Exclusive: Tim Gunn Explains Why He’s Backing Hemp Bill in Massachusetts

The Project Runway co-host is advocating for the legalization of industrial hemp.

Tim Gunn stars in Project Runway season 14, airing Thursday, September 3, at 9pm ET/PT on Lifetime. Photo by Barbara Nitke Copyright 2015

Tim Gunn Photo by Barbara Nitke

Tim Gunn visited the Massachusetts State House on Tuesday, but he wasn’t there to hand out fashion advice.

The Project Runway co-host met with lawmakers to discuss bill (H 773), a measure sponsored by state Rep. Chris Walsh that would legalize the growth and production of industrial hemp in the Bay State.

“For me, it’s such a no-brainer,” Gunn told Boston magazine. “It needs to be done. Canada started harvesting hemp fairly recently, within the last decade. It’s a $1.5 billion industry for them now.”

Hemp often gets a bad rap because it falls into the same family as marijuana, even though it lacks psychoactive properties with only minimal traces of THC.

While it won’t get you high, hemp has a plethora of other uses. This biodegradable material can be used in the construction of buildings, manufacturing of cars, and even health food products. It’s also a sustainable alternative to textiles that aren’t eco-friendly, which is what caught Gunn’s eye.

“I mean there’s Boston ivy, which is beautiful and benign, and then there’s poison ivy,” he said. “Well, the same is true for hemp.”

The fashion expert and reality television star first learned about hemp while researching different textiles during his time as the chair of the fashion program at the Parsons School of Design. After doing his homework, Gunn was astounded by the fact that many states still outlaw hemp, stemming from outdated ideas popularized during the Reefer Madness era.

Only recently did President Barack Obama sign a bill that granted limited legal status to the production of hemp in the U.S. Farmers can cultivate the plant in states with hemp laws, however, it is still considered a schedule 1 drug under federal guidelines.

“As far as the federal government is concerned, anything that is genus cannabis is completely and totally illegal,” Gunn said. “Hemp is categorized as a category 1 narcotic, along with heroin. It’s just too preposterous.”

Gunn decided to get involved with the effort to legalize the production of hemp in Massachusetts after meeting Kathryn Hildebrand, founder and CEO of the Good Clothing Company in Mashpee. They became “kindred spirits” during Gunn’s last trip to Boston to moderate a discussion with Project Runway season 14 finalist Kelly Dempsey, who was collaborating with Hildebrand on a production.

During their talk, Hildebrand brought up how abandoned factories and textiles mills in places like Fall River would benefit from the legalization of hemp. They believe that reintroducing the crop would revitalize the struggling, rural workforce since many of these areas used to grow hemp prior to it being outlawed.

Gunn says that only 2 percent of textiles are made in the the U.S., and that millions of dollars in hemp products are constantly being imported from countries such as France and China. He believes that legalizing hemp would bring jobs back to American workers.

“There are several generations of people who worked in the factories in Fall River and else where, farmers who would have a healthy living restored by growing hemp,” Gunn said. “I just think it would be a huge morale booster, an economy booster, and bring back to Massachusetts the rich, robust life that it once had in textiles and manufacturing.”

Following his trip to the State House, Gunn seems positive and was happy with the reaction by Massachusetts lawmakers. However, in order to get this bill pass, he says that citizens must let their representatives know that they stand behind them.

Looking at the fashion industry as a whole, though, Gunn is disappointed by the lack of support for sustainable textiles. He believes the industry has a responsibility to the environment to get behind more eco-friendly materials like hemp.

“I’ll be blunt, with few exceptions, the fashion industry is in a deceptive kind of bubble where it just subscribes to its own mythologies,” Gunn said. “We’re each responsible for the world in which we live. We have to be good citizens of that world and do the right thing.”

He added, “It’s a phenomenal, phenomenal resource that we need to get behind.”