Farmed sheep are not the same as wild sheep. They can’t shed their coats naturally, and consequently sheering is a must for their health and survival. Pounds of unsheared coat leads to heatstroke, infections and immobilization. Anti-shear PETA followers should try wearing their own winter coats year-round.
Still, as a vegan and a conscientious consumer, I’ve always raised my eyebrows at the wool industry. In a world where the internet rules and anyone can tell the story with whatever spin they please, it’s hard to know which story is correct, #alternativefacts.
PETA published an inflammatory exposé of the sheep industry in 2016. The campaign was a series of graphic photos featuring models holding bloodied lambs and captions such as “Here’s the rest of your wool coat.” The resulting backlash from the wool industry focused on the fact that the pictured sheep were neither real nor representative of the industry. PETA defenders upped the ante with even more graphic footage from more than 30 U.S. and Australian farms, showing sheep being kicked, stamped on, thrown and mutilated until death. Some shearers punched them or jabbed the sheeps’ faces, leaving them with bloody eyes, noses and mouths.
Even well-intentioned, anti-animal cruelty companies can be connected to inhumane farmers. In 2015, a collective of farms in Argentina known as the Ovis 21 network were exposed in a video as skinning lambs alive as well as mutilating, abusing and neglecting the herds of sheep. At the time, Ovis 21 was part of Patagonia’s “Sustainable Wool” supply chain. Following the release of the video Patagonia dropped Ovis 21 and doubled down on their efforts to ensure their wool supply was responsibly sourced. Patagonia now requires their farmers to be Responsible Wool Certified (RWS) as well as meet the Patagonia Wool Standard (PWS).
As grim as it all seems, there are farmers who make animal care their top priority. Becky Weed’s farm (Thirteen Mile Lamb and Wool Company), for example, is an organic, solar-powered wool processing facility with strict animal welfare practices. Weed has 160 acres for approximately 100 sheep. “Occasionally there may be some cuts (after shearing the sheep),” she told EcoWatch, “but I’d wager I cut and bruise and bleed more often myself working on the ranch than my sheep do when they’re shorn. I think it’s one of the least cruel things that happens to animals in agriculture.” At the time of the interview, Weed was one of 44 wool producers in North America certified by Animal Welfare Approved.
As things stand, wool remains an incredibly important fiber in our society and sheep are dependent on farmers. In some future utopia, the breeding of sheep will be discontinued slowly, all the farmers will be re-introduced to alternative jobs, and we’ll be wearing super synthetics that are both less ecologically costly and super warm. For now, however, the wool industry is here to stay, with thousands of people involved in industrial farms, rural communities, supply chain factories, manufacturers, brands and retailers.
So can you buy wool responsibly? If you’re set on getting the best quality, most humanely sourced wool, then do your research! Look for certifications and company promises. Not everything you read on the internet is to be trusted, but the more you dig the more you’ll know.