Few brands know sustainability like Patagonia. Naturally, the American outfitter is encouraged by the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill, and its implications for the availability of industrial hemp in the United States. 

Patagonia recently partnered with Little Village Films to produce Misunderstood: A Brief History of Hemp in the US. The film deals with the history of hemp, its myriad uses in everyday products, and common misconceptions. Multiple growers and activists were interviewed and featured, including author and former vice-presidential candidate Winona LaDuke.

A Family of Plants

The first and most pressing insight for the world right now is that the hemp we’re talking about is the industrial commodity that has thousands of universally practical uses. It is not the plant that makes marijuana. 

Industrial hemp is only one strain of cannabis sativa, while marijuana comes from another. Both plants contain many chemical compounds called cannabinoids. Strains of cannabis sativa known as marijuana contain on average 5-25% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in producing a “high” when it’s consumed.

Hemp in the United States, by definition, contains less than 0.3% THC. So you can think of these plants as cousins of the same family. They have plenty of genes in common, but are definitely not the same person.

So. Many. Uses.

Probably the top use of hemp today is the extraction of the cannabinoid called cannabidiol (CBD), which is widely regarded by consumers for its therapeutic effects. CBD is consumed in many ways, but the FDA is in charge of regulating it, and is taking its time in doing so.

But hemp is also used in earth-friendly plastics, fiberboard, concrete, insulation, carpeting, and most importantly to fans of companies like Patagonia, excellent clothing. 

Growing Sustainability

A grower can find plenty more to like. Hemp’s return to clothing and other textiles has led naturally to the question of whether hemp can and should replace cotton. When considering hemp’s ability to grow with fewer pesticides, its better strength and other factors, the answer is increasingly yes. 

Hemp can be harvested just 3-4 months from planting, and actually shows positive effects on soil, rather than depleting its nutrients. This allows more land to be kept in circulation, instantly raising the value of any planting operation.

Throw in hemp’s ability to better provide oxygen and recycle carbon dioxide, and you have a very attractive plant. 

History Lesson

If hemp is so useful, why has it been out of favor in the United States for so long? After all, hemp was the textile fiber of choice of colonial times, with clothing and even the sails of ships coming primarily from hemp. Some colonies required their people to grow hemp, and allowed its use as currency to pay taxes.

American automobile pioneer Henry Ford is said to have envisioned an economy based primarily on agricultural materials and fuels, where growers would hold industrial and political sway in America’s prosperous future. He even designed a hemp plastic-based car to combat the shortage of metal during World War II. 

It’s clear that whatever hemp’s potential benefits, eventually the industrialists dealing in metal and fossil fuels won the political battles of the early 20th century. Hemp, meanwhile, was lumped with the rest of cannabis into the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, and likewise was outlawed completely by the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. 

The film Reefer Madness didn’t help, either.

Today, though, an uncommon thing is happening. An issue is being passionately advanced by both sides of Washington D.C.’s political aisle. Much of the legislation that removed industrial hemp from the Schedule 1 list of controlled substances was part of a bill introduced by Senators Mitch McConnell, Ron Wyden, and Jeff Merkley. That work became the crucial element of the 2018 Farm Bill. It’s great to find something we can agree on.

A Call to Action

Patagonia’s marketing is almost as impressive as its commitment to social responsibility, but the message here is powerful. In many respects, hemp is the way forward, even as it feels like a return to the past. The more we embrace this remarkable plant, the better off we’ll be, now and for generations to come.