“Ethical.” “Responsible.” “Sustainable.” “Humane.”
As consumers become increasingly conscious of what they buy and wear, clothing companies toss around these buzzwords ever more frequently. But buyer, beware: When it comes to companies that use animal products, “ethical” sourcing labels are misleading and often false, and consumers should not trust them. When animals’ body parts are used for mass production, to be turned into wool coats or leather boots, cruelty will always be part of the process.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) recently released an exposé of so-called “sustainable” farms in Argentina that produce “responsibly sourced” wool. (Quartz reported on the issue here.) A highly disturbing video account shows workers on farms that are part of the Ovis 21 network—a wool supplier to outdoor clothing and gear company Patagonia—hacking into conscious lambs, starting to skin some of them while they were still alive, and otherwise abusing and neglecting lambs and sheep.
In its Supplier Workplace Code of Conduct policy, Patagonia claims that its suppliers “respect animal welfare” and must adopt “humane practices,” so how did such cruelty go unchecked? The company admits that it “failed to implement a comprehensive process to assure animal welfare.” In other words, while Patagonia’s “responsible” assurances sounded good, there was no substance to back them up. Following the release of PETA’s exposé, the company announced that it would stop buying wool from Ovis 21.
Even when companies do go to the trouble of auditing their suppliers, the results are often meaningless, as I found out last year when I, along with representatives of a multinational clothing retailer, visited five angora farms in China that had been deemed “humane” by third-party auditors. Unlike typical farm audits, all our visits were unannounced. And without exception, what we saw confirmed what we already knew: When animals are used for mass-produced goods, they suffer tremendously.
Rabbits’ fur was torn right out of their skin, and they lay motionless in their cages. At one site, a rope dangled from the ceiling for suspending “problem animals” by their forelimbs so that they could be conveniently plucked or shorn. The temperature was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit with 80% humidity, and the rabbits were given little to no protection from the elements.
Most of them were suffering from severe skin irritation caused by excessive salivation. The saliva ran down their necks and onto their chests and forelimbs. As a result, these areas of skin had become badly infected. Many animals exhibited rapid, open-mouthed breathing brought on by heat stress or respiratory disease.
In addition, many animals’ heads were tilted at a 90-degree angle. This condition is caused by damage to the inner ears, likely from being violently yanked out of their cages by the ears for shearing every 30 to 60 days. Because of the head tilt, they were unable to orient themselves to eat or drink and were slowly dying of starvation or dehydration.
Veterinary care was grossly inadequate or non-existent. In many cases, the rabbits were given no treatment for severe or chronic infections, sores, respiratory distress, malnutrition or neurological damage. Some rabbits were so sick and weak that they lay in their own waste and didn’t respond when touched.
On the farms that we visited, no rabbits were ever euthanized on site under any circumstances, no matter how sick or injured they were. Animals were left to languish for days, weeks or even months without relief or treatment before finally dying.
As upsetting as the conditions and treatment that we witnessed were, it was even more shocking to learn that the auditor on the trip had already visited some of the same farms a few months earlier and declared them “humane.” When I asked whether the conditions that he had seen a few months earlier were any different from those that we were then seeing, he said no. If the auditor had seen then the same conditions that our group saw, how could he have reported that nothing was wrong?
In China, there are few standards in place with regards to the treatment of domestic animals, and no penalties for their abuse. This indifference toward their welfare is often reflected in the industrial culture. What would be considered horrific cruelty in the US might be seen as acceptable by a Chinese auditor. Such differences inevitably influence the findings of an audit.
Additionally, many auditors and farm owners are friends or personal acquaintances. When we visited the farms, we were welcomed into the owners’ homes, given refreshments, and even taken out to lunch. In the parts of China we visited, it’s considered rude not to accept such an invitation. However, accepting such social invitations makes it more difficult to report later that a farm owner has been abusing animals. It’s a shocking conflict of interest.
As heartbreaking as this trip was, it was also extremely meaningful because it exposed the failure of the auditing system on which so many companies rely, and dispelled the “humane farming” myth in no uncertain terms. “Responsibly sourced” looks good on paper, but in my experience all animals used for clothing suffer tremendously and needlessly. Vegan materials are the only humane option, and with so many beautiful synthetics and natural-fiber fabrics available today, it’s never been easier to be both fashionable and compassionate.