VirgoCoop and Wildling Shoes are working together for the love of a long forgotten material: hemp. We are helping to build a direct supply chain from our French collaborators to source materials, as well as natural fibers, from the sustainable cult plant. All made in Europe. All part of the Re:generation.
Hemp is celebrating a comeback – and Wildling Shoes is celebrating with it. Mathieu Ebbesen-Goudin, co-founder of our partner company VirgoCoop, tells us in our interview how his love for hemp came about, why the crop is such a sustainable alternative to cotton and the like, and what its European roots are all about. Bonjour, Mathieu!
What do you love about hemp as a material?
Hemp is a great plant that is certainly a very good ally in the necessary ecological transition. It’s a versatile crop that can grow organically in many places with modest water needs, and out of which many co-products can be used in various sectors: textile, construction, substitution to many synthetic fibers and other purposes. In a world that desperately needs bio sourced materials, hemp is probably one of the best options.
Why is Hemp such a powerful and sustainable material?
Hemp is a fairly easily grown crop that doesn’t require huge quantities of water and that is as successful when produced organically as when produced conventionally. On top of this, hemp is an excellent plant in crop rotation, as it opens up the soil and cleanses it from weeds, making the following production yield higher by 5 to 10 percent. Of course, hemp can be produced in a bad way, for example being replanted year after year in the same field, but with the agroecological pattern VirgoCoop follows with its partnering farmers, hemp is not planted more than once every 4 or 5 years. Even though some places are more suitable than others, hemp can be grown throughout a wide range of latitudes and climates, not only in Europe but also in many other places of the world.
Mathieu Ebbesen-Goudin (center) in the Wildling Shoes studio, Image: Stefano Chiolo | Wildling Shoes
Is this why it is celebrating such a big comeback right now?
Definitely, the need for bio-sourced material and the great work done by various groups to advocate for hemp all around the world has certainly made possible the growth we see now. For a long time hemp suffered from the demonized image of hashish and marijuana, but it’s pretty clear now that a great part of the society has understood that hemp used for the production of textiles has absolutely no psychotropic effect and that we are clearly talking about two different things. Adding to that, the fact that hemp has long been used for textile purpose, and that it can be a good alternative to the predominance of poorly grown cotton or synthetic fibers, clearly paved the way for this comeback.
Can you tell us a little bit about the history of hemp in Europe (and beyond)? Why did it actually disappear from our closets?
Hemp was very common on all the Eurasian continent until the middle of the 19th century. Hemp has likely been used in China for more than 10 000 years, and in Europe it was grown for two purposes: clothing (peasants used to spin and weave it domestically), and as a cash crop to be sold for the production of sails and ropes that were indispensable for sailing.
In the mid-19th century, hemp suffered two major setbacks: the invention of steam engined boats that wouldn’t need sails anymore, and the emergence of cotton fabrics coming from the huge manufactures being first put in place in England, and then throughout the world. Its presence slowly started to decrease until the second world war, which was a crucial moment for hemp production: the criminalization and forbidding of all types of cannabis in the USA, soon followed by western European countries.
Hemp almost disappeared in most places, except in the soviet union area and in France, that, for political reasons, decided to keep a small hemp industry, explaining why it is the most important country for hemp in Europe and 3rd or 4th internationally. Consequently, hemp never really underwent an industrial development in Europe, explaining why most of the steps of transformation have to be developed today.
Does hemp have the power to change the fashion industry towards a more circular economy?
It may not change everything by itself, but it certainly has a significant role to play. The fact that hemp can be grown locally and organically throughout most of Europe, makes it a very interesting primary material for a textile industry that is trying to minimize materials from abroad for which social and ecological visibility is weak.
It’s also interesting that textile hemp is also used for other purposes, as more than half of the raw material is used in the low carbon construction sector, and that it gives local farmers an income opportunity in organic farming. Hemp textiles, like others, can also be recycled through fiber separation. The fibers can be used for new yarns by mixing them with smaller amounts of new material.
What’s your vision and mission with VirgoCoop?
VirgoCoop’s goal is to speed up and reinforce ecological transition, by enhancing ecological and socially responsible textile production systems. Hemp is the main aspect, but VirgoCoop is also working on wool harvest, upcycling materials and new resources that could be useful for textiles. VirgoCoop is a cooperative, working under the principles of a socially and environmentally responsible economy. VirgoCoop was created in 2018 in the region of Occitanie, France, and is working on setting up such systems in this region, working with partners in France and also throughout Europe. At the moment, VirgoCoop is setting up ourfirst transformation factory for hemp, will cultivate approximately 200 hectares of textile hemp in 2023, harvests around 10 tons of local wool, and runs a weaving factory called Tissages d’Autan that produces fabrics out of natural materials coming from both its ecosystem or from responsible suppliers.
Regeneration needs collaboration. As a Regenerative Collective, we connect with companies that share our passion for creating synergy and positively impacting our environment. Together we learn to unlearn. We listen to each other, share ideas and discuss challenges holistically. Together we create change.
How does the cooperation between Wildling Shoes and VirgoCoop work?
Wildling Shoes approached VirgoCoop in 2021 while looking for hemp suppliers in Europe. Shortly thereafter, they came and visited the premises, and a cooperation was established. Wildling Shoes started to buy fabrics from the weaving factory and invested in the cooperative by becoming an important shareholder in 2022. The funds brought in by Wildling Shoes were crucial for VirgoCoop to invest in production tools for the first transformation of textile hemp. The cooperation with Wildling Shoes is extremely important to VirgoCoop, since it allows all of us to be taking part in the necessary work to achieve a sustainable textile production chain in Europe. It’s with the participation of everyone that we will achieve this, and it’s great that we can stand together along this long term path.
What other partners do you work with and why do we need more collaborations like ours?
VirgoCoop is collaborating with various French brands that are concerned with the accountability within the sector. IFA chanvre, UBAC shoes, Missègle, Baserange are among them, but there is a special and long term relationship with Atelier Tuffery that believed in the project from very early on, even before the cooperative was created. It’s crucial that more collaborations happen with new partners, because the objective is quite ambitious: setting up a sustainable agricultural, industrial and creative production chain needs strength, durable partnerships, a sustainable vision and, of course, funds. The work achieved since 2018 has been successful, but we need to move further and faster if we want to enhance the whole production chain in Occitanie, in France, and in Europe.
What exactly is the everyday business of VirgoCoop? Take us with you on a journey: whatdoes a day at work look like for you?
Working for VirgoCoop means acting on a variety of tasks at the same time: coordinating with the farmers and breeders, overseeing quality control, raising funds to sustain the entire development, managing the weaving factory, answering the questions of the many people that are interested in hemp, maintaining relationships up and downstream to assure that the products are fitting the needs etc… no two days are alike, it’s very diverse and sometimes quite a challenge, but everyone in VirgoCoop is very enthusiastic about the adventure! More than anything, VirgoCoop is a story about people, whose connections have made all of this possible, and it continues: everytime someone new joins the team, it creates new opportunities, a new vision, it enriches the path. There are a lot of challenges along the way, but there’s a highly positive energy.
We are all facing challenges right now. What are the biggest challenges for VirgoCoop at the moment?
VirgoCoop is going through a rapid development, with investments ahead that require solid foundations and stable partnerships. The European textile industry as a whole is faced with the task of developing socially-ecological products that remain affordable for the end consumer.
We have gotten used to buying cheap clothing from the other side of the world, with significant social and ecological costs that are not easy to see unless you look into the details. If we want to make sure that what we consume does not harm the environment or people, we need to buy less, and at a fair price that is befitting this sustainability.
This is exactly the goal that we have to achieve, and for this we need more production stages within Europe, more local production so that these structures are maintained and the entire sector becomes more resilient and can achieve economies of scale.
Where did you get the expertise for the hemp processing? Were you able to call upon pre-existing knowledge or did everything have to be worked out anew?
We have learned to process hemp thanks to people who generously shared with us the knowledge that was passed down to them over centuries. We are grateful to have had this chance, as hemp suffered decades of near extinction in our region, plus an almost total absence of modern tool development.
Since then, many things have had to be completely set-up from scratch, be at the agricultural level as most of the actual farmers had never cultivated hemp, to the building of new machines for the first, second or even third transformation of hemp. Being in France is quite lucky in this regard, since it is one of the most important countries in the world regarding hemp production: there’s quite a number of associations, institutions and other contributors working on hemp and ready to share what they know. Nevertheless, the goal with this textile is quite new, and it’s only together that we can make it possible.
Cover image: Nora Tabel | Wildling Shoes