The images are graphic, violent and difficult to stomach.
Livestock workers are jabbing Angora goats with sharp implements, stomping booted heels on their legs and dunking their heads into tanks of caustic cleaning solution. A shearer drags a struggling goat by its horns and clips off its wool so roughly it begins to bleed. Another man ignores an animal’s kicks as he drives a dull knife through its throat and begins to saw its neck. Goats cry piteously as they’re lifted off the floor by their tails and thrown across the room.
One worker confessed to the camera that goats regularly die of exposure the cold wind and rain after being sheared. He once lost 40,000 animals over a single weekend.
The footage, captured by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) at a dozen goat farms in South Africa and broadcast to the world in May, drew immediate ire and, perhaps more surprisingly, near instantaneous action.
Some of the world’s biggest brands declared mohair—the long, glossy fiber Angora goats are bred for—immediately verboten. H&M said it would “permanently ban” mohair by 2020. Arcadia Group, which operates Topshop, affirmed that it would no longer source any new goods containing the fiber, while Gap Inc. signaled that its Athleta, Banana Republic, Gap and Old Navy brands would eschew mohair starting next year. And Inditex, which owns Zara, said it would phrase out the material by 2020 because it “deplores the cruel practices uncovered by PETA.”
Asos, Britain’s No. 1 online-only retailer, took an extra step, vowing to shun not only mohair by the end of January 2019 but also cashmere, silk, down, feathers, bone, horn and shell.
Like falling dominoes, others soon made similar pronouncements. To date, more than 320 companies have ejected or will eject mohair from their product lines. It’s a move that has echoes of 2013’s Angora rabbit fur backlash, which also stemmed—not so coincidentally—from undercover video from PETA.
We can expect to see more en-masse decisions like these, said Katie Smith, director of analysis and insights at the retail-technology firm Edited. In today’s information-rich environment, a single piece of news can sweep through social media like wildfire. Brand reputations can be made and unmade in fewer than 280 characters.
“It’s a small win when brands are seen as moving away from something that has been ousted as unsustainable or unethical,” Smith said. “It’s a risk to be the last man standing once those headlines have broken repeatedly over a few seasons.”
But not everyone agrees that outright bans are the answer. At best, it’s a bandaid fix; at worst it can ravage producer livelihoods. Among the detractors is trade group Mohair South Africa, which issued, at the peak of the news cycle, a lengthy rejoinder that was equal parts mea culpa, harried defense and appeal.
“The production of mohair supports approximately 30,000 people, many of whom are laborers living in the Karoo, a large, arid, sparsely populated semi-desert,” the organization wrote. “A ban on mohair will leave many of these vulnerable people destitute, and will lead to the destruction of the mohair industry, as well as the loss of approximately 800,000 Angora goats in South Africa.”
But brands and retailers often lack direct access to their yarn or fiber suppliers, said Smith, complicating matters. “Although they can put pressure on the supply chain, it would take a big commitment to implement change,” she said. “That’s worthwhile if sustainability is a core concern of the brand—as it is and should be for an increasing number of brands—but it’s not a fight all have resources to undertake.”
H&M, for one, says it wants to wield its size and scale to “lead the charge” for making its preferred fibers more sustainable, though it admits that’s not always possible.
“When the supply chain is challenging to track, credible standards do not exist and/or our influence is low, as in the mohair case, it is difficult for us to work for improvements in the industry,” said Madelene Ericsson, an environmental sustainability expert at the Swedish retailer. “In close dialogue with PETA, we agreed the best solution is to move away from mohair and ban it from our assortment.”
A tale of two fibers
Indeed, it was H&M’s desire to address its wool supply that helped midwife what would later become Textile Exchange’s Responsible Wool Standard (RWS), which uses a chain-of-custody system and in-depth field audits to ensure the wellbeing of sheep and the land they graze on.
The standard’s debut in 2016 wasn’t an especially auspicious one, however. In a pattern that should by now feel familiar, PETA had accused Ovis 21, an Argentine network of farms, of abusing its lambs and sheep the year before. And as with mohair, the animal-rights group had the receipts to back up its claims.
Patagonia and Stella McCartney rushed to sever ties with the organization, which had presented itself as a champion of “ethically sourced” wool. Even Nature Conservancy, the environmental nonprofit that was working with Ovis 21 to remediate 15 million acres of Patagonian grasslands could only react in horror. PETA, as it is wont to do, called for a boycott on wool, yet brands and retailers chose, for the most part, not to heed it.
Sometime later, Patagonia unveiled its own Patagonia Wool Standard, which it claimed went “above and beyond existing wool industry animal-welfare standards,” including the RWS, which it adopted as an initial framework but then surpassed by including special provisions for transportation and off-farm slaughter. Stella McCartney earned the vaunted Gold level certification from the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute for a developing a wool that optimized the wellbeing of the animals and the safety of the materials. Ovis 21, for its part, began to rehabilitate its tarnished image by encouraging two key Argentine wool organizations—Federacíon Lanera de Argentina and the state-run Prolana—to adopt the “language, content, and suggested best practices” of the RWS. Wool continued to stand its ground.
Asos credits the RWS for its ongoing use of wool despite its rejection of mohair. Likewise, Ericsson says H&M trusts the RWS to “improve animal welfare on farm level, influence best practices and ensure traceability.”
Cashmere has gone through its own wringer of vilification and (semi) redemption. In Argentina, China and Mongolia, population booms in cashmere-producing goats have decimated local grasslands through overgrazing and brought already-endangered animals to the brink of extinction.
This bleak outlook hasn’t stopped brands and organizations from trying to reverse the damage, however. Knitwear purveyor Naadam, for instance, is using a vertically integrated business model to create a sustainable cashmere ecosystem in Mongolia, where it has established a privately funded nonprofit that offers veterinary programs, livestock insurance and breeding development in exchange for first dibs on the herders’ fleece. It has torn out 20 miles of battered fencing and replaced it with heavy-gauge wiring to better preserve the health of the pasture.
Over in the Patagonia, the nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Group is working with Argentina’s Grupo Costa del Río Colorado cooperative to minimize cashmere farming’s impact on the land and indigenous wildlife. Modifications include adjusting herd sizes to match the carrying capacity of their lands, implementing better husbandry practices and using guard dogs to minimize livestock-wildlife conflicts with potential predators such as the Andean cat.
Will mohair items—arguably less essential to cold-weather assortments than merino pullovers or cashmere cardigans—find a similar respite?
Textile Exchange is sussing out whether it can bring mohair under the “RWS umbrella,” according to Hanna Denes, the nonprofit’s senior manager of standards, though it may take some time before something solid materializes.
“Textile Exchange believes in collaborative action and is working with the mohair industry to extend the scope of the RWS to recognize and reward best practices where they are happening and drive positive change where it is needed,” Denes said. “[While] a standard cannot guarantee that animal welfare will be completely protected, the RWS provides third-party audits and a transparent system to address any violations of the standard.”
PETA, of course, remains less than convinced, neither of any standard’s ability to protect the welfare of animals nor of the necessity of animal fibers like wool, mohair and cashmere when plant-based and recycled-plastic alternatives abound.
“We appreciate that companies want to be more responsible, and the standards may in some cases reduce suffering in some ways, but every animal used for clothing endures myriad types of abuse that are standard practice, and no animal wants to die,” said Tracy Reiman, the group’s executive vice president.
Wool production, Reiman said, isn’t all that different from mohair and should be consigned to the same ignoble—for now, anyway—fate. PETA is instead hedging on innovations such as Woocoa, a cruelty-free “wool” made from hemp and coconut fibers that have been treated with enzymes extracted from oyster mushrooms.
“Acknowledging that mohair is cruelly derived is tantamount to acknowledging that wool is cruelly derived, since the method used for obtaining both is exactly the same, as investigation after investigation has shown,” she said. “Wool may be a more integral part of a company’s business, but that fact shouldn’t prevent it from choosing materials for which animals aren’t beaten in the face, kicked, stomped on, cut up and otherwise mistreated.”
Whether mohair will get its comeback will depend on consumer response, but Pamela Danziger, principal of Unity Marketing, thinks that the promotion of systematic change would be more meaningful for a market that overwhelming prefers natural fibers.
“I think people want natural materials, not artificial, plastic ones, for their clothing,” she said. “So being responsible producers of those materials like Naadam is the direction, not banning the material altogether.”