Food for Thought, New Materials

Recap SYMBIOSIS Deep Dive: The Hemp Project


Drugs. Was that not the first word that popped into your head when you read the title? That was certainly the case for me when I first came across this Deep Dive discussion during the 2022 edition of the Symbiosis festival. However, I learnt over time that in the world of circularity and sustainability, you should always be prepared to be surprised by the versatility of applications of materials that are traditionally known for very limited uses. As it turns out, this crop, which might not have the best reputation for the general public, is actually a great source of raw materials for a variety of potential applications. But what are these applications? Luckily a panel of experts have been invited to shine light on the wonderful properties of this crop and the ingenious ways that these properties have been translated in everyday textile products. Today, a group consisting of architects, IT developers, investors, governmental parties, activists, designers, consultants, entrepreneurs and students have all gathered to discuss the potential of hemp in textile, but especially its position in our society. As it turns out, there is hardly anything you cannot do with hemp. But the big question of the day seems to be: why won’t they let us do something with it?

Diving into the system around hemp

We started off the session with a taste of hemp seeds, generously offered by a representative of the Hemp Collective, an organisation that gives advice on the use of medicinal cannabis. Everything begins with a seed, it is strange to think that this tiny seed once grown can become a plant that could heal you, feed you, and dress you. This start of the discussion brings a sense of reconnection to the way nature works. It all starts with a small seed. And it is undeniable, as a society we do live disconnected from nature and how our everyday things are made. This last point was raised by a representative of The Linen Project, an organisation that focuses on producing textile from flax plants. A t-shirt, before it becomes a t-shirt, is made of fibers. Fibers come from plants. Plants grow from seeds. Thinking about my clothes in this way made me realise how much time and energy actually goes into that shirt I bought a year ago and have worn maybe once. But is there a way to be a more conscious textile consumer? Of course, buy less, but this requires a big mindset change as it is being discussed in the group. An alternative? Buy better. Hemp fibers can be used to produce beautiful textiles, and incredibly soft too! Everyone in the session seems to be pleasantly surprised by the look and feel of a gorgeous scarf that is being passed around. But of course, the solution is not as simple as: let’s make all clothes out of hemp. There needs to be a mindset change for this as well. A hemp shirt will not look and will not feel the same as a cotton shirt, and it will not last as long. It is a different way of owning clothes and this also requires a mindset change. Reconnecting to nature is one way to bring about this change, as consolidated by a representative of the Dutch Wool Collective. While this is partly positively received, there is of course some skepticism in the room. Some remarks of “wishful thinking” are being expressed. But it is also true that a large portion of the youth of these days is already well versed in sustainability and understands that things need to change. A parallel is being drawn with the vegetarian diet. A few years ago, it was incredibly difficult to be vegetarian. These days, more and more options pop up in supermarkets to replace meat-based products. As a representative of this “youth” group, I have to agree.

Grow and harvest your own hemp with Hollandse Hennie

Things are changing. But are they changing fast enough?

Money seems to be an issue, as not enough investments are being put forth towards sustainable fibers, and generally there is a lack of infrastructure to foster these kinds of innovative developments. A representative from Pantanova puts our hearts at ease though: an initiative in the province of Gelderland is being developed as a “fiber campus”, a collective of municipalities, universities and companies. Here, investments are made in a safe space and there is room for mistakes in all domains: investments, products or processes of research and development. Particularly for hemp, it is difficult to process it into fibers in a sustainable way because of the wood-like structure. More research is needed in processing engineering to get to a level where the crop can sustainably be turned into fibers, both environmentally as well as financially. But it is not such an easy step. It is a bit of a chicken and the egg problem: without a good example of yarn, market demand cannot be stimulated. Without market demand, there is not enough incentive to invest in R&D for developing the technology to make products. During a private discussion with the representative of Pantanova, it became really clear to me what a waste of an opportunity this is. This crop is truly a wonder!  Not only is it really easy to grow, the whole plant can be used for different purposes. On top of that, the crop also regenerates the soil where it’s grown on so the next crop will have the best possible substrate to grow on. 

If it is so wonderful, why are we not funding this? Why is there such reluctance to further develop hemp into products? 

This is where the discussion got heated. Because of its reputation, the plant deals with a lot of severe legislations regulating the growth, harvesting and processing of hemp plants. The differentiation between hemp and other plants that will, unlike hemp, manage to get you high, seems to not have been taken into account in the regulation making process. In the Netherlands, we are allowed to grow fiber hemp, but it is not allowed to flower. We are not allowed to grow and harvest hemp seeds, but they are readily available in the supermarket imported from China for you to purchase. To top it all off, there are a range of other plants with a THC level of 0.5% (again, not remotely enough to induce any kind of funny response in a person) which could provide stronger, better fibers for textiles but we are not allowed to grow them. Finally we landed on the bottleneck of this whole discussion: the legislation is just not in our favour. 

Despite the issues that are still associated with growing hemp for fiber production, the session ended on a positive note. The participants start throwing around ideas about what an ideal future scenario will look like in which hemp textile has a chance at making its debut to society: growing at an own, local scale, policy makers understanding the difference between industrial and medical hemp, developing a synergetic European level infrastructure to process hemp fibers at both a large and local scale, more investments in hemp and its processing, and so on.  Oh, and of course, dear prime minister Rutte, when are you going to be wearing a hemp suit? 


This recap is written by Gloria Carta, co-founder of Compeat who was part of the hemp deepdive to make notes and share the insights