The New Hemp Hound™ Sweater: A Sustainability Move?
Hemp in the outdoor apparel marketplace these days has a compelling sustainability narrative around it. Well-known brands are ramping up the use of this undeniably cool fiber. I’m often asked if the new Hemp Hound™ Sweater was a “sustainability” move. And, to answer, I’ll defer to the longtime favorite Facebook relationship status – “it’s complicated.”
This product idea originated from taking a look at our longtime fan-favorite, the Fernie™ Jacket. It had been on the market (and a style a lot of folks love) for a while, and we saw an opportunity to keep improving.
So, while we set out to redesign it to boost its durability and improve its olfactory performance, it ultimately became a completely new style.
Back in 2020, we were early on in the design phase, and the designers identified hemp fibers as something worth investigating. We were also just starting to use the Higg Product Tools to inject some objective sustainability data into our product design conversations.
The Higg Product Tools and the dataset behind them provide industry-supplied data to inform sustainability decision making. While the tools are by no means perfect, they’re a useful resource for brands like us that are at a stage in their sustainability journey where learning and improving is the goal.
One of those tools, the Higg Material Sustainability Index (MSI), helped us explore three potential fabric alternatives to the Fernie™ (bluesign® approved 100% polyester) that would help us achieve our goals for this particular new sweater:
- 100% Recycled polyester
- Hemp/cotton blend
- Hemp/polyester blend
The Higg MSI tool provided insight on each fabric’s impact on the environment in these categories: global warming, eutrophication (water pollution in the form of algae growth from an oversupply of nutrients), water scarcity, resource depletion/fossil fuels, and chemistry. Check out the HIGG glossary if you’re interested in learning more about these terms.
This chart depicts our initial investigation into potential fabric alternatives to the 100% Polyester sweater fleece of the Fernie™ Jacket. Bars above represent the Higg MSI scores in each impact category for one kilogram of material; the taller the bar, the greater the impact (cradle-to-gate). These results were calculated by Ruffwear using the Higg MSI 3.3 and are not third-party verified.
At first glance, the 100% Recycled polyester appeared to offer the most promising cradle-to-gate impact reduction. Cradle-to-gate refers to the impact of a product from the “cradle,” raw material extraction or agricultural growth/harvest, to the “gate,” which in this case is the end boundary of the material supplier as the finished material heads towards the final assembly factory.
And with 100% Recycled polyester, we saw a decrease in the impact categories of global warming and fossil fuel resource depletion.
Still, we had cause to pause with this fabric. Would the recycled fibers break down into microfibers and shed more quickly than virgin polyester? Would the durability, an aspect we were setting out to improve, be better or worse with recycled polyester than we were seeing with the virgin polyester?
We weren’t convinced that recycled polyester was the right solution to the problem we set out to solve.
Next: the two hemp blends. They had similar impacts in terms of global warming and fossil fuel resource depletion as the original bluesign® approved 100% polyester we started with. And, we didn’t have the same microfiber and durability concerns. Knowing hemp is naturally durable and anti-odor, and add in organic cotton to bring some softness, this blend started to check the boxes for us.
A supplier who could provide organic cotton would further lessen the impact on the environment. And, realizing the downsides to natural fibers (potentially higher eutrophication, water, and chemistry impacts) could be mitigated with the right manufacturing partner, we decided to explore this hemp/cotton blend further.
Enter: Hemp Fortex.
Hemp Fortex is a vertically-integrated supplier with a number of impressive certifications on their resume – Global Recycled Standard, Global Organic Textile Standard, and Organic Cotton Standard, to name a few. They’re also a recent addition to the bluesign® system partner list and are working towards certification of their materials.
And since not all hemp, nor cotton, are equal, we were drawn to their practices which minimize the environmental impacts that natural fibers might otherwise have in their cradle-to-gate life stages: things like stress on the land and nearby waterways from fertilization and watering of crops, and potentially increased use of stronger chemistry to produce and dye the fibers.
Hemp Fortex takes great pride in their hemp farm – watering with rainwater rather than irrigation, using no pesticides, and fertilizing with cow manure instead of synthetic chemicals.
That environmental stewardship extends to the other levels of their vertical integration. Even before they became bluesign® system partners, they had a requirement for all chemicals in their dyeing and finishing mill to be approved for use in OEKO-TEX and GRS certified materials.
And that’s how our initial goal of redesigning the Fernie™ Jacket naturally shifted (see what I did there?) to designing an entirely new product that would have great durability and stink resistance, and open the door to natural fibers at Ruffwear.
Talk about a hempy ending, right?!
Liz was the lead Designer on this project, and she has some great insights about what it was like to explore this new path for Ruffwear.
Kelly: What attracted you to hemp originally for this project?
Liz: The customer perspective was really driving this one. We wanted to give them an option that wasn’t made from plastic fibers, especially with the hot button topic of microfibers popping up everywhere. The properties of hemp fibers (strong, abrasion- and UV-resistant, antimicrobial, breathable, readily takes dyes, etc.) seemed like a good choice.
Kelly: Why not 100% hemp for the fleece?
Liz: 100% hemp is quite stiff, so the fit was not great for this product application of a fitted knit sweater. We learned, however, that we could maintain the durability realized by the hemp fibers but also get our fit right if we had Hemp Fortex blend in organic cotton fibers.
Kelly: Speaking of Hemp Fortex, how was it working with their team?
Liz: I was pleasantly surprised by their communication and transparency. We didn’t have the ability to visit their facility during the pandemic – as a result, a lot of trust was involved. The relationship we were able to develop virtually, however, allowed us to really customize the fabric with their team.
The melange (a.k.a. heathered) appearance of the fabric is a result of mixing dyed and undyed yarns, and it took a few tries to get it to the place we wanted aesthetically and with some water savings. They were always happy to get into the weeds and send us swatches – they were genuinely excited to work on this project with us.
Kelly: What was your favorite thing about designing the Hemp Hound™ Sweater?
Liz: Once we gave ourselves the freedom to depart from the original design pattern of the Fernie™ Jacket, one part in particular that I loved working on for this product was the chaffing issue on the sleeves. The contoured cap sleeves on the Climate Changer™ Pullover were designed to accommodate dogs with larger chests and shorter fur/hair.
Selfishly, this was an exciting moment for me because my dog, Bernie, fits that description and chafes easily. Now the cap sleeves are used on two products: one high performance and one lifestyle. I hope that helps dogs like Bernie complete their wardrobe!
Kelly: Will Bernie be wearing a Hemp Hound™ Sweater this Fall? If so, which color?
Liz: Yes, he will be. Because he has a red coat, he will be wearing the heliotrope purple because there is a lot of contrast between red and purple. And because it matches his big personality. I am a big fan of in-betweener colors that throw people for a loop – “Is that purple or blue?” is one of my favorite conversation starters.
Kelly: Is there anything else you would like to share about this product?
Liz: It’s a great layering piece – I’m really excited about that potential for customers. It is not great in the rain by itself, but under a rain jacket it is awesome. I put it on Bernie under the Vert™ Jacket when we were visiting Leavenworth, WA during a very rainy weather pattern and it worked perfectly to keep him happy and comfortable.
Let Us Know What You Think
And that, folks, is the true story of how the Hemp Hound™ Sweater came to be. In hindsight, we are cautiously calling it a sustainability win from the perspective of cradle-to-gate impacts of material production, but time will tell if some of those cradle-to-gate impact increases are neutralized by the durability and stink resistance (i.e. less frequent need for washing) of this product in the use phase of its life cycle.
Tell us what you and your dog think of the new Hemp Hound™ Sweater, would you? We’re all bloodhounds over here … you know, because bloodhounds are “all ears”? No? Crickets? Okay, I won’t quit my day job.
Kelly Hughes is our Sustainability Program Manager. She and her canine sidekick, Juniper, love to run wild in the high desert east of Bend and scream down single tracks west of town. Juniper and her long GPS antennae are a big hit on the local trails. Want to see the fun she gets into? Follow her on Strava: Energizer Junie (FYI, she’s private so that she doesn’t steal all your trophies).