Hemp and organic textile production

Nicole Waayer, Skal, Stationsplein 5, 8000 AJ Zwolle, The Netherlands

Organic production principles
        Organic agriculture is being recognized worldwide as sustainable agriculture.  About 25 years ago, the non governmental organization IFOAM, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, began to describe what is now understood as "organic" agriculture.  Meanwhile, it became clear that in many regions of the world such agricultural systems have existed for many centuries.
        As a result of the growing interest of consumers in organically grown products legislative bodies have started to develop laws regulating organic production.  This helps to give an even more reliable guarantee to the consumer.  The EU has developed EC Regulation 2092/91 for this purpose, and legislation of the United States also deals with organic production.  Great efforts are being made to harmonize laws among various countries to facilitate trade, since there is a great international interest in environmentally friendly products.
        The principle ideas of organic production are as follows:

The soil retains its fertility, so forthcoming generations will be able to use it for agricultural production.  This means that measures are taken to prevent soil erosion, to conserve water and to add minerals naturally, which are removed by the harvest of the agricultural product.  Organic manure is often used to maintain or improve soil fertility.

To counteract plant diseases and pests, use is made of such techniques as crop rotation, employment of pest-resistant plant varieties and protection of natural pest-predators.  Organic agriculture demands of the farmer a deep understanding of natural processes and is, therefore, certainly not a simple or easy method of agricultural production.  However organic agriculture mainly relies on inputs which are available locally, often considered an economic advantage.

Hemp and sustainability
        How does hemp fiber fit into this organic concept?  For the growing of hemp, no artificial fertilizers and pesticides are needed.  Weeds, which can be a very serious problem for organic farmers, especially if the field is large, are suppressed since Cannabis tends to grow very quickly.  Hemp sheds many of its leaves before harvest, thus returning nutrients to the soil for the next crop.  It is also fairly disease free if kept in a proper crop rotation scheme.  So from many points of view, hemp seems to be an ideal candidate for organic textile production.
        Compare this to the growing of another natural fibre, e.g. cotton, a crop for which 11% of all pesticides is used.  This has resulted in much ill health and suffering, poisoned soils and increased insect resistance to pesticides.  So far, only a small sector of cotton is grown in an organic way.   Organic hemp could very well replace conventional cotton in the production of textiles and could increase the share of organic textiles in total textile production.   As hemp can grow to 5 meters and provides a high yield of fibre, this crop could certainly provide the textile industry with ample raw materials.

Standards for sustainable textile processing
        It would be pointless not to process an organic fibre in a sustainable way.  Therefore only very few and non-polluting textile processes must be used.  In this way, the authenticity of a product is preserved as much as possible.  This is highly appreciated by a select consumer market.
        Standards for sustainable textile processing must state what is (or is not) allowed in each production phase.  The following items must be considered:

        Each company should also produce a statement in which they express their commitment to society.   This is dependent upon factors in their surroundings.  Emphasis might be placed on e.g., fundamental human needs (such as availability of clean water, food and housing, medical facilities) or upon additional safety measures beyond what is required by law.

        To verify a hemp product as "certified organic", inspection by an independent third party is necessary.  During inspection, the following techniques are used:

        Depending on the local situation, an inspection of each step has to be performed at least once a year.

Why inspection and certification?
        Just by looking at a product, customers cannot determine if it is an organic and sustainable one.   The customer may think that by paying more for the hemp product, he/she has the guarantee that it is a genuine environmentally friendly product.  But as the market price for these products is usually higher, it is consequently more often subject to fraud.
        The past has proven that a guarantee that ensures the customer of the organic origin and quality of the product on one hand, and protects the producer from false competition on the other hand, is absolutely necessary for expansion of the market for organic products.  The aim is to stimulate the use of recognizable and trusted indicators on products resulting from organic production methods, verified by efficient and objective inspections by an independent third party.

Skal inspection and certification
        Skal is such an inspection body, and certifies organic production methods on an international level.   Since 1985, Skal has developed experience in the organic inspection field and has been recognized as an inspection body by the governmental authorities of several EU-countries in accordance with EC-Regulation 2092/91 for organic plant production, e.g., natural fibres.  Skal works according to international standards for certifying organizations.  In several countries, e.g., Turkey, India, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, and The Netherlands, Skal is already inspecting the growing pf organic natural fibres.
     Wholesale buyers of these certified organic fibres asked what had to be done, so that their total textile production process could be called environmentally friendly or even "organic".  They were also interested in having a certification mark for the finished product.  Skal's Department of Standard Development and Legislation did extensive research to answer this question, utilizing its specialists in the fields of agriculture and textile production.   The result is a complete set of standards for the processing of natural fibres: "The Skal-standards for sustainable textile production".  Skal is presently researching how hemp fits into this certification program, which is based on the principles of IFOAM.  It includes the entire production chain from growth of the organic fibers, through manufacture of the final product.  Increasing numbers of companies are making use of this certification program for sustainable textile production.

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Skal EKO-quality symbol
        The EKO-quality symbol, an offcially registered logo, may be displayed on all Skal-approved items and offers assurance as to the organic character of a product meeting rigorous standards of sustainable production.  It is the visual means by which a consumer can easily recognize certified "organic quality" and "environmentally friendly" products.

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