My blog is dedicated to the exploration of industrial hemp in America including the rich history of all forms of cannabis, the evolving law and politics of hemp and marijuana, the many products made from cannabis and the capacity, real or imagined, of hemp to re-industrialize rural America and revitalize the American family farm.
The Hemp Trading Company (THTC) is one of the UK’s longest-running and best-loved hemp clothing lines. CEO Gavin Lawson has been there from the very start – so we’ve caught up with him to hear about how he got to where he is today, and the epic journey he made to get there.
Seshata: So THTC was established in 1999, correct? That’s pretty much 18 years in business! Can you talk me through what’s happened over that time?
Gavin: Well, we started in business before fair trade was even a thing. The idea of ethical business was in its infancy at the time, so we ended up being quite the pioneers. It all started off the back of a university society called Hempology, which we organized local student chapters for – I was at the University of the West of England in Bristol, while my brother was at Hull, for example.
Seshata: So how did this evolve into THTC itself?
Gavin: A group of Hempology members started out with the intention of forming a business to promote industrial hemp. In the beginning, it was my brother Dru, a friend of ours named Dan Sodergren, and myself. We didn’t have a clear idea of exactly how we were going to promote hemp at the time, and we explored several different options. We considered skincare and cosmetics, and also launched a range of jeans in our first season, but it was very soon clear that the overheads were too high. Eventually, we hit on the model of screen-printing hemp t-shirts, and THTC began to take off.
Seshata: Great! Take me through the next stage of evolution…
Gavin: Next, we started sponsoring musicians, producing merchandise for artists and labels including Asian Dub Foundation, Morcheeba, Renegade Hardware, The Foreign Beggars, Newton Faulkner and so on…
Seshata: That’s some pretty well-respected names in the UK’s hip-hop, trip-hop and drum ‘n’ bass scenes…
Gavin: Indeed, so on the basis of that, we did some excellent promotional work, hit some commercial success, started attracting attention from more international artists… We worked with Inspectah Deck from the Wu Tang Clan, as just one example. It was also during this period that I met Woody Harrelson, who has become a good friend and supporter in the years since then. We were also featured in twenty-five Virgin Megastores across the UK, and CEO Sir Richard Branson wrote to us to invite us to pitch to the Virgin buyers. We were even stocked nationwide by TK Maxx, and for one season were their best-selling t-shirt brand! We expanded our team to seven or eight people, and started an agency to sell other eco brands.
Seshata: Sounds like things were really taking off for you! Good work.
Gavin: They were. But in 2008, the financial crash happened just three months after we raised finance, and everything had to go back to basics. It was the most devastating blow – we had to close down the new agency, lay off all the new staff we had employed – and in the end, after eight years working side-by-side, even my brother decided that he’d had enough and left the business. I was crushed – but at the same time I was determined to keep going, so I struggled on my own for the next few years.
Seshata: Truly devastating. But you’ve shown remarkable resistance to adversity over the years. How did you bounce back from this?
Gavin: It was a real struggle for a long time, especially alone. Now, with my friend Ashwin Bolar involved, we’ve started to settle into a new flow. While previously we were all about wholesale, now we’re focusing more on direct retail, and emphasizing relationships with musical artists and charities supporting environmental and political causes. The charities are greatly important to our business model – we give them 10-25% of sales, and in return they promote our products. Furthermore, it’s a matter of personal ethics that the charities we work with have a provable record of not spending too much on admin and promotions, and actually focus on achieving goals.
Seshata: As well as all that, THTC also had to deal with a fire a few years back, is that right? That’s another pretty major setback.
Gavin: Yes, it was at our screen printer, and we did lose twelve years of printing films. For sure it was a setback – another to add to the list. But I had years of not paying myself, doing ten different roles, borrowing money, all to keep this dream alive – and no matter the setback, THTC always bounced back.
Seshata: So, is the current trend towards cannabis legalization having a positive effect?
Gavin: Not much is affected by the current trend towards cannabis legalization, as we can’t align too closely with cannabis. If we did, many of our collaborators, namely the charities, would be put off. We were approached by MGM a few years back, who wanted to know if we’d supply t-shirts for the film ‘Harold & Kumar Get The Munchies’ – but we declined the opportunity as it would have classed THTC as a stoner brand. We’re champions of the hemp industry first and foremost – but we’re very supportive of medicinal cannabis. Now that cannabis is becoming legal everywhere, we’re not about to start putting weed leaves all over t-shirts, but we may begin to form more relationships with cannabis companies. For example, now that cannabis seed companies have bigger merchandising budgets, we may start to produce promotional lines for them.
Seshata: Over the years, what’s changed in the world of hemp? Is it still prohibitively expensive to buy the materials you need?
Gavin: Hemp is still expensive. Prices have remained pretty much the same since the start. Also, now that Brexit has happened, it’s pushed up our price further. We buy our hemp in dollars, so the terrible GBP-USD exchange rate is messing up everything. Plus, the UK market is exceptionally hard, particularly when you’re targeting a young male demographic that traditionally doesn’t give a fuck about the environment. One of our t-shirts costs ten times what a Primark tee costs to produce. But for so many people, that disposable attitude to clothing wins against buying more expensive items that last. I’m still wearing a hemp t-shirt I printed nearly twenty years ago, how many people can say that about a Primark tee?
Seshata: And environmental concerns are your biggest reason for working with hemp, right?
Gavin: We got into hemp because of its environmental benefits, sure – but more importantly, we got into hemp textiles as it’s this area that you really see a lot of the benefits of hemp. Water saving is a huge part of that – to make one cotton t-shirt, it takes 4000 litres of water. A hemp t-shirt requires no more than 1/10th of that. As I said earlier, disposable cotton culture is devastating – it wastes water on a massive scale, and contributes massively to landfills.
Seshata: Finally, what are your plans for the future?
Gavin: We’ve recently entered into a relationship with a new partner to produce a bigger range and push it to a bigger market, so that should bring growth in coming years. We’ll carry on pushing collaborations and charity design. Also, over the years THTC has become known for our use of political satire, slogans and cartoons to critique society. We started in the George W. Bush era – there was plenty of fodder to lampoon at that time, and now that Trump is in charge, we’re bound to have a whole lot more!