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
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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

        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

        "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

        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."