A Vancouver T-shirt manufacturer is banking that homegrown industrial hemp will help sales grow like the proverbial weed.
Hemptown Clothing Inc. hopes to take advantage of a U.S. ban on industrial hemp cultivation as it collaborates with the Canadian government to develop a new enzyme, designed to make hemp feel softer but remain durable. The company now gets most of its fabric, which consists of 55 per cent hemp and 45 per cent cotton, from China, but plans to build a $3 to $5 million, 40,000-sq.-ft. mill on 80 acres of free land in Craik, Sask., next year.
Industrial hemp comes from cannabis, the same plant species that produces marijuana, but doesn’t provide the same buzz as regular pot.
If all goes according to plan, the new patentable enzyme, called pectinase, will make Hemptown’s fibre as soft – and as affordable – as cotton, without any need for it.
|Bayne Stanley, Business Edge|
|Researcher Dr. Wing Sung, left, and Hemptown Clothing president Jason Finnis display their industrial hemp T-shirt.|
‘‘It’ll be revolutionary for our business and for every hemp company out there,’’ said Jason Finnis, Hemptown’s founder and president, after a recent presentation on the enzyme at a downtown Vancouver pub. ‘‘It will allow us to grow and process fibre in Canada in an environmentally friendly and cost-effective way.’’ Finnis said the pectinase enzyme will enable the company to produce a consistent fibre rather than one that is dependent on rain, dew and weather conditions that are difficult to control. The town of Craik and its surrounding municipality, located between Regina and Saskatoon along Highway 11 and a railway line, donated the land to Hemptown in May as an incentive to do business with area farmers.
Finnis said the federal and Saskatchewan governments are interested in providing funding for the new facility.
Once the mill is built, Hemptown hopes to boost revenues to $4.5 million US in 2005 from an anticipated $2.1 million this year and $661,000 US last year.
U.S. law prohibits the growth of industrial hemp. But the U.S.
government does allow American companies to import hemp material and garments.
Hemptown sells most of its clothing to U.S. and Canadian wholesalers, who print logos on shirts and baseball caps.
Canada and European countries allow the growth of hemp under regulated conditions.
‘‘One beautiful thing here is that cotton cannot grow in Canada and hemp thrives in Canada,’’ said Finnis.
Unlike cotton, said Finnish, hemp requires no harmful pesticides and much less water to cultivate. He claimed that each cotton T-shirt requires 1/3 of a pound of pesticides and 7,000 litres of fresh water to produce, while hemp can be grown with rain water.
‘‘Right now, processing hemp takes up to about 45 days, which requires a lot of manpower as well as time,’’ said Finnis, adding high labour costs make hemp-fabric production impossible in North America. ‘‘This (enzymatic) process will take it down to five hours, and five hours means that it can be set in the same day that plants are harvested, rather than in a month.’’ But first, Hemptown and the National Research Council (NRC) must fine tune the enzyme technology.
‘‘We’re less than a year into collaboration (on the new enzyme), we’ve already surpassed everything that’s being done in the world, but we don’t know exactly the machines that we need to put into this building,’’ said Finnis. ‘‘So, over the next 12 months, we’ll have a better handle of what we need to put in. It’s very close (to being determined). But we have to build the building first anyway. ’’ Hemptown is growing different types of hemp fibre on research blocks in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and sending samples of the harvests to Ottawa.
‘‘The end result is fibre that we can spin into yarn and then into T-shirts,’’ said Finnis, adding the clothes are made on centuries-old looms.
Wing Sung, a biologist with the NRC’s Institute for Biological Sciences, said pectinase-altered hemp fibre will benefit the environment and Canadian farmers. An enzyme, essentially an amino acid, has an advantage over other technologies in that it is bio-degradable and can be ‘‘reabsorbed back to nature,’’ said Sung, who came to Vancouver from Ottawa to speak at Hemptown’s presentation.
Although industrial hemp is banned in the U.S., it contains only 0.3 per cent of THC, the psychoactive agent that gives pot smokers a sense of euphoria.
‘‘You would never get a high smoking it,’’ said Sung.
He said the U.S. cultivation ban eliminates American competition and provides Canada with ‘‘a window of opportunity.’’ ‘‘If the U.S. put their minds to do it, they have much bigger manpower,’’ said Sung. ‘‘We may not have a chance. Since they ban it, why not develop our technology? Wait another five years and the ban is lifted. I would prefer to do something right now.’’ Sung has already produced a similar enzyme, xylanase, used to produce a bleached form of wood pulp that saved $500,000 to $1 million in production costs and now accounts for 10 per cent of pulp sales in Canada and five per cent in the U.S.
Sung decided to help Hemptown after reading an article last year that suggested a softer Canadian-made version of hemp was ‘‘a pipe dream.’’ He set about developing a form of hemp that was soft to the touch but still durable enough to withstand heavy machinery.
‘‘Two years ago, I didn’t have any idea what hemp means or looks like,’’ said Sung. ‘‘I didn’t realize it was marijuana. I was totally ignorant.’’ Hemptown now intends to patent ‘the enzymatic process, said Finnis. Hemp fibre that can’t be used for textiles can be used for automobile interior moulding, fibreboard and alternative fuels such as ethanol.
Finnis, 32, was a music student at the University of Victoria 10 years ago when he had ‘‘a bit of an epiphany’’ that hemp could be used in textiles.
He dropped out of UVic and started Hemptown with his fiancee Larisa Harrison with only a $300 investment.
The public company trades on the Over the Counter Bulletin Board in New York under the symbol HPTWF.
By building slowly, said Finnis, Hemptown was able to raise ‘‘well over $1 million’’ before going public last December. Hemp, he said, no longer has the stigma that it once did.
‘‘We get the occasional joke or snicker, but really not much anymore,’’ said Finnis.