In 2015, sustainably minded outerwear brand Patagonia cut ties with its “ethical” Argentinian wool supplier, Ovis 21, after a ground-breaking investigation into the supplier’s operations showed sheep being mutilated and skinned alive. The event shook the world of fashion – Patagonia was long known as a brand with sustainability and ethics at the forefront of their philosophy, which contributed to making this one of the most memorable instances proving that labels and certifications don’t go a very long way to protect the animals used in fashion production.
With today’s complicated supply chains and most of what we wear being made continents away from the end consumer, how can we be certain that our clothes are really, truly ethically made? To help guide consumers, certification schemes exist to assure pretty much anything from low CO2 emissions to the absence of child labour. But when it comes to one particularly hot-topic issue – animal cruelty – these schemes leave big question marks.
Perhaps the most notable example is the fur industry’s Origin Assured label, created to certify consumers that the fur product they were buying came from a country where regulations assured high animal welfare and humane practices. The label has virtually disappeared from online and offline marketing after PETA teamed up with several other animal protection groups in countries that fell under the Origin Assured scheme, resulting in Cruelty Assured, an investigation that showed the same barbaric abuse on fur farms in those countries that runs rampant in the trade elsewhere. Furthermore, when Dutch fur-industry promotion initiative Furlab attempted to run advertisements claiming that fur is ethically sourced, the Advertising Standards Agency slammed down on the ads, agreeing with PETA that such claims didn’t carry enough substance.
The Patagonia scandal brought wool into the spotlight in a way that it had previously been spared from. Stella McCartney, who also used Ovis21 and cut ties with them immediately following the video, commented that the news had prompted her to look into vegan wool: “I am devastated by the news but more determined than ever to fight for animal rights in fashion together and monitor even more closely all suppliers involved in this industry to end all innocent lives. 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.”
Wool is often deemed at best a sustainable, natural fabric and at worst a grey area – and brands in the trade rely on the Responsible Wool Standard to assure consumers that animals are treated in a respectful manner. But after PETA and its international affiliates released footage from over 100 sheep-shearing facilities on four continents – eliminating the myth that animal abuse happens “somewhere else” – all showing violence, mindless shearing and sheep left with bloody wounds, the credibility of the RWS started to crumble. In 2020, a sheep shearer in Australia, as well as one in Scotland, pleaded guilty to charges of animal cruelty.
“Shearers continue to be caught beating, stamping on, cutting, and otherwise badly injuring sheep as if these terrified animals were inanimate objects,” said PETA UK Director Elisa Allen. “The Responsible Wool Standard is a sham, and PETA is advising retailers to stop duping consumers and supporting this abuse by switching to vegan wool and other cruelty-free fibres.”
The Responsible Down standard is another example of labels and certifications that organisations believe are ultimately failing to protect animals. Most people who choose to wear down jackets and sleep on feather-filled bedding are horrified when learning about live-plucking – the practice of tearing fistfuls of feathers from geese and ducks’ bodies while the animals are fully conscious. Plucking is only meant to take place after birds have been killed for meat, but live-plucking is rampant in the down industry – as the supply chain is incredibly murky and complicated, live-plucking can still occur despite reassurances of the contrary. Buying a down product could also mean supporting the foie gras industry, a trade specialising in fatty goose and duck liver, which is obtained by force-feeding animals until their liver expands to many times its natural size. This process is so inhumane that it’s banned in multiple countries – but often, the birds used for down are the same ones force-fed for foie gras.
These instances and more have led to the coining of the term “humane-washing”, a continuation of “greenwashing”, where corporate marketing is packaged as ethical. And unsurprisingly, animal welfare is the area where humane-washing is believed to abound. Animals cannot speak up for themselves in a way that humans understand, which makes it simple for us to label certain processes ‘humane’ and have that go unchallenged.
Labels, standards and certifications, while certainly well-meaning, exist for one reason: to reassure the consumer. The outrage unleashed by an animal-cruelty scandal is something that no brand wants, and setting up what is ultimately a marketing scheme to hold up the appearance of guaranteeing animal welfare helps keep companies out of those hot waters. But in the end, as investigative footage proves, year after year, whenever animals are treated as commodities, suffering will follow.
And of course, there is always the question of whether we are justified in killing animals for fashion in the first place – activists argue that with so many cruelty-free options available to consumers today, continuing to come up with labels to justify a slightly nicer way of killing is unnecessary and archaic. As pleasant a life as animals living under the standards may have had (and as we have seen, most of the time it’s anything but), none of the schemes can deny that in the end they are sent to the same slaughterhouse as animals whose skin is sold without a “certified humane” label. So if consumers really want to wear that coat or jacket without any lurking doubts relating to animal cruelty, the only label they can trust is one that says “vegan”.
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Cover image by Leigh Harries.