The argument for hemp-based clothing is varied and robust. Most proponents are quick to point out that hemp fabric is UV protective, that it naturally resists odors, that it outlasts cotton and can stop the spread of harmful surface bacteria like staph (and should probably be worn by every hospital patient, doctor and nurse in the country), and that the plant used to make the fabric grows without the need for pesticides, requires about half the water as conventional cotton and absorbs more carbon dioxide than any other crop known to man. All true.
But Robert Jungmann, founder of the L.A.-based hemp clothing company Jungmaven, is not like most proponents. “You can tell everyone in the world this stuff,” he said. “But if a hemp shirt doesn’t make you feel good, if it doesn’t make you look good, people don’t care. That’s what it boils down to, and there’s a simplicity to that.” And it’s that simplicity, which Jungmaven, a sustainable brand that focuses its offerings on basic, well-fitting tee-shirts, champions above all else.
“If a hemp shirt doesn’t make you feel good, if it doesn’t make you look good, people don’t care. That’s what it boils down to.”
Jungmann, now in his mid-40s, has decades of experience with industrial hemp. He is the founder and former owner of the outdoor clothing company Manastash, and started Jungmaven back in the early 2000s. His interest in hemp began when he was in a junior in college. “I had a professor who told me that we could stop cutting down the rainforests in Washington if we cultivated industrial hemp,” Jungmann said. “That was my aha! moment. At that time, I thought you could only smoke it.”
The problem is that industrial hemp was, and still is, illegal in the eyes of the United States federal government. The Controlled Substances Act, passed in 1970, ignores the distinction between industrial hemp and recreational marijuana — an oversight that has made the plant illegal to grow on American soil without a federal permit for nearly 50 years. The irony of the law is that not all strains of cannabis, especially the kind used for industrial purposes, can get you high.
The Canadian government, which made industrial hemp legal back in 1998, maintains that only varieties of cannabis that contain less than 0.3% delta-nine tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive component in marijuana, may be grown for industrial hemp purposes; there are currently 45 different varieties of industrial hemp on Health Canada’s list of approved cultivars. Meanwhile, it is common for recreational and medicinal marijuana sold at US state-sanctioned dispensaries to have THC levels ranging from 15 to 30 percent, while concentrates, such as hash oil or wax, can skyrocket upwards of 90 percent.
Zev Paiss, the executive director of the National Hemp Association, based in Boulder, Colorado, considers much of his job as educating people about the differences between the cannabis grown for industrial purposes and that grown for recreational or medicinal purposes. “I think the vast majority of people do not know the differences,” Paiss said. “There’s a state level, and a federal level. A lot of the murkiness has to do with the fact that it’s not legal at the federal level.”
Today, many individual states choose to follow their own laws related to industrial hemp. 28 states now allow for the cultivation of hemp for research and commercial purposes on conditional bases. Colorado, for example, has its own industrial hemp commission to register and regulate commercial farmers. Last year, a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2015, which, if passed, will remove hemp cultivars with less than 0.3 percent THC from the list of DEA-controlled substances. But even if that does happen, Paiss said, most industries interested in hemp products (housing, food, oil, textile) lack the infrastructure needed to process hemp plants into usable material. “Farmers can grow it, but there’s still no clear processing available to take it down the supply chain. Textiles require the most complicated and intensive processing. It’s going to be a while before we have domestic fibers that can be woven into high-quality, mass-produced clothing.”
“My goal for 2020 is, when you hear tee-shirt, you think hemp.”
For someone like Jungmann, who claims to have “sold or given away approximately 1.5 million hemp products,” that means sourcing fabric and ready-made shirts from places with an uninterrupted history of industrial hemp — like China. “I’ve been doing it with my guys there since ’97,” Jungmann said. “We meet about twice a year, I’ll tell them what I’m looking for. It takes about 90 days for the fabric to arrive in L.A.” From there, the shirts are distributed among several dye houses and colored according to Jungmann’s seasonal preferences. “Our line isn’t that complicated. We only bring about three new styles or colors every season.”
Most of the shirts sold by Jungmaven are a blend of hemp and organic cotton. “The cotton does give the shirt some body,” said Jungmann, who, last year, also introduced a line of 100-percent hemp t-shirts. “It’s a tough sell,” he said. “I mean, it’s an $80 t-shirt. [100-percent hemp] is a super expensive fabric and incredibly challenging to work with; it has more imperfections. The shirt is not as soft, but when it’s clean, it’s the first thing out of my closet. It feels like raw silk meets body armor. The only way I can describe it is like being out in the sun all day and then putting a shirt on. Your body just electrifies to it.”
In 2010, Jungmann launched his Hemp 2020 campaign, with the slogan “Everyone in a Hemp Tee by 2020.” “I’m not saying I’m going to put everyone in a hemp t-shirt,” he said. “But before we talk about locally grown hemp, there needs to be a shift from the consumer. My goal for 2020 is, when you hear ‘tee-shirt,’ you think hemp.” For that to happen, he adds, you need a comfortable, good-looking shirt that people actually want to wear. Maybe one like his.