When Nike recently announced to have changed its CSR policy and committed to the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS), FashionUnited picked up the news under the headline “Nike opts for cruelty-free wool”. The next day, animal rights organisation PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) contacted FashionUnited with the information that the headline was inaccurate - simply following the RWS that excludes the procedure of mulesing (cutting skin from around a sheep’s breech and tail) does not make the whole process cruelty free - sheep are still beaten, kicked, punched and ultimately killed.
This shocking fact made FashionUnited want to know more, not only in regards to wool but also about down, mohair and other materials that involve animals. FashionUnited spoke with someone who regularly sheds light on common practices - PETA’s Jacqueline Sadashige who helps corporations adopt more humane and sustainable products and policies.
What does your job as senior corporate responsibility officer entail?
I work for PETA’s corporate responsibility team. We form strong collaborative relationships with companies and point out cruel practices in the animal materials industries and encourage them to move in the direction of new and exciting vegan materials.
Do companies defend using a particular material that involves animal cruelty?
Yes, companies may say that they can’t stop using material X because this is what consumers want. But the question is - why do they want it? They want it because the marketing has been so good, it may have been promoted as “natural” or “luxurious”. But it is not. Let’s take wool, for example. Consumers are told that it is natural and wonderful but PETA has investigated more than 100 wool operations on four continents - among them in Scotland and England - and in all of them, sheep have been beaten, kicked, punched and ultimately killed. Cruelty is something that is built into the industry.
And there is no exception, no animal-derived material that is “safe” to use, that is obtained in a cruelty-free way?
No. The moment an animal becomes a commodity, there is violence, there is cruelty. We looked at animals raised for hair in places including Peru, Mongolia, and Australia, and there was violence and high stress levels for the animals. Alpacas, for example, are prey animals, and shearing increases their stress levels. They go into a “fight or flight” state each time they are sheared.
What about small farms that are said to treat their (few) animals like family?
Unfortunately, they are often worse and because of the small scale, the veterinary care - if there is any - can be rudimentary. In addition, the environmental impact can be worse due to poor waste management.
I actually witnessed sheep shearing as a tourist attraction in Australia in the ‘90s. Back then, I noticed how little time was spent per animal, how rough they were handled and that the animals were bleeding because the shears went into their flesh.
Yes, what you witnessed in the ‘90s was what they thought was acceptable to the public. Since then, things have not gotten better. Sure, many companies now refuse to buy mulesed wool, which is an improvement but production has increased and workers are still paid by volume, which encourages fast, aggressive shearing, leaving sheep with open bloody wounds.
Coming back to a material being “natural” because it has come from an animal…
That’s a myth. By the time it reaches the consumer, it is anything but natural. Let’s take wool for example - wool is extremely greasy, that is how it protects the animal in any kind of weather. So there needs to be a thorough cleaning process that requires chemicals and tremendous amounts of water. Leather has to be tanned, which usually requires toxic chemicals - any kind of animal-derived material prepared for humans to wear will not decompose if thrown in a landfill, hence it can never be called “natural”. While wool will biodegrade, these so-called natural materials also often contain harmful chemical dyes or finishes which can be released into the environment when the item breaks down.
Then what is the alternative?
There are many cosy vegan materials available.
Which have gotten a bad rep because they required adding some form of plastic material to make them more durable and malleable.
The progress of these alternatives is spiking. Although some of the early non-animal materials had these problems, now there are plant polymers and also 100 percent plant-based materials. Hemp, cotton, bamboo and wood-pulp-derived materials for example.
How reliable are current standards then, like the Responsible Wool Standard, the Responsible Down Standard, the Responsible Mohair Standard?
Though the idea is not a bad one, the enforcement is a problem and the interpretation can be loose. Some painful processes are still permissible, castration and ear notching in sheep for example. In terms of giving pain relievers to the animals, the standard’s phrasing is “when suitable pain relief is available,” which leaves a lot of room for interpretation.
Though the RWS bans “live exports”, the practice still persists. That is when animals at the end of their “useful” life get loaded onto ships and then shipped off to slaughter. The travel takes months and because the animals are considered mere commodities, are not given adequate food or water, let alone medicines. Those who die can simply be thrown overboard or are left to rot.
When it comes to audits, an entire farm area can be certified. Farm area certification only requires auditing a sample of the certified area. In the PETA Asia investigation in Russia of the Responsible Down Certified farm area, investigators were told that the auditors know the area, so they don’t bother to ask farmers how the geese are raised. Individual farm audits are usually announced, so the farms can prepare. Brands need to conduct their own unannounced audits if they want to see what actually happens.
But the bottom line is that the profit is always more important and assurances made by suppliers are therefore meaningless. The industry wields tremendous power, and the ability to enforce standards to the T is limited.
So what can we do?
Brands, retailers, consumers and governing bodies need to work together. But consumers don’t realise how much power they have. They can start asking stores for cruelty-free products. Dr Martens is a good example - their profits skyrocketed when they offered the first vegan boot (together with Marc Jacobs). Nike knows the power of vegan editions as well; they collaborated with Billy Eilish - who is vegan and a PETA supporter – on multiple designs. Consumers are so savvy these days, they know where to find the information they need. But if they aren’t sure, there are cruelty-free shopping lists, information on investigations, and the PETA mall on our website.
What about the popular argument that the product cost would go up?
Yes, we hear that, companies will say “it would cost us more to produce cruelty-free, we would have to pass it on to the consumer”. But studies have been done; consumers would pay more for products that align with their values.
Last but not least, does PETA actively support/finance alternative materials?
Let’s not forget, PETA is an animal rights organisation. At the end of the day, companies know what they need in terms of materials, we are not experts in that. However, we will inform them about alternative materials, for example there is a down alternative made out of wildflowers. Companies need to get ahead of the game in terms of what is possible. Our main goal is to keep animals out of the supply chain. But having said that, we have awarded design prizes, compassionate business awards and there is the one-million-dollar Vegan Wool Challenge.