VirgoCoop is a cooperative company created in 2018 by 4 founding partners, based in Lot (46). It follows a project started in 2015 and aims to actively support the ecological transition of French territories, more precisely Occitania.
Its priority project concerns the development of a textile hemp sector in Occitania. Originally, one of the founders was an eco-builder who wanted to stop sourcing hemp from geographically distant cultures.
As hemp in the building industry is a market that is difficult to access with already too important actors, textile appeared as a more interesting and innovative outlet. Moreover, creating a 100% local and French textile industry is a way to counter the textile industry which is extremely polluting (fashion is responsible for 1.2 billion tons of CO2 each year, ADEME, 2019).
It is little by little, through meetings and exchanges that the VirgoCoop cooperative was born. The development of various projects is accelerating as time goes by. The choice was made to set up a cooperative on the basis of the social and solidarity economy where the actors involved are stakeholders and receive a dividend. The cooperative brings expertise and support to different projects that provide local added value on social, environmental and economic levels.
In particular, its ambition is to support the development of new commercial outlets for agricultural activities with high ecological value.
→ co-products that can be easily valorized (seeds, chickweed)
The setting up of a new textile hemp industry in Occitania is in a way a response to the textile industry which today pollutes enormously. This know-how inspired by ancestral techniques amounts to making fabrics and clothing that have a zero carbon footprint.
Making local products by concentrating production, transformation and distribution/use sites in the same region considerably limits transport and therefore greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, the transformation process (defibering and spinning) involves only mechanical forces, no chemical compounds or pollutants.
This process results in 100% natural, high quality products, is an alternative to the textiles we usually consume which come from the other side of the world with a lower quality, and whose environmental cost is very high.
It is important to take into account the “local” aspect” says Mathieu, he stresses “we do not necessarily seek to make French, we want to make local and limit transport as much as possible, if we have to exchange with northern Spain we will do so, it makes more sense than bringing materials from northern France.
The sector is establishing itself in the South West of France and ensures a sustainable supply of hemp: on the one hand the climate is perfectly adapted to it, so its cultivation is simple and beneficial for the soil, easy to insert in a crop rotation, and on the other hand the sector guarantees a fair remuneration for the farmers who will start its production.
Because of its ease of cultivation, hemp can be a good driving force in the conversion of land to organic agriculture (OA), thus facilitating the transition of farmers to a more sustainable agriculture.
The establishment of such a local industry encourages customers to turn to local products, made at home, on their own territory. This 100% Occitan sector favors the local economy, creates wealth that will be redistributed locally by guaranteeing all its actors a fair remuneration for their work. It is an alternative to low-cost textiles that makes customers aware of the importance of reducing their environmental impact through their consumption choices.
Currently, VirgoCoop is mainly focused on the hemp textile sector to be developed in Occitania. In order to break the technical barriers that prevent the local production and processing of hemp, the cooperative acts upstream and downstream of the sector: it wants to create structures adapted to the implementation of this sector. This renewal of an ancestral know-how on a local scale has an undeniable environmental value by limiting as much as possible the carbon footprint of the clothes that will be made from it, but also a social dimension since it wants to be fair and remunerate the different actors at the fair value of their work.
One of the major obstacles to the development of this local textile industry lies in the transformation of straw: defibration and spinning are complex processes currently carried out in Eastern Europe (Poland in particular), in France there are not yet structures adapted to hemp spinning. Moreover, to weave with hemp it is necessary to take out high quality fibers and to make very fine yarns. The objective of VirgoCoop is to break the technical barriers and obstacles to the development of this sector. This is why the cooperative is currently supporting the development of a defibering machine with the company Hemp Act (specialized in hemp for more than 20 years) and is working to strengthen the weaving activity by investing in weavers’ workshops in Castres-Mazamet. The first trials of the defibrator are scheduled for autumn 2020, and the partners hope that by 2021 it will enable the processing of locally grown hemp in Occitania.
Downstream, VirgoCoop is also working on the marketing of textiles: the Tufferry tailor (in Lozère) markets these 100% Occitan hemp jeans and the profits are used to reinvest in research and development in order to move up the hemp textile sector.
A partnership exists with farmers to develop the cultivation of hemp and to carry out the first experiments in the creation of textiles (today 3 ha of hemp are cultivated for experiments). Farmers seem enthusiastic about hemp cultivation, which is a relatively easy crop, requiring little maintenance on the part of the grower: a new outlet would allow them to diversify their production and thus provide them with additional income security.
Also, hemp fits very well in the crop rotation and is beneficial on different agronomic aspects (for example, a cereal crop planted after hemp sees its yield increased by 5 to 10%): it is a simple crop that is perfectly suited for the conversion of land to organic farming and could even facilitate this transition.
VirgoCoop would like to launch new hemp farms in Occitania. In addition, there are already hemp production basins in France (such as in Aube where several thousand hectars are cultivated) in other regions.
Manufacture of hemp pants
The implementation of such a local production chain will greatly limit pollution at all levels of the production chain: hemp is easily cultivated in Organic Agriculture, transport between production, processing and marketing sites will be considerably reduced. In the same way, the use of a 100% natural material for the constitution of textiles guarantees a transformation without chemical products. The carbon footprint of such clothes or fabrics is almost zero.
Moreover, the cultivation of hemp itself is beneficial for the soil: it allows deep aeration, loosens the soil, consumes little water and guarantees a good yield for subsequent crops. Easy to insert in the rotation and profitable, hemp is a good crop to grow, beneficial in every way.
The establishment of such a sector will obviously have positive economic benefits by creating jobs, stimulating the local economy, but also offering additional opportunities for farmers. The diversification of their activity guarantees them income security. Moreover, hemp is a profitable crop because it requires little maintenance, so it is a low investment that can nevertheless accelerate the transition to organic agriculture, which allows an added value on certified products.
The choice of a cooperative to encourage such types of projects allows the benefits to be shared equitably between the stakeholders (dividends) – in other words the different actors in the sector who invest in the cooperative because they have a major economic interest in the success of the sector – but also the citizens who come to support these projects to develop the local economy and accompany the development of their territory. The citizens become actors in the transition of their territory. Once established, the sector aims to be fair and to ensure fair remuneration for farmers and other stakeholders in decent working conditions, which are very different from those experienced by the textile industry today.
The revival of the hemp textile industry has many advantages that are favorable to its reproducibility:
However, some limitations remain, starting with the sector which is still not really existing, everything has to be put in place and the creation of the sector still needs development. The transformation of hemp to obtain a quality product is quite technical and requires equipment as well as specific training.
Hemp textile is not competitive with cotton, prices are not competitive at this stage. Indeed, cotton is an economy of scale (i.e. the unit cost decreases as the quantity produced increases) while hemp remains a niche market, it will remain more expensive than cotton textiles for a long time.
VirgoCoop defines itself as a “project gas pedal”, and although the renewal of the hemp sector is currently a priority, it is not the only focus of the cooperative: VirgoCoop provides support and expertise on other projects. For example, the setting up of a PPAM (Plantes à Parfum Aromatiques et Médicinales) chain in the Lot region to produce essential oils, work has already begun with growers and distillers. As hops are rather difficult to find in France, another project would be to develop hop farms for a local brewing industry. As hops require a few years before production, the cooperative is helping small producers to raise funds while the crops are in a position to produce.
We liked VirgoCoop very much because the cooperative supports projects that promote artisanal and local creation. It encourages the making of meaningful products, thus energizing the territory in which they are produced by involving local actors at all stages of the production chain. The hemp textile sector has become obsolete with the arrival of the low-cost textile industry, yet it is an ancestral know-how that allows us to obtain high quality textiles with almost zero environmental cost.
Small French producers need to find new outlets for their crops and craftsmen, so that their know-how can be valorized; the return to more traditional channels is an excellent way to valorize farmers and craftsmen. In addition, the customer will benefit from a high quality product and will participate, through these consumer choices, in the development and dynamism of his region. VirgoCoop allows these projects to be supported and to see the light of day more quickly. This is a very good thing because many producers and artisans are waiting to see their work finally and rightly valued.
Copyright CirculAgronomie 2020