For most people, a brief scan of LinkedIn, commenting on a post or responding to an invitation to connect counts as the week’s networking effort and activity. Brianna Kilcullen is not most people. When I call Kilcullen mid-October, a cheery voice with a cold greets me on the other end. After two weeks abroad in Europe, attending conferences and meeting potential collaborators, she’s relieved to be back home in Jacksonville, Florida. Vegetables and sleep had been hard to come by during those hectic weeks abroad.
Kilcullen, a sustainability and supply chain consultant and self-described introvert, is no newbie to entrepreneurism nor adaptability. From a stint with the Secret Service to working on international development and land equity in South Sudan and Northern Uganda, to leading supply chain management and corporate social responsibility programs at outdoor industry companies, Kilcullen has woven a varied career. Today, she’s carving out a unique space in one of the most fraught sectors of the outdoor industry: textiles.
In recent years, the outdoor industry has taken a more vocal stance on sustainability and social responsibility. A 2018 report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change amplified the urgency of these initiatives, and with textiles, hemp may be the clearest solution.
Kilcullen was first introduced to hemp while traveling in Qingdao, China. “I had the opportunity to see firsthand the impact hemp has had on the Chinese government, military, farmers and economy,” Kilcullen says. “It changed me forever.”
In the U.S., hemp’s status is complicated both legally and culturally, and stakeholders must get comfortable with radical innovation in what is known as a “disruptors’ arena.”
“Hemp is a pretty lethal fiber,” Kilcullen says. “It’s multifaceted in a way that cotton, polyester and nylon are not. You can use the seed for food, the fiber for textiles and the hurd can be used for building homes.”
Hemp is also naturally antibacterial, antimicrobial, UV-resistant and biodegradable. It also bests cotton when it comes to environmental impact. Cotton, the thirstiest crop in the world, uses 24 percent of the world’s insecticides and pesticides. Hemp is a regenerative crop that revitalizes the soil, uses little to no water and doesn’t need insecticides or pesticides.
Kilcullen says, “I worry a bit that we put too much pressure on [hemp’s] ability to reverse the negative consequences we’ve had with cotton production. Will it work? I don’t know.”
That unknown isn’t holding Kilcullen back. A radical spirit with a desire to merge big business with positive change, she founded We the People, a company that makes hemp towels, in 2017. The company’s ethos draws on the history of the crop as integral to the founding of the U.S.—the first flag was sewn from hemp fiber, the Founding Fathers were hemp farmers and the U.S. Constitution was drafted on hemp paper—and Kilcullen’s desire to align business, social and environmental goals.
So where does hemp stand? In December 2018, President Donald Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill, which includes a provision to allow the legal cultivation of hemp. Ideally, we’ll soon see hemp move from hushed conversations at conferences—legend goes that Giorgio Armani used to make his famous suits exclusively of hemp, though now the fiber is totally taboo—to being widely recognized and utilized as one of the best options for environment-friendly textiles.
We the People’s towels are in development, and the company plans to launch a Kickstarter campaign in 2019. Kilcullen was recently nominated as one of MJBizCon’s 2019 Women to Watch.
She says, “I’m excited to be a part of reintroducing hemp back into the U.S. and to create a transparent industry that makes products to replace cotton and that’s better for people and for the planet.”
Photo by Emma Pratte for The Highly x High Herstory.
XX Sophie Goodman