POLOLO interview with Heike Hess, head of the office of the International Association of the Natural Textile Industry

The International Association of the Natural Textile Industry e.V. (IVN) is committed to sustainability, respect and responsibility towards the environment. At all stages of production and distribution, this attitude is to be implemented and brought to the attention of as many people as possible. POLOLO conducted an interview with Heike Hess, the head of the office in Berlin:

Why don’t you tell us briefly what the goals and tasks of your association, the IVN, are?

Hess: The main goal of the association is to seriously improve the environmental and social conditions in the textile and leather industry. We want to make consumers aware of what the circumstances are like in production – especially in low-wage countries – and convince them to pay attention to sustainability when buying clothes and shoes. As a professional association, our goal is of course also to support our members in the best possible way – through advice, networks, press work, political lobbying or the provision of our quality seals.

Can you also briefly tell us something about the organic labels you represent, for textiles and leather?

The two quality labels are called NATURTEXTIL BEST and NATURLEDER. They guarantee that the certified products are made from natural and sustainable raw materials that have been produced without chemicals that are harmful to health and the environment. The production processes are subject to strict regulations on resource and water protection as well as waste disposal. All certified companies must demonstrably pay their workers fairly, ensure sufficient occupational safety and guarantee compliance with human rights. Certified products are free of harmful substances and meet high quality standards. The special thing about our certifications is that every single company involved in the production of a product is inspected: From the farmer who raises sheep to the tannery, finisher, shoe manufacturer and retailer.

Why should end consumers, especially parents, buy products made of natural or vegetable-tanned leather at all? What health aspects are important, especially for babies and children?

On the one hand, you can be sure that you have done something for the environment by buying natural leather or even vegetable-tanned leather. But much more important is the fact that vegetable-tanned or even certified leather products do not contain any harmful substances that make people sick. Heavy metals, especially chromium, are of particular concern, but so are many other substances such as formaldehyde, aromatic amines, chlorophenols, heavy metals – the list of chemicals goes on and on. These substances can be carcinogenic, allergenic, hormone-damaging and much more – and they can settle in the human organism. This is particularly dangerous for children, because their sensitivity is higher than that of adults. Children romp and sweat a lot, their skin rubs against clothes and shoes due to all the movement. Sweat and friction release harmful substances from shoes particularly well and thus get onto the skin and into the body. Babies also like to put their shoes in their mouths.

As a consumer, how can I recognise good and reputable manufacturers of good children’s shoes?

The easiest way is to look for seals that guarantee sustainability, health compatibility and quality. I have already mentioned the NATURLEDER seal. But you can also look for the OekoTex or ECARF seal, which at least guarantee health compatibility. An additional indication of the seriousness of manufacturers for me would now also be membership in the IVN, as we select our members carefully.

Do natural leathers have different properties than conventionally produced leathers?

The usage properties of the leather are fully preserved when processed according to the NATURLEDER guidelines, which is often not the case with conventional leather. Especially when coated with synthetic agents, the leather, which is actually breathable, is literally “plastered over”. However, natural leathers can also stain more easily, as these coatings also ensure that the colour cannot escape from leather shoes.

You have also taken up the cause of promoting small and medium-sized enterprises. Why is that so important? Are manufacturers of natural textiles and natural leather mainly family businesses?

In fact, it is mainly small and medium-sized pioneer companies that have themselves certified with our two quality labels. The idealistic motivation of our members is an important driver for our work – and this is more likely to be found in smaller companies. Large companies have better opportunities to pursue sustainability goals due to greater market power, higher budgets and personnel power. Smaller companies compensate for these advantages by joining forces, as we do in the association.

The IVN is co-owner of the “Global Organic Textile Standard”. What is the significance of this seal in Germany, what comparable national seals are there?

The GOTS is now quite well known among consumers in Germany. This is certainly due to the fact that consumers are asking more and more for certified products and that even large discounters offer GOTS goods from time to time. Although the standard is somewhat lower than the IVN seal, it is still a trustworthy and holistic standard.

Is everything that says “organic” and “eco” actually organic? Why is education by an association necessary for the consumer?

In Germany, a product is “organic” if the raw materials have been produced organically in a controlled manner; this is stipulated by the EU Organic Regulation. In the case of clothing, however, “organic” only refers to the raw fibres, i.e. cotton, wool, silk, linen and the like. How these fibres are then processed, i.e. how they are tanned, dyed or finished, is not regulated by the legislator. The term “organic” therefore does not make any statement about social standards or the absence of harmful substances. You can only buy really “clean” products if you look for additional seals such as GOTS, NATURTEXTIL or NATURLEDER.

What distinguishes companies that are IVN-certified from others?

The difference lies mainly in the products that these companies offer, because they are inspected by independent certifiers throughout the entire production process. So it is not enough for companies or their suppliers to say that they work sustainably. The products are sustainable with “letter and seal”, so to speak. Certified companies thus take responsibility for the goods they offer, not only here on the market, but also for all the factories where their products are manufactured. It is important to certified companies that their business neither pollutes the environment nor exploits the people who actually make the clothes and shoes.

Further information:

Der Internationale Verband der Naturtextilwirtschaft e.V. (English version)

Photo: Heike Hess (IVN e.V.)