In 2014 Justin Petty was knee deep in moving boxes. He and his college friend, Pieter van Tongeren, were packing up to move to L.A. in the hopes of mobilizing their fashion line — Recreator — composed entirely of material from hemp.
To be clear this is not the kind of hemp you can smoke. In fact, you are more likely to get lung cancer before getting high (due to a virtually non-existent THC content). What Petty and Tongeren are using is industrial hemp, a crop that has been proven to be a far more sustainable substitute to cotton and polyester. When Petty and Tongeren moved to Indy, after their time at the University of Evansville, they were primarily focused on street art and moving the designs to a fashion line. Then they caught wind of what hemp could do.
"We started exploring hemp textiles more and more," says Petty, the director of marketing for Recreator. "[We] found out that they dry faster than cotton, they are antimicrobial — so you can wear them longer and you don't have to wash them as much — and started really seeing the potential of making a hemp fashion line, and make hemp something that is at least competing with cotton. And make people more aware of what this plant can do, and use fashion to do that."
So they did what anyone with a cause and an idea does — they began a kickstarter campaign. Soon they were ready to take the line to the fashion district of L.A. where they would work out of a shop called 600 and make the clothes in the cut and sew in the back. But the two didn't want to move until they knew Indiana was on the right track with legalizing industrial hemp.
Petty's stepmom Jamie Campbell Petty was a lawyer in San Diego. After marrying his father the two of them moved to the country in Indiana. They wanted to start farming; meanwhile, Justin Petty was eating up as much as he could in hemp knowledge.
"We were always talking shop about growing things," says Petty.
He and his stepmother became very passionate about the potential for this product in Indiana. He began to connect her with people in the industry and she started lobbying for change.
"I pitched the hemp idea to her as it's something that's industrial, it's political, it's a little bit counter-cultural, and disruptive, but it's also about sustainability and getting farmers crops that they can grow and profit from," says Petty. "... We thought there was an opportunity here. We saw what was happening in Colorado in terms of going after commercial hemp industries."
The two had a large hand in Purdue's research pilot program, which focuses on the potential use of hemp as a crop. They are hoping the state will soon allow farmers to use hemp seeds on a commercial basis.
"Now we don't just have to grow it on Purdue's campus," says Petty. "We can steadily begin growing it elsewhere and farmers can really start learning how to grow it. I think that is her biggest success, besides all of the other stuff she has connected."
Hemp (as a crop) can be used for textiles, building material, food and beverage bases, a replacement for plastics and even biofuel.
"It's really, really strong natural fiber, and I think we are only just starting to explore the potential of it," says Petty.
The potential for use is high but the environmental impact of competitors, like cotton and polyester, is even higher.
According to the Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester report produced by the Stockholm Environmental Institute, while cotton requires less energy to grow and produce than hemp, it takes up nearly twice as much land with the same yield. Cotton also uses four times as much water than hemp when it's processed. Polyester is produced from fossil fuels — a rapidly depleting source.
When it comes to cloth, when processed carefully, hemp can be extremely soft, and performs better under heat and moisture than cotton.
"I was wondering how I could make a statement about what this stuff can do," says Petty. "I saw a t-shirt, basically as a walking billboard ... I thought that would be a catalyst to help get the industry going here in the United States."
Recreator — now run by Petty, Tongeren and Matt McClain — will soon be releasing a yoga and athletic line. They also have an in-house designer who is a local L.A. artist. Petty hopes that the products are a reflection of their political work. They plan to continue working toward pro-hemp legislation in California and in Indiana.
"I have been interested in organic foods and the cannabis culture for a long time, but I never really had taken it any further than most people take it — it's a cultural thing you do to have fun," says Petty. "But once I started looking at the industrial aspects and looking at fashion as a whole, as an industry, you see how much pollution there is.
"I thought fashion seems like a very good vehicle to make this well known," says Petty. "People are certainly conscious of the foods they are eating and what they put in their body, but I started thinking the next step is obviously what they put on their body. That obviously has an effect on your health and there is a story to be told about these products."