Demand for sustainable textiles is big opportunity for hemp fiber

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Susan Barnhardt is the founder of SHEMP Yarn Company (SYC), a Florida, U.S.-based producer of worsted textile yarn made from hemp and wool which is set for a market debut in mid-2021. Barnhardt, a veteran of the textile industry, has more than 40 years experience working with emerging companies and Fortune 500 brands such as Campbell Soup Company, Kraft Heinz, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, and Constellation Brands. She has a long track record in multi-stakeholder collaboration.

HempToday: How do you see fiber processing developing in the USA?

Susan Barnhardt: If you had asked me this question a year ago, I would have shaken my head. The intense interest in high CBD hemp has led to a situation where farmers have been left with their crop on the ground or in the barn, and no money in their pockets. Many manufacturers are losing their shirts. I can honestly say that the interest in stalk processing has increased a hundredfold over the last year.

We believe that stalk processing will develop with either regionalized or centralized processing centers within 1-3 hours of the grower, where cost is most sensitive. I’m aware of several farmer co-ops that are looking at that model as a way to monetize their crop across the many end products. For the sake of discussion, let’s say certain region-specific genetics are developed for a certain purpose, like hempcrete or textiles. These regional processing centers, whether owned by the farmers or a specific entity, will be assured of a contractual supplier market for their crops among manufacturers; and manufacturers will be assured of consistency.

HT: Which states to you see as potential fiber producers in the USA?

SB: Industrial hemp can be grown almost anywhere. The states with the most potential for fiber production will be those who support the industrial hemp business with economic development funds and/or where there is a processing center nearby.

HT: What is the U.S. up against in the larger global marketplace for hemp textiles?

SB: Our biggest foreign competitors are China and India. Most hemp textiles in the USA, both woven and non-woven, are now produced by importing textile-grade hemp fiber. China is the largest producer of hemp. An overwhelming share of China’s hemp market is dedicated to textile production, the history of which extends at least 5,000 years. Consequently, China enjoys a completely developed hemp-processing infrastructure along with cheap labor and lax environmental regulations.

HT: For mass or industrial applications, real standards will be needed. In the absence of standards, how do you address quality?

SB: We are working on this with Renaissance Fiber in North Carolina. Their patented process softens hemp but is non-damaging to the fiber, so they created specifications that mainly minimize fiber damage and maximize fiber quality before it gets to us. Some of these specs may seem counter-intuitive, but quickly make sense. For example, we prefer lightly retted or unretted hemp stalks from Cannabis sativa genetics. This is the easiest way to ensure consistent quality. Retting can really damage fiber and totally undercut yield in addition to turning gum into unextractable biofoul.

Additionally, the less hurd in the raw fiber the better (we aim for <5%); and the fiber should be free of other trash (rocks, weeds, metal, root material, etc.). We hope our guidance enables the farmer or processor rather than making things more difficult. For instance, not retting actually saves a great deal of time and processing for the farmer. A major challenge has been getting hurd out without grinding the fiber to death during primary processing.

HT: Aside from the general buildup and sourcing the raw materials, what are the keys to growing the hemp textile sector?

SB: The demand for alternative fibers and the sustainability problems with cotton create a gap to be filled. Industry, innovation and adaptability will be keys to the growth of the fiber industry. As I attend seminars and follow the industry, what strikes me is that while everyone seems to talk about how to get hemp products ready for market, there is little discussion on how to go to market. These are two different aspects of any business.

As a startup company, especially one in an emerging industry, the question is usually “are there companies who would buy our products?” Having explored this question over the past several months, and having discovered that the demand is strong for products that embrace sustainability and are good for the planet, we realized that the question was not “would they” but “how do we capitalize on these opportunities? Quickly!” 

HT: And, how do you?

SB: The Fourth Industrial Revolution has changed the way we all do business, as information is moving at the speed of light. Go-to-market with hemp based products must employ all the same marketing tactics that all brands employ and consistently apply the 360-degree communication approach based on the various stages of intent, and build it into the modern buyer’s journey to purchase. B2B buyers these days behave like B2C buyers. They expect the same experience and level of service and 80% of those B2B buyers say their purchasing decisions are based on their customer experience with the supplier instead of price or other conventional rationale.

HT: Tell us about your funding efforts.

SB: Before I went out to look for funding, in early November, I took a trip to visit my supplier alliances to continue the discussion on the SHEMP project and to determine if we had all the pieces in place. Once that was confirmed, I created the business and financial model. It has been received very well with high interest. I am currently working towards an investment with a farmers co-op. This excites me in several ways including the ability to provide a way for those farmers to monetize their crop in an ongoing contractual basis, and the ability to achieve consistency of hemp bast fiber for the production of SHEMP.

HT: What are the key considerations, challenges, goals, etc. in a multi-stakeholder collaboration?

SB: Multi-stakeholder collaborations are not legal partnerships; they are alliances. Stakeholders is a great term as successful alliances are formed among enterprises that share complementary assets, strengths, risks, rewards and control. It is imperative to form alliances in today’s world – whether long-term strategic or short-term tactical – as customers are more demanding of services and solutions from their suppliers. Time-to-market is critical and leveraging each other’s strengths can produce a powerful competitive advantage.

HT  How can hemp stakeholders best organize themselves around that concept?

SB: First, they need to open themselves up to the idea. You cannot do it alone as no one is good at every facet of creating a successful business. They need to take an honest assessment of what they are good at and where they need help to achieve the synergy and chemistry of 1+1=3. They must have an underlying belief in reciprocity to work together to define a vision of what success looks like, and how they are going to get there. Intimacy, trust and commitment are the keys.

Governance structures need to be put in place to keep the alliance on track. Buy-in is required from all involved from top to bottom. With so many entrepreneurial people in the hemp industry, this idea may seem opposite to why they started their companies. But the alliance revolution is here and that’s what it takes to build a more profitable, more competitive, more durable business in today’s fast growing hemp segments.

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