Written by Zenda Nel
Sustainability reporter

When one thinks of cruelty in the fashion industry, it’s fur and leather that immediately comes to mind, not wool, silk and feathers and down. After all, sheep and rabbits are not killed for their wool, and neither are ducks and geese killed for their feathers. But silkworms do die in their cocoons; and sheep, rabbits, ducks and geese are treated thoughtlessly for their wool and feathers.

The leather industry

Fortunately, the relentless actions of animal rights activists have led to the decline of the fur industry, but the leather industry still kills more than one billion animals per year. And much as we would like to console ourselves that leather is a by-product of the meat industry, it’s not: it’s the most prominent and economically viable co-product of the meat industry.

Most leather is produced in developing countries where animal rights are a foreign concept. In these countries cows and other animals are often kept in crowded conditions and endure invasive procedures like castration, branding, and tail-docking, often without anaesthetics. 

It’s not only cattle that offer their hides for human use. Calves, sheep, lambs, pigs, goats, exotic species like buck, bison, elephants, crocodiles, alligators, ostriches, lizards, and snakes, also suffer from the butcher’s knife for fashion.

Anyone who takes the time to watch one or two videos online about the treatment of animals who are farmed for their skins would not remain untouched.

Fortunately, fashion innovators are coming up with new alternatives to animal leather all the time. We don’t have to buy a product that costs an animal its life in order to have a handbag that resembles snakeskin. We can buy products made from alternative leathers fashioned out of plant materials like mushrooms, apples, pineapple leaves, coconuts, and a whole host of other possibilities still being developed.

So, now we decide to give up leather and settle for wool instead – we’ll still be warm, and the animals that produced the wool were not killed for it, but there is a problem.

Why wool is not a cruelty-free product

Wool is derived from several animals other than sheep, including goats, alpacas, rabbits, bison, llamas, camels, yak and muskoxen. Wool has many characteristics that make it far superior to synthetic fibres. Wool has natural antimicrobial and anti-odour properties, which means it doesn’t require artificial additives or frequent washing, so uses less water and detergents. Wool garments are also long-lasting and regulate body temperature. When they come to the end of their usefulness, these natural fibres can be composted, biodegrading in a relatively short time. However, while wool may be relatively eco-friendly and sustainable, it’s not ethical. 

Sheep Shearing
Photo by Ardiss Hutaff on Unsplash

Merino wool

At the best of times, sheep shearing is not a pretty sight. Sheep are manhandled and the shearing gets done in record time with no apparent thought about what the experience is like for the animal. Shearers are usually paid by volume, so the more skins, the better the pay, which is not conducive to working with care. The practice leads to frequent injuries, which are either just left as is or roughly sewn up by workers with no proper training to do it properly.

But the real horror hides in a particularly gruesome procedure called “mulesing”, which entails cutting off chunks of skin on the animals’ backsides, most often without administering painkillers or medication to help the wounds heal afterwards. This is done to prevent insects from laying eggs in the wool and causing diseases that could kill the sheep and lead to profit losses. 

Some sheep are bred to have wrinkly skin, providing a larger area for the wool to grow, thus producing more wool. These sheep are especially subjected to mulesing because their wrinkly skin and the added heat caused by the extra wool make them prone to fungal infections – a problem that wouldn’t have existed had human greed not interfered.

Then, at the end of their lives, when they have given all their wool countless times, these docile animals are shipped off to the slaughterhouses of China, India, and North Africa. They endure horrendous conditions on their way there, only to be killed soon after their arrival. Australia is the world’s biggest producer of wool and the largest exporter of live animals for slaughter. 

 

Counting sheep

Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash

Mohair industry

Mohair, a luxury wool coveted by many upmarket brands, comes from Angora goats. South Africa is the world’s largest mohair producer, followed by Lesotho and Argentina. There have been reports of despicable treatment of the goats in the mohair industry. After a most disturbing report by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) on the treatment of Angora goats on South African farms, 300 brands announced that they would no longer sell mohair products. Mohair SA has since taken steps to identify the guilty farms, which the organisation says are an exception, and has implemented a new set of industry standards to ensure the goats are treated humanely.

All the same, the shearing process remains intensely stressful for the goats, a process that takes place twice a year. 

The emergence of sustainable and ethical mohair

Textile Exchange has announced the release of the Responsible Mohair Standard (RMS) alongside the first revision to the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS). The RMS verifies and identifies mohair produced in farming systems that respect animal welfare and the environment. When you buy a mohair product, make sure it carries both the RWS and RMS certifications.

Textile Exchange is a global organisation in the sustainable fibre and materials industry. It manages and promotes a suite of leading industry standards.

Angora wool

Wool is harvested from Angora rabbits who have extremely soft coats. The fibres add the softest luxurious warmth to other sources of wool, creating the warmest, softest garments. The wool is harvested by plucking or shearing.  

Some 90% of the world’s Angora wool comes from China, where a PETA investigator uncovered horrendous practices, with workers ripping out fur, leaving the animals in filthy cages and generally manhandling them. The rabbits go through the plucking ordeal three or four times a year and the stress is so intense that most of them die within a year or two. Being picked up and held down is especially traumatic for these gentle animals since they are prey animals.

An obvious solution

Some breeds naturally moult (shed their fur) a few times a year, in which case the falling fur can simply be picked up or pulled from the animal. In the case of breeds that don’t moult, such as the German Angora, the wool can be harvested with scissors or clippers. It is in the animals’ best interest to be plucked or sheared as their coats get too warm and they start licking it, which causes them to swallow the loose fur. 

It’s unnecessary for the harvesting of Angora rabbit wool to be harmful. Private farmers who harvest on a small scale can take their time to harvest the wool carefully and not cause the rabbits any stress or pain. Harvesting wool from Angora rabbits is not inherently cruel; it’s when it’s done on a large scale and under time pressure that animals suffer.

It’s possible to buy Angora wool from reputable small-scale breeders. However, there are no certifications available for Angora wool, so although it’s a sustainable source of fibre, there’s no way to guarantee that the wool was obtained through ethical practices.

Pashmina

Photo by Ash Edmonds on Unsplash

We all covet a cashmere shawl, but the luxurious softness comes at a price

Cashmere is the downy undercoat of the Kashmir goat that pashminas are made of. The wool comes from herds in China, Mongolia, India, Nepal, Afghanistan, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, and Iran. Cashmere is lighter, softer, and warmer than sheep’s wool.

Unfortunately, cashmere is not a sustainable and ethical product, no matter what luxury brands say. Once a luxury product only for the well-to-do, fast fashion practices have brought cashmere apparel to the general public at lower prices. This has had devastating environmental consequences.

There is a reason why cashmere used to be scarce: unique climate and geography with cold winters and nutritious grasslands. As demand for cashmere increased, herds got bigger, the land suffered and the quality of cashmere gradually deteriorated. Increasing herd sizes encroach on the habitats of exotic wildlife and we witness the unnecessary and inevitable extinction of snow leopards, saiga, ibex, wild yak, wild camels, and gazelles. What used to be grasslands are becoming deserts.

 

The regions where the goats are kept are known for very cold winters, and often goats die who were sheared in unpredictable winter conditions, which have become commonplace in these days of climate change. In some regions, winters have been getting colder, leading to large scale deaths among goat herds.

If you are sold on wearing cashmere, make sure you buy from brands that use recycled cashmere. Alternatively, look for the following certifications or standards: Recycled Claim Standard (RCS), The Global Recycled Standard (GRS), Good Cashmere Standard (GCS), Sustainable Fibre Alliance (SFA), Kering Standard on Cashmere, or Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS).  

Final thoughts

Wool is a natural fabric, meaning it’s biodegradable, and it’s sustainable because the animals that give us wool don’t have to die in the process. 

However, wool is not ethical. The sheep, goats and rabbits that produce wool for our consumption are often maltreated, in some cases with downright cruelty. In addition, large scale goat farming leads to degradation of the land and the displacement of wildlife, and ultimately their disappearance.

For discerning, environmentally conscious consumers, it’s best to check all brands out before buying from them. If you can’t get the information you need, the brand is not transparent, and you may want to give it a miss. Alternatively, buying second-hand is always an option.