Consumers might have seen hemp fabric, bags, and a jute-like material while traveling the world. Hemp has long been acclaimed for its versatility and myriad uses, but regulations in the United States have historically hampered research and development on the material. However, recent legislative changes and resulting innovations may now see hemp materials as part of common interior design.
Hemp or Cannabis?
An American company called Fibonacci is leading the industry with a material commonly known as HempWood. The wood alternative looks and acts like wood, but actually comes from the hemp plant, which is a relative of the controversial cannabis plant.
To clarify, hemp and cannabis are closely related, but hemp is defined by having less than .3% THC (the compound that can create a high), and cannabis can contain up to 30%. This relationship has kept hemp products in the shadows, but new technology and understanding of the agricultural material is opening up myriad options.
What's HempWood Used For?
In the grand scheme of things, HempWood sees the opportunity to sit alongside the major players in the wood industry. Its current products include flooring, furniture such as tables, countertops, and accent walls. Basically, anything for indoor use made out of hardwoods, tropical woods, or other agricultural products such as bamboo and eucalyptus, as well as cork, can be made HempWood instead.
The Beginning of HempWood
The founder of Fibonacci, Greg Wilson, originally worked in China with another plant-to-product material, bamboo. While great for many things, bamboo lacked strength as a commercial product. Greg was part of a team that unlocked a process that turned bamboo into a more durable product. Later, he used a similar process in working with strand wood eucalyptus. As hemp availability and an interest in the possibilities for the material grew, Greg moved back to the United States and opened a shop in Kentucky, using his prior experience to advance hemp development.
Even with prior dealings with similarly behaving materials, hemp has presented some unique challenges. Plus, launching a business in 2020 was no easy feat. Wilson explained in a recent interview, “It’s all based off this one algorithm that allows you to transform a plant fiber into a wood composite,” he says. “You’ve got to modify it a little bit for the different fiber coming in, but for hemp, we’ve also had to duck and weave around government regulation, COVID, wildfires and everything else 2020 has to offer.”
HempWood and Sustainability
Greg and his team were already aware of the sustainability aspects of hemp, like the fact plants grow quickly and are ready for harvest in 120 days. Compared to traditional tree-based woods such as oak, hickory, and maple that grow for hundreds of years, hemp can provide a renewable option for the wood industry. Plus, as a plant, hemp naturally helps create cleaner air by removing carbon and releasing oxygen.
Hemp’s versatility means every part of the plant is used. While HempWood primarily relies on the bottom part of the plant, the upper parts of plants have other commercial uses, such as chicken feed.
From a sustainability aspect, HempWood offers an advantage to the ecosystem too. Harvesting traditional trees damages the natural habitat of plants and animals. For example, removing a single large oak tree takes away a food and housing source. Plus it eliminates protection for the plants growing underneath it. Forests are a carefully-balanced ecosystem so removing a single component can easily upset the stability within the region. As an agricultural product, hemp doesn’t have that lasting effect.
Fibonacci's Dedication to the Environment
Knowing it wanted to source locally, Fibonacci chose a location within 100 miles of the hemp farms they rely on for materials. This decreases transportation costs and the carbon-filled emissions that result from shipping materials cross-country. The company is currently looking into expanding into more facilities to create a web of strategically-placed hubs on each coast and across the country.
As a bio-based product, HempWood avoids creating a problem for the future with the natural ability to biodegrade. Even the non-toxic, soy-based adhesive can dissolve back into the soil. Wilson described the process by saying, “It’s a wood-composite comprised of greater than 80% hemp fiber. We take the whole stalk and put it through a crushing machine which breaks open the cell structure. Then we dunk it into these enormous vats of soy protein, mixed with water and with the organic acid used by the paper towel industry. It’s essentially papier-mâché.”
Inside the HempWood facility, the company is committed to emitting a small carbon footprint. In addition to basic steps like using low-consuming LED bulbs throughout the buildings, the company has installed a bio burner. This device not only vents heat throughout the facility, it provides energy savings and comprehensive waste reduction by burning material cutoffs onsite.
The team at HempWood has enjoyed creating a base product that people can experiment with. Customers report making myriad products out of the material including duck calls, art projects, bowls, and picture frames.