Wool certainly has its appeal for those of us who like to dress ethically. It’s natural, hardwearing, moisture-wicking and potentially biodegradeable, and can be harvested without killing. Unfortunately, the image of the cared-for sheep leaving its lush pasture to submit to a skilled, respectful shearing is far from the reality of where most of our woollies really come from.
Australia is the world’s biggest producer – with the US it produces around 90% of the global wool supply. Commercial volumes are achieved by sacrificing animal welfare to profit margins. Tail-docking, castration and punching holes in the ears are routine in industrial sheep farming in both Australia and America, and casual brutality such as punching and maiming with shears is also commonplace. Millions of farmed sheep die every year from exposure, overcrowding, unchecked disease, violent abuse or neglect. When no longer productive they are shipped for slaughter, often to a country with no animal welfare regulation.
Ruthless selective breeding in pursuit of higher yields has created a further problem in Australia’s merino sheep, which have become vulnerable to a potentially deadly blowfly infestation known as flystrike. Merinos, which make up 89% of Australia’s 90 million farmed sheep (and contribute genes to most of the others) are bred to maximise skin area and therefore wool production. Not only does this make the animal unhealthily hot, it also increases the amount of loose skin around the anus and genitals, creating moist, hot, faeces-encrusted skin folds the flies can’t resist. Each successive generation, bred for more productivity, is also made even more vulnerable in this way. Wild Australian sheep, by contrast, free to move and with better-fitting skins, are rarely bothered by these unpleasant indigenous insects.
The Australian industry’s solution, to a problem it is creating itself, is even worse. Tens of millions of lambs a year in Australia are routinely subjected to “mulesing”, where swaths of skin and flesh are hacked from the anal area to make it less attractive to blowflies. This crude attempt to create smoother skin that won’t collect moisture leaves exposed, bloody wounds which can become infected and are often flystruck anyway.
In response to international outrage, Australia promised in 2004 to eliminate mulesing by 2010, although the proposed alternative, using a strong clip to cut off blood flow to the problematic skin, causing it to wither and drop off, seems scarcely better. Five years after the self-imposed deadline, mulesing is still both legal and common in Australia. Despite it’s ineffectiveness, and despite other countries having moved on or never adopted this bizarre form of brutality, up to 80% of Australia’s merinos are still subjected to it.
Wool from millions of sheep gets mixed together during transport and manufacture, (even ‘British Wool’ is allowed to comprise 50% imported fibres) so the chances of your new wool garment containing at least some fibres from ‘mulesed’ sheep are pretty high.
Many retailers, including H&M and M&S, now actively refuse to buy wool produced by mulesed sheep, which many hope will prompt more scrupulous buying practices in the wool trade. Other businesses are scrutinizing their supply chains, leading ethical retailers like Ibex, Patagonia and SmartWool to buy exclusively through NZ Merino [nzmerino.co.nz], an ethical initiative from New Zealand Nature. Icebreaker has even created a ‘Baacode’ for its merino, which you can use to look up your garment’s origins online. http://baacode.icebreaker.com/site/baacode/index.html#demo
Some Australian wool suppliers are staying in the game with a similar NewMerino certification scheme http://newmerino.com.au/wp/animal-welfare/, which guarantees sustainable and ethical sheep husbandry.
Others are cutting the chain out altogether. UK surf label Finisterre http://www.finisterreuk.com/initiatives/bowmont and designer Isobel Davis http://www.izzylane.com/ each manage their own herds. The welfare standards required for organic certification are extremely high, so organic suppliers like the UK’s Tamarisk http://www.tamariskfarm.co.uk/farm/ may also be worth considering.
Not only is sheep farming to meet consumption at its current rate cruel and unnatural, it’s also ecologically catastrophic. Any animal farming is inherently wasteful of both land and water, which is needed both to accommodate the animals and to cultivate their plant-based food. Their bodily waste contaminates local environments and their digestive systems expel unviable levels of ‘greenhouse gases’ like methane and carbon dioxide. Any responsible approach by the consumer would also have to include selecting carefully for durability and classic style, choosing recycled yarn where possible, and generally treating wool with the respect due to a valuable, limited resource. With wool being valued, High street fashion retailers and their fast fashion needs to look at much more ethically sourced collections and the traceability of animals in their supply chains. Fast fashion with its low margins and quality is not only harming the environment but also the animals in the supply chain.
There’s a valid argument that farming animals, even under stringent welfare standards, is always exploitative and therefore unacceptable. PETA is still saying; “Save a sheep–don’t buy wool.” http://www.petaasiapacific.com/featureMulesingAustralianWool.asp
It’s certainly easier to take a firm vegan line than to try to choose wool that’s not ethically dubious at best. Even the British Wool Marketing Board http://www.britishwool.org.uk/ maintains 99.9% of UK wool will always be a by-product of the meat industry.
If you must buy wool, be sure to support ethical projects like those above, which will hopefully inspire more larger retailers to look beyond hot-button issues like mulesing and use their considerably influence to push for generally improved welfare standards in sheep farming.