Hemp clothes ----- smoking!

Cannabis clothing is all the rage in eco-fashion, and would you believe, the cool fabric comes from China

By Ron Gluckman / Dongping, China

AMERICAN ACTOR WOODY HARRELSON wears it. Fashion mogul Georgio Armani flogs it. Tens of millions smoke a derivative, while scores of Internet sites and groups argue its merits. Hemp is back in fashion -- and much of it is coming from tiny Dongping in China, where most folk have no idea their product is causing ructions half a world away.

It all started when Western investors spent $12 million to refit a Dongping textile plant. Since the factory reopened in January, the working-class hamlet in Shandong province has won global notoriety as the planet's leading supplier of hemp, a cousin of the illegal marijuana plant and the trendiest weed since tobacco.

Estimates of the world hemp market range from $50-$150 million a year. That is a pittance compared with the billions that go up in smoke every year in pipes. But no one can dispute that hemp is happening. Trade has grown at least ten-fold since 1990, and advocates believe the market has barely been tapped.

In the face of opposition by politicians who fear booming production will fuel the supply of illegal drugs, entrepreneurs in China, Europe and the U.S. are pushing hemp as an ideal raw material for a wide variety of manufactured goods. Proponents cite it as a fast-growing, high-quality source of paper products that could offset ravenous demand for the world's dwindling timber supplies. An Australian firm, Wavelite Express, uses hemp as a substitute for fiberglass in surfboards. Adidas has experimented with hemp shoes. German and British companies make hemp candy, beer and energy bars. Even hemp-seed oil is used for lubrication, cooking and cosmetics. In five years, says hemp advocate Michael Rich, the industry could be worth $1 billion.

That would be a big payoff for China, far and away the leading producer even after a drastic drop in hemp production in recent decades. Hemp, and the cellulose that comes from its fibrous stalk, has been in wide use for centuries and was once a common component in thousands of products, from dynamite to cellophane. But the last 50 years brought the rise of synthetic alternatives. That, plus the backlash from anti-marijuana campaigns, has snuffed out meaningful cash crop cultivation in most of the world. China's annual hemp production topped 100,000 tons in 1980, but fell to less than one-tenth that over the following 10 years. Aside from use as clothing and bags by ethnic tribes in places like Yunnan province and Xinjiang region, China mainly relegated hemp to such low-end uses as pipe insulation and livestock feed bags.

Nowadays, hemp is being revived by environmental activists -- they appreciate its ability to thrive with little water or fertilizer -- and the fashionmeisters, many of whom tout it as better than cotton. "Hemp is a marvelous material," says a spokesman for Armani. "It's cool in the summer and warm in winter." The only problem: limited supplies of sufficient quality.

That may be changing. "Traditionally, hemp has been considered a rough material, the kind of thing you would only use in backpacks or for hippie shorts," says Douglas Mignola, owner of Amsterdam's Hempworks, one of Europe's biggest hemp apparel makers. "China changed all that and revolutionized the industry."

The key is a patented process, developed by Chinese scientists more than a decade ago, that uses a variety of washes and acid treatments to produce a cloth as soft as cotton but with five times the strength. The procedure might have gone nowhere were it not for Rich. Working in Amsterdam to help expand the market for hemp oil, the American was surfing the Internet when he came upon a citation for Chinese scientists who won an award for textile innovation.

Rich set about commercializing his find. Using his Amsterdam-based Naturetex International as a vehicle, he formed a joint venture with mainland partners. They converted an underused cotton factory into the Dongping Hemp Mill. It employs over 2,000 and can churn out five million square meters of hemp fabric a year.

When the mill reopened in January, Dongping citizens held a parade and stretched banners across streets. "Welcome to our partners in cannabis production," stated one. And therein lies the crux of the hempsters' PR problem: It is hard to convince the anti-drug forces that hemp really is harmless because it contains minute traces of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the substance that gets people high.

"Everyone asks the question," says Mignola. "No, you cannot smoke hemp clothes." Yet, even minute traces are enough to make hemp cultivation illegal throughout much of the world. Says a frustrated Rich: "We don't mix dope and rope. It's about business. It's not about politics or marijuana. It's about money." He gets no argument from the Dongping mill's gainfully employed workers. Many can be seen sporting their hemp wear like a badge of honor. That's a trend that Rich hopes will spread like a weed.

Ron Gluckman is an American journalist who is based in Hong Kong, but travels widely in China for a wide variety of publications, including Asiaweek, which ran this story in mid-1997. For a sampling of his other reports from China, please click on McChina; the Americanization of China, Shanghai Jews, , Shrapnal and Sand, wine country, and China's Wild West.

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