Biggest American Hemp Company Readies for a Local Hemp Market
Despite the long-standing ban on industrial hemp cultivation in the United States, Hemp Traders has established itself as the largest hemp textile supplier in America.
The Los Angeles-based company offers clothing and rope, hemp seeds and oil, body care products, fiberboard for construction, and a lot more.
Hemp Traders grew from humble beginnings in the early 1990s, a time when not only was industrial hemp illegal in the United States, it was virtually unheard of.
“When I decided to start [Hemp Traders], I could not find anyone, anywhere, selling anything made of hemp,” said Hemp Traders CEO Lawrence Serbin. “One morning, it just hit me like a ton of bricks. We can make fabric, we can make rope, we can make oils. The only reason we haven’t done this is because it’s illegal in the United States.”
Hemp is one of the strongest fibers in nature, and produces more biomass per acre than its more ubiquitous peers: cotton or linen, which is derived from flax. In addition, hemp is known for its antimicrobial properties and absorbent, durable nature. These properties make it an extremely versatile fiber for products ranging from rope to upholstery to bedding and apparel.
Serbin’s interest in industrial hemp was piqued after reading Jack Herer’s renowned cannabis anthology, "The Emperor Wears No Clothes," which details the history of - and various uses for - industrial hemp. Soon after, Serbin sought out and became a member of The Business Alliance of Commerce in Hemp (BACH), a small, California-based group advocating for hemp-reliant business.
“I was looking for business people,” Serbin said. “I was never really a hippie, I was never really counter-culture. But I saw an opportunity.”
In 1992, Serbin became BACH’s leader. By the end of that year, he was taking steps toward launching Hemp Traders as a viable business.
Using his connections at BACH, Serbin sought out and met with industrial hemp farmers in China, a country known for its cotton and linen fabric industry infrastructure. At the beginning of 1993, Serbin registered Hemp Traders and placed his first order for hemp fabric.
“It was very difficult at first,” Serbin said. “At that point, most people weren’t really aware of hemp. But we managed to hang in there.”
Serbin cites price and cost as the largest obstacles to the success of Hemp Traders. “Hemp is a new old crop,” he said. “It’s the oldest and most versatile crop around, but not many countries cultivate it because of illegality.”
Because of its scarcity, hemp fibers are still high in cost in comparison to cotton, flax and synthetic fabrics.
Serbin and the Hemp Traders team eventually diversified, sourcing hemp from countries including India, Indonesia and Romania, and learning how to dye hemp fabric in-house. While many of Hemp Traders’ early competitors went out of business, the company continued to grow and expand with the help of advances in textile production and increasing awareness of industrial hemp.
Serbin asserted that Hemp Traders is the largest hemp fabric company in the United States, although he declined to provide statistics for annual revenue.
Today, Hemp Traders sells most of their product to two discrete groups: Individuals who are environmentally conscious and are willing to pay more for hemp over other fabrics; and wholesalers in four main industries.
Apparel and accessories have been staples to the Hemp Traders brand since its inception, and the company also has seen rapid growth along another two avenues.
“Retailers are now aware that hemp works really, really well for home applications like upholstery and window coverings,” Serbin said. “And, because of its antimicrobial and absorbent capabilities, hemp fabric is perfect for reusable diapers. We can barely keep them in stock.”
Despite his company's success, Serbin said that industrial hemp fabric production within United States is still in the future. Despite the 2013 legalization of hemp and cannabis in Colorado and Washington, and pending legislation in a number of other states, the infrastructure for a hemp fabrics industry does not yet exist, and may not exist for years.
“New legislation will provide a lot more opportunity for innovation and new national business,” Serbin said. “But if you’re going to grow hemp, you have to have a buyer. And if you’re a grower in Colorado or Washington, the first market is going to be for the seed.”
Serbin sees America's industrial hemp movement developing in three phases; hemp seed sales first, followed by hemp fiber production, and eventually textile production. Because it is still illegal to import viable hemp seeds, Serbin said that in order to establish and grow an industrial hemp economy, farmers need access to quality seeds.
“Here in the United States, the first farmers who can grow viable hemp will be able to - and should - sell those seeds,” Serbin said. “Start with the seed.”