Can the activist group get fashion to give up another animal material?

After decades of fake-blood flinging and countless protests, 2018 was finally the year that fashion began doing away with fur in earnest, the result a combination of activism, educated consumerism and companies eager to court younger, socially-conscious shoppers without risking much in the way of their bottom line.

With that fight largely in the rearview, organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have set their sights on a new goal: Fighting against the use of wool. But fighting against the use of wool can be quite different than fighting fur.

Though farming wool does not require killing animals in the same way that farming fur does, PETA claims there is no humane way to shear sheep for wool. In its efforts to shed light on how the material is harvested, the international animal rights group has launched campaigns against retailers like Forever21 for wool sales (Forever21 did not respond to Fashionista's request for comment), asked a British village to change its name from "Wool" to "Vegan Wool" and, most recently, released 11 exposés focused on revealing how harmful the shearing process is to sheep.

"What's important to realize is this is not a case of uncovering one or two bad farms, this is systematic," says PETA associate director Ashley Byrne. "We find the same things [across sheep shearing operations.] Animals are beaten, kicked, punched and mutilated in front of each other in gruesome ways."

While there are companies that claim their materials are responsibly and ethically sourced, PETA says the entire industry is fraught with animal abuse. For example, Byrne says that part of the PETA investigation included looking at farms which supply companies including Patagonia, a brand which publicly emphasizes its use of materials that are environmentally and socially responsible.

After a 2017 investigation found that a Patagonia wool supplier inflicted harm to sheep that did not abide by the company's standards, the company suspended purchasing from those suppliers twice. By September 2018, Patagonia would not reveal its latest wool suppliers to PETA, despite promises to offer a transparent supply chain. Patagonia declined to comment for this story.

It would be comforting to think that reducing harm to animals is an overall win, but the circumstances manifest more of a zero-sum game, at least according to dissenters. The counter-argument to stopping the use of wool posits that choosing synthetic materials over animal products may be better for animals, but those same synthetic materials are harmful to the environment.

The Textile Exchange, a nonprofit industry group that works with a range of companies including Nike, Patagonia, Burberry and Kering, has its own Responsible Wool Standard (in place since roughly 2014) which seeks to ensure the best protections for animals and the environment. On the RWS site, the group says "there are no synthetic equivalents available today that provide the same feel and technical capabilities of wool, and as a natural fiber, wool offers many environmental benefits over oil-based fibers," and that "the vast majority of farms around the world raise sheep in a happy and protected environment, respecting the welfare of the animals and the health of the land." The RWS also notes that while it does its best to monitor instances of abuse or violations to its responsibility standards, there may be "isolated instances of animal cruelty on farms certified to the RWS."

"That argument comes from a place of ignorance or willful deception by industries," Byrne says in response. "It's an ignorance on the part of some in the fashion world and [wool] industries, and others are lobbying to keep these old materials that come from animals in the mainstream. There's so much greenwashing." 

Still, it seems easier to find credible examples of wool producers attempting to do good than was the case for fur producers. In October 2017, Vogue devoted a lengthy feature to how women sheep farmers across the U.S. engage in a harmonious, least-harm relationship with their animals, going so far as to describe the "rhythmic" Bowen shearing Technique as "a beautiful dance — fluid and clean," which also happens to mandate loose labor standards.

A look from Burberry's February 2018 collection. Photo: Imaxtree 

A look from Burberry's February 2018 collection. Photo: Imaxtree 

On the other side of the world, Australia is a leading global wool producer, and New Zealand has outlawed the practice of "mulesing," a procedure in which wool farmers carve chunks of flesh from lambs' backsides without using any painkillers to prevent infections such as flystrike. (PETA says that the practice is counter-intuitive, considering the "bloody wounds left by mulesing often become infected or attract flies anyway.")

In April 2018, the sustainability-focused consultancy Eco-Age released a documentary about shearing practices in Tasmania, highlighting farmers that are attempting to care for both the land and sheep. Dr. Beverley Henry, an environmental sciences professor at the Queensland University of Technology, says, "wool is one of the most environmentally low-impact fibers there are," adding "with plant-based fibers, you have to plow up the land, you lose a lot of soil carbon." To boot, synthetic materials contribute to fast fashion's overproduction problem while wool last longer and is recycled more often.

And what about the fashion companies? Burberry, for example, famous for its wool checked scarves, works with the Sustainable Fibre Alliance (SFA) an NGO committed to creating a sustainable cashmere supply chain, according to the group's website. 

The British company, which included cashmere as one of its three key raw materials representing approximately 30 percent of its overall greenhouse gas emissions, says its focused on improving traceability and sourcing of the material by 2022, according to Burberry's most recent annual earnings report. Plans include the launch of a five-year program in Afghanistan, an important cashmere producer, to benefit communities, herders and women, prioritizing sustainable farming and regional economic development.

The commitment signals a willingness to improve standards rather than do away completely with wool's use, as was the case when Burberry pledged to go fur-free in September 2018

Ultimately, the starting point in the fight against wool is further ahead than where it was when PETA first began fighting the use of fur, but the arguments for keeping the wool industry around — if not bettering it incrementally — seem more nuanced than those for fur. If there's anything to take away from the fur fight, it's that, in the end, it will be consumers who decide how to reward companies with their purchases when it comes to the use of wool.

Homepage photo: Imaxtree 

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