Hemp & Company was started in 1999 by two young men, one of them being my son, here in Victoria, BC. They was a lot action even then in the hemp industries. What they realized was that there wasn’t really a retail outlet. So they banded together with a couple of guys who were making hemp clothing who were going to supply the product.
I was living in the Kootenays at the time and loved the idea and actually opened a store in my little town before they had their first store open. The first Hemp & Company store was in New Denver, BC and within the week they had opened their first store. So that was 17 years ago and fast forward to today where I eventually moved to Victoria. Neither of the other partners are part of the company anymore and my wife Lorna and I are now the prime partners in Hemp & Co.
What were the initial goals and foundational values of Hemp and Company?
I think I can in the sense say that I believe that my son Mike and his business partner Kelly, couple of young guys in their 30’s, had goals that were different than mine. They had a bit more of a practical business model. And the difference being that me, being much older and living in the Kootenays, saw this as an opportunity to expand upon my needs to fulfill my environmental desires. I have been an environmentalist —I guess all my life— and have always been attracted to nature. Living in the Kootenays where I did, there were lots of protests that I took part in, primarily against logging in places that I and many others didn’t feel were appropriate. But I always felt rather frustrated that it was a protest. It was important work but was perceived negatively by many people. I saw this business as an opportunity to do a proactive project by having people change their clothing habits to natural items as opposed to oil-based nylons, etc. I strongly feel that it’s an environmental reason.
Was it the environmental drive that initially attracted you to the industry?
Absolutely. I wasn’t particularly interested in the clothing —I was relatively young and had retired early. I had money and time on my hands and thought this is quite exciting and a great chance to work with my son in an environmental field. So that’s why I got involved and am it is why I am still here this many years later.
What was the natural clothing world like when H&C began? And the hemp industry?
Back that era, the early 2000s, I would say it was still a pretty niche market. There weren’t a lot of natural fibres that companies were working with. I say nature fibres are basically ones that farmers touch —hemp, of course, and cotton, silk, and wool. Now in the intervening years, there have been a lot of issues around cotton, which is natural but because it uses so many chemicals there is a great environment detriment. Nowadays there is a lot more organic cotton being grown. At H&C we make a choice to use organic cotton for that reason. Probably the biggest factor [in the shift to natural fibres] was when the rayon fabric from bamboo was developed. Then all of a sudden you had a really textural fabric that young designers, who wanted to be more environmental, were starting to focus on. They say, “Wow, I can be green with a fabric that is relatively easy to find.” So they are moving towards that and away from polyesters. Unfortunately those textiles [polyester and nylon] are still out in the world with huge environmental problems attached to them.
Hemp is utilized by many but is still less utilized for possibly two reasons: one, it is slightly more expensive and two, the word ‘hemp’ for some people is off-putting. Because their minds go to other places with that word this has probably held back the hemp clothing production more than anything. But so much has changed within the last few years in such a positive way.
How has the hemp industry evolved and what is it like now?
Well, I would say it has remained relatively constant but the difference between every fabric on the planet and hemp is that there are still restrictions with hemp. Especially in the United States of America where farmers are not allowed to grow hemp because the original banning of hemp in the 1930’s came under the Marijuana Tax Law. It’s not marijuana but they bundled it together with it. Unlike, bamboo, cotton, silk, or wool there are restrictions right at the farming stage. Therefore there is less production made. That being said, Canada —which also had the same law as the US until 1994— is allowed to grow industrial hemp. That’s the varietal of the plant that can be used for food and clothing and other purposes. Not marijuana or medical marijuana, nothing to do with that. However in Canada, we are not a country that is focused on textiles. We don’t have textile mills that can turn that raw product out of the field into a bolt of fabric. But in the US, which has that technology —particularly in the south with cotton mills— they don’t have access to that raw product because their government won’t let them grow hemp. In that mix, the US had the growing of hemp banned within “the free world” —i.e. none communist countries. But the communist countries continued to grow hemp. In particular China, which for at least 8,000 years, has grown and utilized the hemp plant for textiles and paper —they actually invented paper 2,000 years ago and one of the mediums was hemp. They never stopped doing it and were never under the influence of the US. So they are, by far, the largest and best producers of hemp textile in the world. I would say this is why there is so little hemp production here and in the US along with the bad press of how it was banned under the ‘Marijuana Tax Law’. And there is still consumer resistance to that word. Or on the other side, it has also helped sell it to a certain clientele who is for hemp and therefore wants to support it. The general public doesn’t have the same impressions about bamboo or cotton. We say either ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it’ but we don’t think that it’s a drug or that my kid is going to get stoned. I cannot tell you how many times myself or my staff has heard, “Oh, can I smoke the shirt?” It is the endemic joke!
Now with the evolution in the hemp industry, have the changes of laws within the US impacted the industry?
The big changes that have been going on in the US are honestly with medical marijuana and just marijuana. But there is a big movement in the US from the farmers, industrialist, and entrepreneurs who want to do something with hemp —not just the drug side of it. But it’s not there yet. They have a different legal system than in Canada. Where here it’s a federal law where, boom, all or a sudden you could grow hemp —with a licence from the government and a criminal check. In the US it is grown under state law with an overriding federal law [where it is still illegal]. Here in Canada in 2017 you are going to be under eyeballs! More than for anything else you could grow. I could start a grape farm right now and start producing alcohol without much governmental restriction but I can’t grow hemp without going through a large bureaucratic process, similar to the legal process of becoming an organic farmer. Many farmers don’t want to grow hemp because of the paper work.
In Canada today we have seen companies using hemp within the last few years. Effort’s out of Toronto has been around longer than H&C making hemp clothing. We sell their clothing here at H&C. Nomads Hemp Wear, in British Columbia [we also sell] but when we look at their catalogue 80% of it now is bamboo. So even though they are Nomads “Hemp Wear” only 20% of their actual line is made of hemp textiles. Respecterre in Quebec is only natural fibres —hemp being one of those textiles and then H&C. I don’t believe that there any really big players. It is still there and there are some new people coming on. My guess is that as soon as the US fully allows [hemp] into their country things are going to change dramatically. More product will be made and much closer the North American customer and we won’t have to import from China —which is full of transportation costs. It is going to be long while. I am very upset that no-one in Canada created a textile mill. I have gone on record many times and I will say it again, that I want to buy the first bolt of Canadian hemp textile. And that would be full circle to have the hemp grown in Canada, the textiles and the clothing made in Canada. That would be my dream!
I would say that the natural fibre clothing movement is for sure growing. The specific hemp clothing movement is more glacial – growing but not as quickly.
How has Hemp & Company evolved over the years?
Thanks for asking that. Right at the very beginning when my son and Kelly started the company they tied in with a couple of guys who were manufacturing hemp clothing in Vancouver. And within six months of our start-up of Hemp & Company those guys bailed. Then we were faced with a problem: We started a store based on an assumption that we would be able to source our clothing from this one manufacturer. So then my son took on the role of production. And so we had to start manufacturing our own clothing from the beginning. Fortunately the other guys gave us their contacts for the pattern makers, the sewing places, dyeing facilities, and where to source the fabrics. So we became not only retailers but manufactures. That has been our model for the whole 17 years. Since five years ago my son and Kelly are no longer involved in the business and now Lorna has taken on the manufacturing duties. She and I started then to realize how big of a job that is —the design work and so many things from choosing buttons, labels, and threads to colours. And I have to say Lorna is brilliant at colours! It’s a huge skill that she has. We met some lovely designers on Vancouver Island creating the new designs that we have now. And we were realizing that it’s a different business then being a retail store. So then we set up a second corporation called It’s Only Natural —the acronym iON. The main customer of iON is Hemp & Company. We felt that we wouldn’t be restricted to just doing H & C that we can do other things and can expand our line to wholesale. And we can wholesale the Hemp & Company brand and make clothing for other brands and put their branding on them. It’s a very common thing that happens in the clothing industry.
So let’s talk about the big changes happening to the brand!
So the exciting change is that for everything I have talked about here there is a sense that we have always had but are noticing more and more that Hemp & Company has morphed into a clothing store that not only sells hemp fibres but we also have many none hemp natural fibres. So we are realizing that we are not just a hemp clothing store. And that by calling ourselves Hemp & Company the message to somebody walking by and looking in the window is that we only have hemp. In the beginning it was, but now we have a variety of natural fibres. And also because of the stigma attached to the word hemp we know that we have lost a certain customer who won’t even come in the store because they don’t associate well with that word. And so we have decided that in the next few months we are going to rebrand the store as It’s Only Natural featuring the Hemp & Company brand. We won’t lose the Hemp & Company good name so the customers who love Hemp & Company will still be able to find the same selection of hemp articles. Now it will put out the more correct message that we are natural fibre clothing store and not just a hemp clothing store. It’s a more true vision of who we have become within the last ten years. We are very excited about it!
We will not lose our values of what it means to be natural. We will continue to sell naturally sourced materials.
What does It’s Only Natural and Hemp & Company mean to you today? And what are the current core values of the brand?
My personal focus —a large part of the corporation’s values— is that none-natural clothing can do a lot of environmental damage. And we don’t like damaging our Earth. I have always tried to do whatever I can in whichever form I can to minimize my personal damage. And one way that I can help is to present products to others to wear and feel good about knowing that they are sourced from natural fibres.
The problem with the other textiles in that they are primarily made from oil. We are mining oil to create plastics. With all the problems around mining, pipelines, and everything else is that we are not just using it heat our homes and drive our cars, but we are making clothing and plastic bags. There are alternatives for natural clothing and plastic bags. Plastic bags should be phased out in and replaced with a compostable agricultural product to make plastic. The problem with those oil-based plastics is that when they breakdown they breakdown into micro-sized chips of plastic that eventually head to the oceans. And when we talk about those large islands of plastic the size of Texas floating out in the Pacific we are not talking about plastic bags —like whole plastic bags— but we are talking about these zillions of micro plastic particles floating in the ocean and killing all kinds of sea life from birds and fish to mammals. It’s an environmental degradation that we do not need to have because we have the alternatives. And the alternatives are natural fibres.
After food, clothes are the next most purchased item. Everyone has to eat and everyone has to wear clothing. And of course up until the invention of these oil-based products in the last century all clothing was natural. Now [oil-based textiles] are the main thing. So my hope is that every clothing store will be carrying natural clothing.
I just finished reading Elon Musk’s biography. He is a brilliant man. I just finished the book this morning actually. And whether you agree with him or not he has a vision. A vision that he has held since he was a child. He is making electric cars —ie. the Tesla— and is involved in creating solar energy because he has this sort of feeling or philosophy inside him that we are kind of killing the planet but we don’t have to. We can live a good life but we don’t need to ruin the planet to get that good life. And his whole space program is his larger vision that in case we screw up the planet we should be colonizing Mars because it is the closest so that we have an alternative for everybody. We may or may not agree with that, but my point of the story is that I think it’s a focus that he has that I share in my business. It is not the clothing, it is the environmental aspect. And clothing is a huge part of what people utilize. So if we can change what they are wearing I think it is good for the health of [the individual] and for the health of the planet.
What would you tell the average consumer looking to switch to natural fibres? What should they be looking for and what could be the first step they can take to make the switch?
Well the first step is education. And the reason they are looking for something is that something has educated them around it. I always like to liken it to organic food. We all have to eat and organic food is healthier because it is not laden with chemicals. The same is true with clothing. Your skin is your largest organ. And clothing, here in Canada, in the winter is covering 85% of our bodies. So we are up against fabric all the time and it is maybe not as direct as eating an apple that has been sprayed with a lot of chemicals, but if there are chemicals on your clothing I am sure some of those are getting into your bloodstream through your skin. So one of the best things you can do is wear natural clothing.
Education is the first thing. It is always slow and always takes time. I would say that once that determination is made that you want to switch your wardrobe over, do it slowly. We don’t all have tons of money to throw everything away and start fresh. But we can start making decisions based with that aspect in mind. One of the beauties of our modern times —compared to 1999— is that there is way more variety of beautiful clothing that is natural. Many people still say to me that hemp clothing is like old sacks. Well the fabrics that we use are not old sack hemp fabrics. They are beautiful fabrics, the designs are lovely, and so there is nothing to fear that you are not going to find something that looks nice. Source it out! And if you have a favourite store that you like, talk to them about carrying more natural fibres in their store. We as business people are always wondering what is going on in our customer’s minds and we always like feedback. So talk to your store owner or store manager and say, “Hey, I really like your stuff but can I get that in a natural fibre?” And slowly but surely it will happen. To be honest, Walmart is the largest user of organic cotton in the world. That tells me a few things. They are so enormous that even Walmart is seeing that a changeover is coming!
Search out the items, look at the labels, and make the decisions.
When can we expect to see the changes unfold with It’s Only Natural and Hemp & Company?
We always say “every day is Earth Day”, but our culture does celebrate that concept more in April. So April will be our transition with the Grand Opening set for Earth Day which is April 22.