Patagonia and another “ethical” clothing brand are being accused of a new kind of animal cruelty

Patagonia—an Argentine region and a US company.
Patagonia—an Argentine region and a US company.
Image: Reuters/Marcos Brindicci
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This post has been updated.

You don’t generally think of wool as a material involved in debates on animal cruelty, like fur or leather. But a new investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) just put it at the center of one involving two big brands.

PETA uncovered what it calls ”routine mutilations” of sheep and lambs on two Argentine ranches in a network—of about 50—supplying wool to Patagonia and Stella McCartney. Both labels are known for their public commitments to ethical sourcing—McCartney, a committed vegetarian, doesn’t even use glue made with animal products.

Both Patagonia and Stella McCartney use the ranch network, called Ovis 21, as part of its sustainable wool program. But PETA recorded workers on the ranches abusing the sheep in a variety of ways, the most shocking and cruel including skinning them while still alive (that link includes a graphic video), in full view of other sheep, who bleat in distress.

“This video should mean that millions of people will think twice about ever buying wool socks and sweaters again,” PETA states on the video page.

Lambs on one of the Ovis 21 farms
Lambs on one of the Ovis 21 farms.
Image: PETA

Indeed, McCartney has suspended all purchases of wool from Ovis 21 since viewing the video. ”We are now even more determined to continue our fight for animal rights in fashion together and monitor even more closely all the suppliers involved in this industry,” McCartney said in a statement released through PETA.

“We are also looking into vegan wool as well, in the same manner we were able to develop and incorporate high-end alternatives to leather and fur over the years,” she added.

Patagonia released its own statement, as well as a detailed timeline of its involvement with Ovis 21 and which products its wool appears in, such as socks and baselayers. In 2011, it began sourcing from Ovis 21’s sustainable wool program, which is designed to help preserve the grasslands of Argentina by using only regenerative practices. ”We accept responsibility for everything done by our suppliers at any level, but especially in this case,” Patagonia said.

It hasn’t announced any course of action, but in the timeline, it says it is committed to “working with Ovis 21 to make needed improvements, reporting back to our customers and the public on steps we are taking.”

Update, August 17, 4:45pm EST: In a statement, Patagonia announced today that it will cease buying wool from Ovis 21. “We’ve spent the past several days looking deep into our wool supply chain, shocked by the disturbing footage of animal cruelty that came to light last week,” the company said. “In light of this, we’ve made a frank and open-eyed assessment of the Ovis program. Our conclusion: it is impossible to ensure immediate changes to objectionable practices on Ovis 21 ranches, and we have therefore made the decision that we will no longer buy wool from them.”

Patagonia added that it will not buy wool again until it has found a source offering “a verifiable process that ensures the humane treatment of animals.”

PETA’s investigation points to just how difficult it is for brands to monitor their supply chains, even when their supply chains claim to be ethical. It gets even harder when you start dealing with practices such as subcontracting, which is rampant in countries like Bangladesh and leads people to argue that it’s no longer even possible to be an ethical consumer.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Patagonia has run into this sort of problem before. It changed the way it sources goose down after a different animal-rights group accused it of cruelty. On the matter of wool, PETA is taking a hard line. It says “the only way to ensure that a company does not contribute to the horrors of sheep rearing, shearing, transport, and slaughter is to switch to vegan wool.” But Patagonia isn’t willing to go that far.

“PETA does not believe in the use of animals for any human purpose; this is a belief we respect but do not share,” the company said in its statement.