Steamboat Springs Heather Howell-Durand is not your average downtown merchant. She isn't there just to sell her hand-made soaps, serums, lotions and clothing. She wants to educate, and her lesson plan includes promoting a plant that she thinks can help save the planet.
Howell-Durand spent seven years working for her master's degree in textile engineering at Colorado State University. She wanted to explore natural fibers with ambitions of creating environmentally sound clothing and fabrics.
For an independent study, Howell-Durand and her husband lived with an indigenous tribe in Costa Rica, gathering cotton and spinning it into yarn. She said she came to believe that the cotton in most clothing is not the best fiber because of all the chemicals used in cotton production, particularly in America.
"When you see the commercials that cotton is natural, it's not true," she said with an accent developed while growing up in North Carolina. "(The United States is) the leader of the world, but when it comes to sustaining our environment, we're the worst."
As a result, she shifted the focus of her studies to hemp. She is now one of the leading authorities on the industrial uses of the plant, which she said is one of the most renewable and clean resources not just of fiber, but paper, fuel, food and construction materials.
The reason it is not used as the primary resource for those purposes in America is the plant's confusion with marijuana, Howell-Durand said. Though it is grown and used in countries around the world, its growth is prohibited in all but five U.S. states, thanks largely to the Drug Enforcement
Agency's stance that hemp produces the same psychoactive chemicals as marijuana.
Howell-Durand said the flowers of the marijuana plant produce a high when smoked or consumed. Though hemp looks similar to the marijuana plant, it is an entirely different species and has no flowers, she said.
It's a distinction Howell-Durand is trying to educate others about at her store, Hemp Essentials at 624 Lincoln Ave. Hemp is not marijuana, she said. Rather it is a valuable resource for a variety of goods and products. Hemp can produce many times more paper per acre than trees, and it can be re-grown and harvested several times in a year, whereas trees take years to grow back, Howell-Durand said. Its thick stalks can be used to produce paper and fiber, which Howell-Durand uses in the clothing, bags, wallets and accessories in her store. The seed of the hemp plant is where Howell-Durand has found the most use in her store.
"Rich in essential fatty acids, hemp seed oil replenishes dry skin, preventing cell loss and causing younger looking skin," Howell-Durand says. "No other oil in the plant kingdom is as rich in essential fatty acids and naturally-occurring anti-oxidants. It replenishes any oil that's missing."
She uses the oil in all her body products as a skin "rejuvenator." Her body line, which comes in four formulas -- Harmony, Energy, Strength and Romance -- is being offered at Life Essentials Spa, All That Jazz, Dancing Scissors Salon and, of course, Hemp Essentials. Howell-Durand also operates an online store and wants to expand her local market by providing soaps and lotions to area hotels and bed and breakfasts. She believes that because she can produce the items at a reasonable price, she can pass the savings on to would-be distributors and quantity customers.
In the meantime, Howell-Durand is trying to keep walk-in customers coming, which has been difficult lately with ongoing construction between her store and the Old Town Pub. She has been in the store for a year and believes she can continue to grow.
She started Hemp Essentials in Fort Collins in 1999, showing her goods at arts festivals before coming to Steamboat Springs to start a retail business. She said she and her husband knew Steamboat was where they wanted to be. "I feel I provide something Steamboat doesn't offer," she said.
In addition to the body line and candles the store provides, Hemp Essentials has a clothing line made by a tribe in Thailand.
Howell-Durand's mission in life is to educate about the benefits of hemp. "My purpose is to be good to the environment and the world," she said.