LONDON, United Kingdom — The fashion industry is shifting. Led by a social and eco-conscious generation, today's consumers are increasingly demanding to know about the journey their garments took before arriving on the shop floor. It's this awareness that's caused a great many to ditch fur, exotic skins, and angora — after all, who can really feel good strutting around in a fur coat once you've seen images of foxes living alone and petrified in tiny cages and having their skin peeled off? Yet, somehow wool seems to have escaped such scrutiny — until now.
Over the last year, PETA has released several video exposés of the wool industry, documenting cruelty at more than 30 farms and wool sheds across three continents, including Australia — the world's largest exporter of wool. In what looked like scenes from a horror film, the investigative footage shows workers as they stomp and stand on sheep's heads, violently punch them in the face, and hit them on the head with electric clippers and hammers. It's truly the stuff of nightmares.
Investigators also saw sheep penned and denied food and water the night before being shorn, in part to weaken them so they would put up minimal resistance. One shearer explained, “Imagine if someone attacked you after you'd had a full meal, you'd have more fight in you; but if you'd been starved for 24 hours, you wouldn't have much of a fight.”
Shearers are often paid by volume, not by the hour, which motivates them to work as quickly as they can. In their haste, nipples, ears, skin tags, skin folds and even penises are sometimes cut right off. If reading that makes you flinch — it should. It's as painful to a sheep as it would be if done to you or me. Shorn sheep are then left battered and bloodied — if they make it out at all. During one shearing session, a worker was caught on film as he twisted a sheep's neck so violently that it broke.
Many people who would never have touched fur continued to wear wool because they mistakenly believed that animals don't have to be killed or harmed in order to produce it.
Even those facilities that present themselves as "sustainable" and "responsible" are not immune to egregious abuse. At the Ovis 21 farm network in Argentina, eyewitnesses saw workers kneel on conscious lambs and cut through their necks with knives, causing them to bleed and vomit as they struggled, kicking and flailing. It's little wonder that Patagonia, which claimed that its wool was "responsibly sourced," cut ties with the supplier shortly after the video aired.
Other retailers are also reacting — Asos, Uniqlo, Topshop and H&M, for example, have ditched wool that comes from mulesed sheep, who endure a mutilation in which dinner plate–sized chunks of the skin and flesh around their tails are cut off in a crude attempt to prevent maggot infestation. In line with her stand against fur, exotic skins, and leather, Stella McCartney has said she is looking into developing vegan wool alternatives. Even the supreme queen of knitwear, Vivienne Westwood, crafts some pieces in her renowned knit collections in cotton and linen. With so many humane alternatives, including bamboo, rayon, ramie, woven metal, soya silk, hemp, and microfibre, consumers and designers are rapidly running out of reasons to use the real thing.
Previously, many people who would never have touched fur continued to wear wool because they mistakenly believed that animals don't have to be killed or harmed in order to produce it. But the time for ignorance is over. We now know that whenever animals are viewed as nothing more than commodities to be turned into wool coats or scarves, fur trim or leather boots, cruelty will always be a part of the production process. And we also know that whether it's a frightened fox's fur, a calf's skin, or the wool from a gentle lamb, it's not "fabric" and it's not ours for the taking. It had an owner who was robbed of it by greed and might. Now, with so many designers and retailers offering impressive vegan fabrics that are not only stylish but also warm and animal- and eco-friendly, isn't it time we leave wool and other animal skins out of our wardrobe once and for all?
Elisa Allen is director of PETA UK.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.