We had an inspiring conversation with Jeroen Bos. Jeroen was responsible for developing an industrial scale sustainable technology to obtain bast fibers like hemp for textile end-use for Swedisch furniture retailer IKEA. Early in his career he started to work for Nike as a textile engineer and has been working in this field for over 10 years. Jeroen has developed unique expertise in working with bast fibers since he started working with Netl.; a dutch company working with nettle fibers.


Part II. Steps towards a future with hemp

Hemp is the future, we share this belief with Jeroen and many others. Hemp is not only the strongest natural fiber but also ecologically, hemp shows to be so much better than other conventional raw materials for the textile industry. When we compare hemp to cotton, it shows that hemp needs at least 65% less water and it takes 55% less land to obtain the same amount of usable fibers. Hemp grows amazingly efficient without fertilizer and additionally it is naturally protected against bugs and pests and thus needs no pesticides or herbicides. When you read this, the question why we aren’t using way more hemp, must arise. At least that’s something we’ve asked ourselves when we started HMPLB. During our conversation with Jeroen, we recognized something which we hear often. The hemp fiber is not as soft as the cotton fiber and so far it seems that almost no organization has been able to develop a working and scalable solution to this challenge.

“Obtaining and processing hemp to make high quality textile, that’s the real challenge.”

“What? Softening fibers? What are y’all talking about? I just want to buy a t-shirt.” Okay, first it is important to understand how textile products are actually made and what steps are taken from seed to product. Back in the old days, making clothing for example was a craft. Nowadays most products are made in factories of which we will almost never see the people who make these products. That’s why we want to inform you about the different steps within the hemp value chain. It all starts with the hemp plant, which is related to the cannabis plant, but it doesn’t provide enough THC to induce an intoxicating effect. To many people this plant is the ‘green gold’. Some researches even claim that over 25.000 different products can be made from this plant. It ranges from medicinal salves, oils to clothing and construction material. As HMPLB we focus on textile products made from the fibers of the hemp plant. The plants are cultivated and then harvested. Traditionally the next step would be hackling and scutching, during which the fibers are slightly softened and separated from the wooden parts which come from the bast of the plant. Some farmers would use water retting to soften the fibers some more. Once the fibers were appropriate, they would then be spun into thread. Back then most of the parts of this process were carried out by one family or community, but nowadays the value chain is often separated into independent processes executed by different organizations. It starts with sowing and reaping the hemp plant, then the fibers are sent to a spinning mill, the spinning mill produces the threads and those threads are sent to a weaving mill to produce the fabric. This is a short description on how the value chain of Hemp is composed. In reality, this is even more complex, because hemp is relatively new within the industrial landscape.


“You have to take the rough fiber from a certain company and bring it to another company who will soften the fibers. In most cases those fibers must be spun into thread by another company. All of those companies have their own vision, requirements and expectations, which have to fit together to eventually provide the right fabric. That is the most difficult thing to accomplish.”


Why Hemp?

For the Swedish home and interior retailer, Jeroen dealt with the challenge to sustainably obtain hemp fibers for textile products. To do so, Jeroen had to look at the whole value chain of hemp. We asked him why this world leader in interior products, was so eager to invest in hemp?


“Anyone who’s working in the textile industry, knows that there will not be enough cotton in the future to supply our demand. We are dealing with an increasing global population and a more demanding standard of living. Also, climate change will decrease the availability of fresh water. A globally active organization, who continuously wants to grow will consider their own future. They are very much aware of the fact that resources will be less available and this especially counts for cotton. This was a major motivation to look for alternatives. These alternatives should be sustainable and if possible circular. The negative aspects which are related to cultivating cotton also played an important part. But it was mostly due to the combination of scarcity and the need for more sustainable solutions.

Again we notice an immediate comparison between hemp and cotton. Hemp could serve as a great alternative for cotton. Yet this also creates the expectation of hemp providing the same products as the cotton products we’re familiar with. While linen products are often perceived as linen products in their own right. Hemp is fundamentally different from cotton and it doesn’t only provide us with an alternative to cotton, it also enables us to save enormous amounts of water, land and chemicals, while at the same time providing us an unique enrichment of the resources available within the textile industry. As Jeroen states:

“Hemp is no cotton. A lot of people want hemp to be the same as cotton, but it is intrinsically different.”

Because of this, it is not just our goal to produce products, to replace products which are now made out of cotton and make them from hemp. Instead we consider the specific features and characteristics of the hemp fabric, and aim to find a good or potentially even better fit, with products than cotton.

As the leading developer of the biodigestion technology for the Swedish retailer, Jeroen was also responsible to soften the fiber. Jeroen approached this technology of innovative water retting, based on biodigestion principles and he worked to develop a closed looped system featuring an integrated water purifier, to enable the reuse of used water. They managed to successfully do this, for up to 80% of the water.

Traditionally, people applied the method of water retting, by placing the plants in a stream. Afterwards they separated the wooden parts from the plants. This differs from Jeroen’s approach, who first separates the wood from the fiber parts and then applies the method of water retting. This also changes the ratio between process water and biomass. This did require Jeroen to effectively monitor the process water. Jeroen actually converted a dyeing installation into a fiber softener.


“That’s how I went from a bottle warmer to an industrial set up. Together with the swedish home and interior retailer we even made a blueprint to develop an industrial production facility, together with an Italian machine engineer.”

Hemp is the Cotton of 150 years ago.

Unfortunately, the Swedish retailer also discontinued the project. Again they were not able to achieve a cost efficiency that allowed competitiveness between hemp and cotton. But should we even try to achieve this in the first place? And is the current cotton price a reasonable price at all? According to Jeroen: “The price of cotton is not realistic and it has been artificially protected. The price does not represent the actual cost of cotton. Just as other agricultural subsidies, which are put in place just to enable cotton to remain profitable on the global market. And then there is the other side of the cost, just look at the suicide rates among cotton pickers and the strangulating contracts of companies like Monsanto. "

Is it reasonable to try to compete with this in the first place? And how do we effectively take the right steps towards a more sustainable and responsible future?

“When we’re talking about cotton, then we’re talking about a fiber which people have been optimizing for the last 150 to 200 years, that’s what you're up against. Because Hemp is actually the cotton of 150 years ago. To me it was very exciting to work for the Swedish company because they were producing enormous amounts of fiber, to sell them within their own sales market. This allowed me to challenge all partners within the supply chain to adjust their process to the hemp fiber and then start optimizing this process. But they opted to not proceed with this process. Major brands like the Swedish retailer are constantly looking to directly produce items while maintaining their quality criteria. Developing a completely working Hemp supply chain, would at least take some more years. ”

As HMPLB we focus on the available hemp material and seek to find the right products which can be produced out of this material. By doing so, we aim to introduce and promote this wonderful resource. Once the industry and market adapts to the processes needed to develop more and better hemp material, there will be more hemp available and consequently the price of hemp will be reduced. We are convinced that hemp can function as a raw material for many different products. We believe that this will significantly reduce the negative impact on our planet caused by our production within the textile industry. Until then, we invite you to join us on our hemp journey.

In part 3 you will read about what it takes to transition towards responsible production, and why this is necessary.


 

 “‘We want to inform people about the knowledge on how to turn raw material into fabric and subsequently into products. If possible to make it circular, we also want to share knowledge about the post use processing of these products. We really want to manifest this knowledge for a larger crowd” - HMPLB