Materials are the Message

Materials are the Message for European Green Products

A Report on Bio Fach 1995 for In Business magazine's March-April 1995 issue.

This was written for the environmental entreprenuers who read In Business. They are listed in the Recycling Resources list here, or email inbusines1@aol.com.

Materials are the Message for European Green Products

In March, the Frankfurt Messe, a huge German convention center, hosted the Bio Fach, the four days long European Trade Fair for Natural Organic Food and Natural Products. This annual event has grown steadily since it began in 1990. This year it filled about 30,000 square meters (270,000 square feet) on two floors, and had approximately 900 booths, including 570 with food and 350 wit.special focus on one country each year, this was France's turn to have its products showcased. There were programs on various topics as well as a two-day technical and scientific symposium on hemp, the newly rediscovered bio resource. Each evening, there was cabaret-style entertainment, and time to dance and drink together. The Bio Fach offered a great opportunity for the producers, tradespeople and buyers to get together and develop cooperative relationships.

The Bio Fach (be o fak), which translates to organic business or field of activity, had a daily admission of 30 Deutsch Marks, roughly 22 dollars. Over 16,000 visitors paid, and since it is scheduled immediately after the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) trade conference, the organizers estimated that 20% were foreigners. 200 of the exhibitors were foreign, coming from 40 countries. There did not seem to be many members of the general public there, and though crowded at times, the attendees were convivial.

There were significant differences between the Bio Fach and our own Eco Expo, as noted by my traveling companions, Katherine Tiddens (proprietor of NYC's first ecological department store, Terra Verde), and Niels Peter Flint (proprietor of Copenhagen's first green shop, Flint's). The products seemed to be coming out of a craft tradition, and had an environmentally elegant, timeless quality, regardless of whether they were hand- or machine-made. There were few "industrial" products, very little plastic, and, other than paper, not much that was recycled. Many of the producers had very small companies, and it seemed most were networked with producer associations that have their own regulations that meet or exceed the European Union's product stewardship and/or organic standards. There were virtually no environmental messages, no save the earth T-shirts, and few products that used endangered species images - instead, as Kath pointed out, "the materials were the message". Renewable resources from both plant and animal sources provided most of the raw materials, the dyes, finishes and packaging. Kath found that the producers recognized the environmental folly of shipping their eco-products half way around the world, and generally, she did not find them eager to do so. While friendly and willing to answer questions, their promotional materials usually omitted price lists in dollars. Sizes are different, for example, European bedding won't fit typical American beds. We all agreed that the Bio Fach provides inspiration for products that can be made domestically, and then North American buyers won't have to deal with import duties, expediters, fluctuations in currencies and other problems of sourcing globally. It was relatively easy to buy samples, but if you speak and read German, you have a definite advantage when it comes to getting detailed information at this fair.

One of the most astonishing things was that a fair with 570 food booths had no garbage! Most of the booths were very generous with their free samples, and often, it was graciously served on real plates and glasses. You could stand by the booth and chat, but if you took the plate away, you were expected to leave a deposit of 2 D-Marks ($1.25). Since booths could be rented with built-in sinks, the plates were washed on the spot or in utility rooms around the fringes of the hall. Alternatively, the dirty dishes were packed in plastic boxes so they could be washed elsewhere. Many people kept their same little wooden fork and beige napkin all day, so they could snag cubes of organic this or that as they passed. Another innovation was edible plates and cups. Some for drinks were miniature waffle cones; there were bowls made of other formed grains that could be readily composted. These were also in use at the concession stand, which sold its usual hotdogs and soda. Smoking was permitted, but the hall had sufficient ventilation so it wasn't annoying.

All the food was organic, and met the EU regulations. There were several large producers as well as associations like Naturland that promoted the work of 800 farmers. Founded in 1982, it is active in Germany, the Mediterranean countries, and is now developing organic farms in Sri Lanka, Mexico, Bolivia, Brazil and India. They do scientific research and education projects for growing, processing and marketing organic food and produce a magazine for organic gardening. One of their non-food partners produces linen, and is detailed below.

Though organically grown, the foods didn't all fit our American definition of health food, as explained to me by Jorge Gaskin of Tropical Source, a vertically integrated supplier of organic ingredients - fresh, frozen, aseptic and dried forms of fruits and vegetables based in Puerto Rico. Our natural foods come from the health food tradition, so there's no sugar, not many animal products and a low fat content. In Europe, natural food are influenced by the Green Movement, which as a broader agenda. You can eat meat if it's organically grown, if the animal and the farm worker were humanely treated, and if fair trade principles were followed. The Bio Fach had delicious dairy products, with items like yogurt usually packed in glass jars. There were many varieties of meat, chocolate and other candies. Several beer and wine producers had elaborate booths that were packed all afternoon. I liked the unusual honey wine, mead, made in western Germany from recipes dating from the middle ages by Krischer. They move their bee hives into groves when the trees and plants are blooming to get distinctively flavored sunflower, linden, chestnut and other honeys. Kirscher's five employees, all family members, gather up to 10 metric tons and make 100,000 bottles of mead per year. They also sell the honey for $10 per kilo, which is 20% higher than non-organic varieties.

The food floor had some food preparation products like knives and ovens, including old-fashioned wooden grain mills and wall-mounted grain storage systems for home use. There were a few booths that carried packaging, like GROW, Group Recycling of Wood, an association of manufacturers who make wooden crates and baskets for produce out of sustainably grown poplar. GROW is the only association who takes back their wooden containers under the German Dual System of recycling, and then they make chipboard, compost and soil enhancers out of the reclaimed wood.

There were also several interesting German publications, like Oko-Test, the Magazine for Health and Environment. It tests products and their packaging for pesticides, heavy metals and additives, ranking them in charts much like Consumer Reports. There have been issues on clothes, children's products, cosmetics, etc. Das Alternative Branchenbuch, the alternative business book, lists 21,000 companies in Germany who specialize in ecological products, services and technologies. This yellow-pages style directory is almost 500 pages long and it sells for about $15. Germany's biggest socially and ecologically responsible investment company, Ethik, was there, too. Antje Schneeweiss, Ethik's representative, informed me that they invest in American companies, and that they would like to hear from In Business's readers!

Even though the food floor was vast and there were many new tastes to discover, the second floor, where the products were, required extensive exploration. The major categories of products were clothing and textiles; cosmetics; furniture, building elements and bedding; stationery and gifts; shoes and leather goods; and new age goods. Many exhibitors belong to associations like the Bundesverband okologischer Einrichtungshauser e. V., the national association of registered ecologically sound furniture stores. Being among the fifty-plus members of this Oko Control group means that you sell sustainably grown wood furniture, free of hazardous finishes, padding and glue. They had beautiful reconfigurable furniture on display to promote the concept "buy your furniture now to last for the rest of your life".

Other wood products included Eco-Hangers by Cygnus AB, made from a Swedish lignin-bonded sawdust material like Evanite, which is also used for custom store displays. Upon disposal, the Eco-Hangers can be recycled or composted, and the factory uses the waste wood for their kiln's steam plant. Their representative, Per Werinius, said they had a very good response at Bio Fach from Germany, Switzerland and the Benelux countries, where even the big chain stores are prepared to pay the extra 10% for a green hanger. A colorful line of office furnishings and toys designed by Holger Danneberg for Werkhaus uses softwood waste pressed into sturdy boards. Modern and playful, Werkhaus products are sold knocked-down in a kraft paper wrapping, and they come with a neat system of rubber-bands that hold the pieces snugly together. Their natural colors are waxed on and the company is working with a university to develop a better, formaldehyde-free bonding agent for the wood fibers. Dubbed "architecture for the office worker", Werkhaus products have won several design awards.

A good portion of the second floor was dedicated to Bio Resource Hemp (the non-THC variety), with over 40 exhibitors from nine countries. The range of high-quality products was truly remarkable, including yardage, clothes and accessories, string and rope, paper and paperboard, food, fuel, furniture, bedding and construction materials, cosmetics, art supplies and even the world's first hemp-based plastic. The oil in hemp seeds has a wealth of industrial uses, and nutritionally, it's a rich source of essential fatty acids. It is grown organically, and, judging by the Hemp Symposium's effort to disseminate information to farmers and entrepreneurs about governmental regulations, producing hemp locally as well as developing new uses for it, we should soon have a much bigger, more affordable supply. Hemp seemed to be a big attraction for the press and there were several TV cameras blocking the aisles.

Several American companies were among the exhibitors, including Ohio Hempery, ECO Lution and American Hemp Mercantile, all of whom showed textiles and clothes to very interested buyers. John Roulac of Hemptech was there with his new book on industrial uses of hemp (printed on hemp paper with hemp and soy inks, it's $4.95), which is bound to inspire creative thinking. Product development is the key to moving hemp beyond the novelty stage. John pointed out that hemp development and de-regulation owe a lot to the Internet and to GATT, and believes that "just like the Berlin Wall, the hemp wall will soon fall". Two governments sent personnel from their Department of Agriculture to the Hemp Symposium, one of them was our neighbor, Canada, who licensed a small acreage for hemp growing last year.

A Dutch company, the Green Machine, has promotional materials that states "literally speaking, anything that is not made from metal can be produced from hemp," many attendees felt that more consideration of the most appropriate uses for hemp needs to be made. A comparison was made at the elegant booth of Leinen und Umwelt (Linen & Environment), a division of Holstein Flacks GmbH, where many years of improvements have gone into the growing, processing and design of organic linen fibers into wearables and textiles. Through their connection to Naturland, the agricultural association, the seeds are used in food production and the woody stalks mulched into animal bedding. Their flax consultant, Egon Heger, compared hemp to a soap bubble, and wondered why more producers weren't interested in jute, which he feels is ecologically preferable as well as cheaper. He doesn't think hemp belongs next to skin, however, I found blends like Ohio Hempery's hemp/silk fabric to be very wearable. Considering the international cooperation and interest that prevailed at Bio Fach's Bio Resource Hemp as well as the major symposia on jute and bamboo taking place at other venues in 1995, we'll soon be seeing a lot more of these bio-fibers.

In the cosmetics area, some of the product refill systems for liquids like shampoos were most impressive. Some were pouch packs that are purchased and emptied into an existing container at home, other fluids are pumped out of narrow-profile plastic jugs in the store. Vel Vet's beautiful glass globe pumps aren't purchased by the store, instead, they pay only for the products dispensed. Eventually, these refill systems go back to the manufacturer for refilling, and very little waste is created. Some of the purest, 100% natural products are only available in small bottles, this way, the consumer is assured of getting them while they are absolutely fresh. This is the practice of Urtekram, a 23 year old Danish cosmetic and natural food company, which has a total environmental commitment. They designed their plastic bottles with a single resin for the cap, label and bottle, so when the company takes them back, they are very easy to recycle into new black bottles. They are one of the first shampoo makers to use corn glucose instead of coconut-derived ingredients, as it can be sourced locally, it's biodegradable within a day and it's very gentle, to boot. All ingredients are vegan and organic. The Urtekram factory has natural lighting, a windmill and hay-burning power station for power, so it is self-sufficient. Their 35 workers have flexible schedules, and if they commute by bike, they have a mileage allowance added to their paycheck. Comprehensive approaches like theirs are becoming more common in Europe.

If this article has whetted your appetite, you may want to be there next year. The 1996 Bio Fach is scheduled from March 7 to 10, but double-check before you book your flight to Frankfurt. Attendees can simply pay a daily admission without advance registration. The closing date for exhibitors is before December 1, and the booths cost about $900 for the smallest and go up to $7,500, with extra charges for everything. March can be a good time to find airfare discounts. Expect to pay at least $75 a night for a hotel room. Try to find one near Hauptbahnhof Frankfurt, the central train station, which is just a ten minute walk from the Bio Fach. Practice your German, and bring a camera. Bring materials to share and to promote your ecological projects. You'll have fun and come back full of good, green ideas and new friends.

CONTACTS:

Bio Fach info from Sunder & Rottner, Von-Vollmar-Str. 4, D-91154 Roth, Germany, fax: +49-9171/4016.

International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) fax +49-6853-30110, email: IFOAM-SECRETARY@OLN.COMLINK.APC.ORG

Naturland-Verband, Kleinhaderner Weg 1, 82166 Grafelfing, Alemania, Germany, fax: +49-89-855-974

Tropical Source: US Office, One Sutter St., Suite 300, San Francisco, CA 94104, tel: 415-433-6390, fax: 415-433-9494

Krischer: Fax: +49-2636-97 5015

GROW: fax: +49-6202-60 9486

Oko-Test Magazine, fax: +49-6979-20 9639

Das Alternative Branchenbuch: Fax: +49-89/725 6246

Ethik: Ethisches Investment Koln, Seyengasse 2, 50 678 Koln, Germany, Fax: +49-221/331 8383

Bundesverband okologischer Einrichtungshauser e. V.: Johannes Genske Subbelrather Str. 26a, 50823 Koln, Germany

Eco-Hangers by Cygnus AB, Fax: +46-322-331-54

Werkhaus: fax: +49-5804/988-55

Ohio Hempery: tel: 1-800-BUY-HEMP, fax: 614-662-6446

ECO Lution: tel: 703-207-9001, fax: 703-560-1175

American Hemp Mercantile: tel: 1-800-469-4367, fax: 206-340-1086

Hemptech: tel: 805-646-HEMP; Fax; 805-646-7404; email: hempt@aol.com

Green Machine: fax: +31-20-638-2375

Leinen und Umwelt, c/o Holstein Flacks GmbH: +49-4551-6990

Vel Vet: fax: +49-6236/60054

Urtekram: fax: +45-9854-2333

© Wendy E. Brawer 1995

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