Intrigued by the clothing company, Peopleshemp, I interviewed Michael Sutherland, founder, and consultant to the hemp industry, who was kind enough to shed some light on his company, and a few hemp-related things…
AC: Michael, could you tell me a little bit about Green Praxis, which is mentioned on your website?
PH: Green Praxis is our commitment to social and environmental responsibility. The ‘practical axies, or practices and principles’ we use to keep our business ‘in the green.’
AC: So, I noticed that you’ve mountain biked a great deal around Asia. Just wondering — where are you from originally, and where do you live now?
PH: I was born in Wisconsin, and now I spend about 8 months a year in Yunnan Province, Southwest China.
I discovered Yunnan’s fascinating ethnic groups in 1991, exploring the region by mountain bike, and in 1993, when hemp was becoming a buzzword in progressive circles, I decided to go back and learn from these ethnic groups, many of which have been utilizing hemp for generations, for textiles, nutrition, and an integrated part of their organic stewardship of the land.
AC: When was your company launched?
PH: We have been in business since 1993, although at that time we were known as ‘Appropriate Technology International.’
AC: Are you involved in any other businesses, besides Peopleshemp?
PH: Peopleshemp is an American business, registered in California.
We have also, more recently, set up a consulting company within China, which has business rights and privileges in China that Peopleshemp, as a US-based company, does not. Altogether, we offer not just the peopleshemp and urbanhemp range of products, we work with farmers, agriculture and crop improvement, product development, private label production, and strategic development and consulting services for companies based elsewhere. There is no substitute for experience, understanding the business culture, and an extensive professional network, when it comes to getting things done right in China. And the hands-on experience I’ve gained in China is currently not legally possible to obtain in the USA, but it will be very useful when the laws change and we can do everything domestically, from the seed up.
AC: What’s been the most gratifying aspect of Peopleshemp?
PH: Our farmers’ enthusiasm, our customers’ enthusiasm, and the satisfaction provided by the products themselves. Recently, environmental issues have been pushed to the headlines, but the satisfaction this brings is somewhat hollow, because it is essentially crisis which is prompting this, rather than the solutions. But its a start. Personally, I get a lot of ‘juice’ just from doing the right thing, being a solid part of the solution, and producing real, physical wealth – the actual products – in a socially and environmentally positive and responsible way. Also, we have come a long way as an industry, and the hemp industry comprises an incredibly friendly and co-operative community. We are blessed to be a part of it. Oh, and there’s nothing like walking into a tall hemp stand in the heat of August!
AC: What feature(s) inherent in hemp, make it your fabric of choice?
PH: Hemp is naturally ‘green’.
It does not require pesticides or chemical fertilizers, it cleans the air and soil, removing toxins and greenhouse gasses (while ‘exhaling’ pure oxygen), etc. The hemp fiber has a naturally oxygen rich structure, which makes it difficult for anaerobic bacteria (the stinky kind) to exist, so hempen garments stay ‘fresh’, (and require fewer washings). The fabrics are remarkable soft, and naturally hypo-allergenic, so they are preferred by people with sensitive skin. And of course hemp is incredibly durable. Properly cared for, your hemp garments can last a lifetime. (photos, courtesy: peopleshemp, copyrighted)
AC: Where do you see things going, 3-5 years down the road, for the hemp industry as a whole, and Peopleshemp?
PH: The industry will continue to grow at an astounding rate for many years to come, just as it has in the past decade or so. There is plenty of room for growth, and I see no reason that hemp will not surpass and eventually dwarf king cotton, considering hemp’s environmentally friendly nature, superior qualities, and much broader range of uses. While cotton is measured in millions of tons, hemp is still measured in tons, or at most thousands of tons.
Unless a change of Administration leads to a change in federal policy, I think we (the industry and the states) will be in court in 3-5 years, to force the government to recognize the states and individuals rights to permit hemp agriculture. This could be a long, expensive process. Meanwhile, the US will continue to import more and more hemp from China, Canada, and other more practical and enlightened countries.
You will also see incredible new products, such as biodegradable agricultural films, which will help dramatically expand organic food production, and keep tons of plastic out of our croplands. There will be more and more hemp building products, from wood-like furniture, insulation and structural components to entire buildings. We’ll see more hemp in aircraft and automobile interiors, where hemp competes favorably for cost, weight, safety, and environmental impact.
Hemp based plastics will find their way into everyday items currently made from petro-plastics. Cellulosic ethanol, made from hemp’s woody stalks and other non-food agricultural commodities and by-products will take pressure off food (corn) as a source of ethanol, as well as our dependence on conventional petro fuels. Hemp will ‘ooze’ into our lives, built into more and more daily use products. Much of the hemp will be largely invisible to the end consumer, hidden in plain sight, as it currently is in new cars, tea bags, cigarette papers, currencies, (including the Euro), even sausage bindings and soy sauce.
Within our own business, you can expect to see dramatically expanded product lines and lower prices.
We’ll expand on the Urbanhemp label, and introduce new labels catering to different types of people. You’ll see a range of home interior products, including bedding, kitchen and bath towels, etc. And we’ll expand into other product areas as well. Customer input will continue to be a major driving force in shaping our product lines, so please let us know what you want. We are listening. (womens clothing) (men line)
In addition to ‘more hemp’, we also intend to lock in, for the long term, many of the same benefits we create simply by growing and manufacturing with hemp, by planting trees. We are currently researching the most effective tree planting programs and partners, with the goal of being able to plant a tree for every garment we sell online, and will launch such a program on our website soon. While it is a challenge to squeeze the costs of planting a tree (and seeing that it survives and thrives), from the value of a single shirt, dress, or pair of pants, the payoffs are tremendous, and accrue for years and decades. This program will dramatically multiply the bang of our customers’ eco-bucks, and we hope, help us get more people wearing hemp.
AC: Are you still on the board of the Hemp Industries Association (HIA)?
PH: I have just been renominated to serve on the board. The election (open to HIA members) is going on now, and the results will announced at our convention in Canada this summer. Regardless of the results, I will continue to serve on various committees and as an HIA advisor on China, international issues, textiles, and other matters facing the industry.
I would also like to point out the fine efforts by the HIA’s sister organization VoteHemp, which spearheads direct political efforts for reform. The HIA is more focused on the nitty gritty agricultural, industrial and commercial issues which face its several hundred member companies.
AC: What’s the most pressing challenge facing your business and industry today?
PH: U.S. Federal policy. Not being able to grow hemp here in the United States.
Breaking the mainstream media’s silence on the nature and benefits of hemp is perhaps the main hurdle to educating the public and bringing change to federal law in America. The Bush administration and existing laws largely consider industrial hemp the same as marijuana, which is as ridiculous as considering poppy-seed bagels indistinguishable from Heroin.
For years, we’ve all heard about the dietary importance of Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s), omega-3, omega-6, and GLA. We’ve been told fish oil and flax seed oil are the leading sources for these, but we haven’t been told that hemp seed oil is in fact the superior source of these and other crucial nutrients. In fact, the government tried to simply declare that hemp seed oil, rather than the miracle of nutrition that it actually is, must be considered as a schedule 1 narcotic drug: strictly illegal and punishable by stiff prison terms. (hemp.co.uk for more info)
While VoteHemp and the HIA, with generous support of member companies (thank you Dr. Bronner!) was able to sue the DEA and have this struck down in federal court, it took two and a half years and lots of time and money, which could have been much better used developing and distributing hemp products. Furthermore, during the legal ‘limbo’, retailers did not know if the police would raid their stores and close them down for distribution of ‘narcotics’, so they simply stopped stocking them. Almost overnight, the majority of hemp foods companies were out of business, and scores of fantastic products became unavailable. Many companies never re-opened, even though hemp seed and its derivative food products are now protected as legal under federal law.
Apart from the legal landscape, or perhaps more accurately, because of the legal landscape, another big challenge we face as an industry is the fact that investment in research and development, new hemp varieties, processing technologies, and infrastructure have been neglected for decades. Until the laws change in the USA, technological improvement and investment are going to suffer, and economies of scale will remain hard to achieve. For example, there is no reason hemp textiles would not compete dollar for dollar and pound for pound with cotton, were it not for this gap, compounded by the increasing costs of importing hemp from afar.
AC: In the longer-term, what are the best and worst case scenarios for hemp?
PH: In the best case, hemp policy undergoes rapid reversal in the States, and the subsequent flood of activity brings advanced technology and economies of scale, quickly restoring hemp to its natural position as the worlds premiere food and fiber crop. This will not be the magic bullet to put to rest all of humanity’s woes, but it will go a long way as part of the solution, and it will be a major watershed event in turning the tide of unsustainable policies, resources, and consumption.
In the worst case scenario, US policy and consumer behavior remains essentially unchanged, and society crashes headlong into global environmental and social crises, changing life as we know it. It may sound extreme to suggest that following unsustainable paths could lead to primitive dependence on hemp for food and clothing. But this is exactly what happened in China less than half a century ago, and it could happen again, even in the US. The point being, regardless of the cause of the crisis, in hard enough times, individuals will fall back to planting hemp to provide the most basic needs – food and clothing – for themselves and their families. There are millions of people alive today that can attest to this, from first hand experience, including many in war torn areas today.
AC: What’s the consumer response to hemp been over the past few years?
PH: Better and Better. People still ask if they can smoke their hemp shirt, but we have an incredible repeat customer base, and strong word of mouth marketing.
Our market is slowly but surely expanding from the ‘eco-progressive’ crowd to the mainstream. Not only are mainstream consumers becoming increasingly aware and concerned about the impacts of their shopping choices, more people are buying hemp products simply because they are better and cheaper than the other options, without any conscious thought of the environment or the people who made it. One doesn’t have to sacrifice to buy hemp, and we are increasingly able to deliver high quality hemp products at mainstream prices. Selling clothes online, especially to first time buyers, remains a challenge, but once they buy, they come back. And if people can feel the fabrics, and try the garments on for look and fit, hemp is an easy sell. Life may be a bowl of cereal, but as Mikey showed us, and our customers demonstrate, if you ‘try it, you’ll like it’.
AC: What’s your favorite thing to do, when you’re not working?
PH: Hmmm… More work, sleeping, eating, and getting ready for work. It often seems that’s all I do, but I love it. Actually, I have a strong sense of curiosity and interest in many areas, including ethnic cultures, advances in science and technology, music etc. I’m spellbound by the wonders of the night sky, cosmology, and the nature of awareness itself. I read a lot, but have no TV, and am cinematically impaired, or challenged, at best. (I still haven’t seen Al Gore’s ‘Inconvenient Truth’, and I’m holding out to see ‘The Return of the King’ on a big screen. Keifer Who? ;-) )
For balance, vision, and to tie everything together, I practice yoga and meditation. And yes, I still love to ride my bike!
AC: Thank you for your time, Michael!
PH: My pleasure, Maureen :-)