ARCHIVED - Homegrown solution goes global

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March 08, 2008— Ottawa, Ontario

When Jason Finnis launched his eco-textile company in the 1990s, he heard a lot of jokes about products made with natural fibres like hemp. "People said I must be smoking what I'm selling – who would want to buy clothes made of hemp?" he says.

Raw hemp stalk
Raw hemp stalk

Today, 13 years later, consumer demand has caught up, and Finnis' company Naturally Advanced Technologies (NAT) provides environmentally friendly clothing to clients such as Google, Starbucks and Costco through its wholly owned subsidiary HTnaturals. "Sustainability is a global megatrend – everything from cars to food to cosmetics is becoming greener," says Finnis.

The company is banking on that demand as it prepares to enter the $150 billion global market for apparel and upholstery textiles with Canadian-grown hemp that offers an environmentally friendly alternative to organic cotton. "Organic cotton is a step in the right direction, but it still requires an enormous amount of water to grow," says Finnis. "Hemp is higher yielding and can be transformed into high-value textile fibre that we expect will be stronger, more comfortable and better for the planet."

Chopped hemp strand
Chopped hemp strand

Central to NAT's plan is a groundbreaking technology invented by Dr. Wing Sung of the NRC Institute for Biological Sciences. Dr. Sung, an expert in the use of enzymes for industrial processes, has developed a biotech enzyme process that turns straw-like hemp into soft fluffy fibres in a matter of hours.

"NRC has made it possible for us to look seriously at commercializing this technology, which offers Canadian farmers a high-value cash crop to add to their rotation," says Finnis.

Hemp after processing with the biotech enzyme technology developed by NRC.
Hemp after processing with the biotech enzyme technology developed by NRC.

The technology allows NAT to overcome one of the biggest challenges of processing hemp – turning the tough fibre into yarn. The process developed by Dr. Sung uses enzymes, which are proteins produced in the cells of all living organisms, to separate the fibres. In contrast, the processing technologies used in China and Eastern Europe, where most of the hemp sold in North America is currently grown, use chemicals that are harmful to the environment.

Not only is the NRC process greener, it also produces a more desirable fabric. "The early hemp clothes had what I call an 'exfoliating' effect," says Finnis. "You had to be a really hard core environmentalist to wear them." Early independent tests are showing that hemp processed with NRC's technology is comparable to cotton in softness and brightness, and is expected to outperform cotton in terms of durability.

The high points of hemp

Although industrial hemp belongs to the same species as marijuana, Cannabis sativa, it has been modified for long fibres and fast growth, and contains almost no THC – the substance in marijuana that creates a hallucinogenic effect.

As a crop, hemp offers many environmental advantages over cotton. It can be grown without pesticides or herbicides, and uses far less water to produce and process. According to the World Wildlife Fund, up to 29,000 litres of water are required for every 1 kilogram of cotton produced. "All that hemp needs is rainfall," says Jason Finnis, president of Vancouver-based Naturally Advanced Technologies.

What's more, hemp is a "carbon sink," which means that it absorbs huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. It also grows well in Canada's cool climate, unlike most textile crops. "For the first time, we'll be able to have a 'dirt to shirt' apparel industry in Canada," says Finnis.

The partnership with NRC began after Dr. Sung read a news article about Finnis and was impressed by the entrepreneur's faith in hemp as an eco-friendly fabric, despite common wisdom that hemp clothing was just a "pipe dream." Dr. Sung also saw hemp as an opportunity to provide a badly needed cash crop for Canadian farmers. "Canada can grow hemp in every province," he says.

But Dr. Sung knew that processing technologies hadn't yet advanced far enough for hemp to be commercially viable. As the NRC researcher behind four generations of enzyme processes for the pulp and paper industry, he had the background to take the enzyme technology to the next level. After reading the news article, he contacted the company. "I wrote to tell them that it's not a pipe dream, we're going to do it."

The result was a four-year partnership that has helped to place NAT on the verge of carving out a global niche in sustainable fabrics. The company recently purchased the exclusive global rights to the NRC technology platform, which it has registered under the name CRAILAR®. The technology will be commercialized at a new 80-acre production facility being built in Craik, Saskatchewan. "We're going to use CRAILAR® to develop hemp products such as apparel, upholstery, carpet backing – anything that would traditionally require spun cotton yarn," says Finnis.

NAT plans to have a sample product to show its big-name clients by mid-2008. "We've come a long way from my early days of selling hemp t-shirts at folk festivals," says Finnis. "When large, multinational companies are knocking on your door, the opportunity to become a global success is very real."

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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