Dueling Labels: The Hemp Certification Debate
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From HempWorld, a bi-monthly business journal serving the hemp industry. Copyright 1993 HempWorld. Permission is granted to reproduce this article for personal use only, all other rights reserved. HempWorld is available by annual subscription for $30 in the US, $50 elsewhere. Please respect this "shareware" form of distribution. Free sample copies of the premier issue are available while supplies last. Send a self-addresse, stamped envelope to: HempWorld, Box 315, Sebastopol CA 94573, USA or call 707-887-7508 (voice) or fax us at 707-887-7639. ----------------------------------------------------------------------- Dueling Labels: The Hemp Certification Debate By Mari Kane. Excerpted from HempWorld- The International Hemp Journal With all the hype and glory about hemp's potential to "Save the World" it is inevitable that counterfeiters would start misrepresenting it with fibers such as cotton, flax, and abaca. This unscrupulous practice threatens to taint hemp's new image and ruin its progression into the mainstream economy. Now, a heated call-to-arms for content labeling is transforming the business and bringing it into regulatory line with other major industries. Item: Traditional Medicinal Teas prints on it's box, "hemp tea bags," when in fact the bags are made from abaca, or Manila hemp. Hemp? Well, yes. Cannabis hemp? No- banana fiber. Yet, how is the consumer to know the difference? The word hemp is generic for plants that contain a fiber called Bast. The hemp that we know and love comes from the cannabis family. There are, however, strains of hemp unrelated to cannabis, such as abaca and agave. The only thing these hemp fibers have in common is the fact that they are all bast fibers. "Cannabis is the Cadillac of bast fibers, the one to which all others are judged," says John Birrenbach, founder of the Institute for Hemp. A product manufactured with abaca is technically hemp. But by using the word "hemp" for promotional purposes the manufacturer is implying cannabis hemp, thereby cashing in on its allure and reputation for quality. Since the counterfeiting problem was first recognized, there have been not one but two plans put forth to standardize the labeling of hemp products. Hempsters can choose between the IFH (Institute for Hemp) label or the True Hemp label designed by the newly formed True Hemp Certification Council. But disagreements between the proponents are so adamant that they may lead to an industry shake-out similar to the one between VHS and Beta. Like any revolution, the hemp movement is fraught with divisiveness and factionalism. Business leaders are jockeying for positions to mold the industry, and when disagreements arise, tempers flare. Underlying the issues are greed, paranoia, and egocentrism. Yet a strong sense of community and a desire to revive hemp keeps the debate going. In April of 1993 a gang of five of the largest hemp companies in America met in Arizona for a round table discussion of standardized certification. The attendants, presidents of the Hawaiian Hemp Company, House of Hemp, The Hempstead Company, The Ohio Hempery, and CHA- the Coalition for Hemp Awareness formed an alliance tentatively called the True Hemp Industry Alliance. One month later, the True Hemp Industry Alliance faxed an open letter to all American hemp companies, which asserted the following: "In response to the need for labeling standards, and to establish and uphold consumer confidence, the undersigned companies have agree to initiate an active promotional campaign for True Hemp and to introduce a standardized True Hemp Seal of Certification. The Seal shall accompany all True Hemp Fabric and True Hemp Products imported, distributed, or manufactured by those who join this cooperative effort. Appearance of the True Hemp Certification Seal is assurance that the product has been laboratory tested and certified to be True Hemp. In this way consumers will be certain of the origin and quality of the True Hemp products they buy." The resolution goes on to say that True Hemp labels will be available at no charge to legitimate manufactures for six months or until the True Hemp Industry Alliance meets again to amend and re-specify the standards and organization. Nothing set in stone, all of it open for debate. "We worked with the Linen Council and Cotton Inc., and with their advice on how those two organizations are structured, we're formatting the True Hemp Certification Council," says Chris Bohling, of CHA. "It's loose but loose to the point that there have been no dues set up. What we did was address the necessity and urgency of establishing something right away." CHA, which is temporarily charged with administering the True Hemp program, was formed in 1991 in an effort to bring together the hundreds of hemp advocacy groups around the country, and now serves as a clearinghouse for information about cannabis hemp. The organization is non-profit with no membership and no tax deductions, which allows them to participate in political advocacy. In February of 1992, soon after their inception, CHA rented rooms and a hall and held a Hemp Summit next to the Drug War Summit attended by George Bush and the leaders of seven Latin American countries in San Antonio, Texas. The group carefully placed slick tote bags full of the Emperor Wears No Clothes and other hemp literature into the hands of over 3000 journalists who were covering the Drug War Summit. It was this move that Bohling credits with turning the media around to the benefits of hemp. Most recently CHA sent out faxes alerting hempsters to the murder of Gary Shepard who was shot by Kentucky troopers while guarding his marijuana plot. The newly formed THIA invited every reputable hemp company in America to work with the True Hemp Certification Council. Some see that invitational approach to be exclusionary, but THIA maintains that this practice is modeled upon larger, more established associations like the textile industries, where membership hinges on reputation and commitment to one's chosen industry. John Birrenbach did not attend the April meeting in Arizona, yet in June of 1993, one month after the True Hemp Industry Alliance letter was faxed out, Birrenbach unveiled a certification program of his own. It features an IFH seal and is administered solely by his business, the Institute for Hemp. Soon, there were dueling labels vying for the hearts of hempsters. John Birrenbach, founded the Institute for Hemp with the goal of re- establishing cannabis hemp as a farming crop. To these ends he will write, speak, testify, lobby, and debunk counterfeiters. He also runs the "first and largest" mail order catalog of hemp products and information, making him an entrepreneur as well as a hemp crusader. Here's how the Birrenbach's IFH certification program works: You, the importer or manufacturer of hemp goods, send the IFH a sample of your product for testing. You pay a $25.00 registration fee, plus the lab testing fees, which costs anywhere from $50.00 for 100% hemp, up to $200.00 depending on the amount of additional fibers to be identified. Beginning in January 1994 IFH will change the one time fee of $25.00 to an annual fee of $100.00. Once your product tests positive for cannabis fiber content it goes into the IFH base as certified hemp and the seals are available for purchase in rolls of 500 at between 3 and 5 cents each. However, this will not happen until all raw materials are tested. "It's not like we just check it once." Birrenbach explains, "Every container of cloth that comes (into the US) must be tested. Samples may be Federal Expressed from the load at the customs dock to the testing facility. Right now it can take anywhere from 5-7 days to get tests back. We're hoping that by grouping all of the testing together under one house, so to speak, we'll have more buying power to get tests back in, say, 48 hours. Since the THIC deals only with companies they know are of impeccable reputation they do not charge for the use of the True Hemp label. So far, testing fees have been paid by one THIA company or another when suspicious products come to light. Later, the offending company is pressured to submit further documentation or cease to promote the product as hemp. Even the label's design is the subject of contention. In contrast to the simple serif type design of the True Hemp label, the 1 1/4 inch plastic adhesive certification seals features a green cannabis leaf superimposed by a red check mark. The use of the leaf icon has raised the hackles of the anti- leaf faction of the movement, particularly Chris Boucher, President of Hempstead Company who says "We're dealing with corporations who don't want to see the leaf. Sure it's a marijuana plant but that's a pharmaceutical business. We don't use leaf in the fiber or the paper. We use leaf to help people who are dying." To leaf or not to leaf is a question to which Birrenbach responds, "If you are ashamed of the cannabis leaf then you shouldn't be involved in the industry. That falls back to the misinformation campaign of the last 50 years and they are falling into that trap." More debate is centered around the issue of conflict of interest- can a mail-order business also administer an independent certification program and remain unequivocally objective? Some say not. "We had some serious problems with his institute for business, profit and textiles. You just can't mix the two together. It should be completely separate of any other company. You have to work within the whole industry,and not just the hemp industry, but the textile industry," says Boucher. Birrenbach maintains that his certification program is not a conflict, but that it serves as a fundraiser for his institute. Currently Birrenbach is the sole proprietor of the IFH and 50-70% of his catalog contains other company's products. Eventually, Birrenbach expects to turn the certification program over to a trade association, but forming an association requires big money and currently there are not enough businesses to support one. Despite all the infighting, he is forging ahead to form a hemp association. "We're at a stage where we're not ready to go public with it. There's still some work to be done." he says. The type of testing also varies between programs. "The CHA has one of the best labs in the whole country, says Boucher. We do chemical analysis tests, we've got microscopic tests, friction value tests, CFM tests. He doesn't even know of the of the CFM tests." The IFH uses Integrated Paper Services, Inc. in Appleton WI for paper fiber analysis and Jack Herr of Buffalo-based ACTS labs for fabric. The True Hemp Industry Alliance works with Owen Cercus, Professor of textile development at the F.I.T.- the Fashion Institute of Technology, in New York. He not only tests for fiber content, but also advises THIA on fabric specifications and methods of enhancement. "Look at toothpaste, there are 2 or 3 seals on it,"(the package), reasons Birrenbach, "If they (the THIA) want to have their certification program too, go ahead and have a certification program. My understanding of the hemp industry is that plastic will be made from hemp, and there's paper coming in. A company in Oregon is making particle board. Hemp goes beyond things you can wear on your body." It is quite possible that the two certification programs could coexist and eventually complement each other. "The underlying goal of nearly everyone involved is the reintroduction of hemp to the planet," Bohling says. "We all readily and freely share with each other in the exchange of information. In other industries you wouldn't find friendly competitors sharing tips on how to better sew this fabric, how to make it soft, how to enhance it in any manner, or where to get a better deal, but it's going on on a daily basis in this game. And if anyone gets flaky or squirrely or unscrupulous in any manner the peer pressure is extraordinary." Birrenbach is constantly on the alert for manufacturers who misrepresent their products as hemp. He uses his fax machine and modem, which he considers "the printing presses of freedom for the future," to mobilize action against offending companies. Birrenbach's outrage toward a company like J.Crew, who labeled cotton shirts as hemp, is not just an issue of ethics, but economics as well. "When consumers, paying $75.00 for a shirt, see a company selling a shirt for $15.00 that says hemp, they come back in our faces and say why are you ripping us off?" explains Birrenbach. Often, he finds, the offense of misuse of the word hemp in promotional materials is a simple mistake, perhaps the brainchild of an overzealous art- director. Birrenbach finds the word marijuana quite useful in stopping this misuse. Informing the company's president that he or she is promoting a marijuana-related product is usually enough to motivate an immediate change. CHA exposes counterfeiters in much the same way- with polite confrontations demanding documentation of content and warning bulletins that keep fax machines humming. Bohling insists that the THIA does not seek to "bad rap" hemp companies, but "when we're trying to tout the wonders of hemp as a durable long-lasting fiber we can't have that kind of stuff going on. They (the Chinese producers) are weaving many multitudes of fibers where they actually conceal different things within a thread of yarn." The debate continues to rage on and more hempsters are voicing their opinions. In spite of the ruffling of feathers and bruised egos, one thing everyone agrees upon is that something has to be done to protect cannabis hemp in the infancy of it's re-introduction to society. The industry players must pull together and play by rules they can all thrive by. "I think that it's really important to bring everybody together to look at it, rather than everybody going off on their own trail trying to be secretive about what they're doing," says Max Salkin of Visionary Consulting Company. "The market is so massive- a billion dollar industry potential- that there is enough room for everybody, and to be able to jointly advertise." Bohling sees it this way: "The main focus that needs to be addressed is that it doesn't matter which seal or whose seal, but our prime concern is alerting the public that there is a difference in hemp and already people are trying to capitalize on the growing demand for hemp products by calling things hemp."