Nevertheless, the U.S. plays a vital role in the global cotton market, serving as the world’s leading exporter, recently providing approximately 35% of global cotton exports. According to the USDA, the United States produced nearly 20 million bales of cotton, worth about $7 billion in 2019.

According to the National Council of Textile Organizations, the U.S. industry is the second-largest global exporter of textile-related products, accounting for $25.4 billion in 2020. The U.S. military is the biggest consumer for American-made textiles, sourcing over 8,000 products from domestic manufacturers. Yet, it’s nearly impossible to find an apparel with a “Made in the USA” tag, e.g., while in 1996 there were 2,153 textile and apparel plants in North Carolina, a decade later fewer than 60% (1,282) of those remained.

Still, agribusiness contributes approximately $87 billion to the Tar Heel state’s economy. As Daniel Yohannes, CEO of clean-tech manufacturing Renaissance Fiber explained, “the connection between hemp and textiles was obvious, especially in North Carolina. What we’ve come to understand, though, is that hemp promises two very important things. In a traditional sense, hemp will rebuild some of the lost connection between agriculture and industry that actually built the communities we live in here. At the same time, it will improve the environmental impact of some of the U.S. and the world’s largest and most important supply chains. Both are urgently needed. There almost couldn’t have been a better time for this.”

There is a substantial upside to reshoring: The U.K.’s House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee found that textile production contributes more to climate change than do international aviation and shipping combined. According to the UN Environment Assembly, the fashion industry is responsible for 8% of carbon emissions.

The domestic aim for a low-carbon footprint, has perhaps been best exemplified and supported by outwear manufacturer Patagonia – which notes that hemp currently makes up less than 0.1% of the global fiber market – through its “Bring Hemp Home” Initiative. While Patagonia is a marketing pioneer, it is a niche clothing brand, and comparatively pricey. For consumers to embrace sustainable fabrics with low-carbon footprints, they will need to pay an unwelcomed premium.

In the wake of CBD’s crash, the U.S. hemp industry is learning to build with a confirmed market in mind. For U.S. hemp fiber processors, both the material value and sustainability of hemp’s plant-based fiber are plainly evident. A domestic supply chain means a far lower carbon footprint with respect to transportation, and a localized economy that will likely keep more money in each of the respective links along the U.S. value chain, including farmers and American apparel manufacturers to keep optimism and capital flowing.

Ultimately, the outcomes depend on consumer demand. The average U.S. garment worker makes roughly 38x the wage of one’s Bangladeshi counterpart. In addition, the U.S. textiles industry must abide by strict Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards, whose latest rule on textile dyeing aims for a 60% reduction in nationwide organic hazardous air pollutants emissions. It becomes a question of whether the consumer market for environmentally friendly products can balance the reshoring of American manufacturing. With catastrophic climate danger looming larger by the day, how many Americans will pay a premium for sustainability?