Convincing a brand to adopt a third-party standard can be a tough sell. Persuading an entire country? Well, that’s practically unheard of. But something nigh miraculous happened on the way to the Sustainable Textile Conference, the five-day industry event organized by Textile Exchange in mid-October.
Defying all odds, the nonprofit announced that two key Argentine wool organizations—Federacíon Lanera de Argentina and the state-run Prolana—will be adopting the “language, content, and suggested best practices” of its Responsible Wool Standard (RWS), which promotes the welfare of sheep and the land they graze on.
The move marks the first time that Textile Exchange, a group that champions the use of more sustainable fibers in the global supply chain, will be positioning one of its suite of standards on such a broad scale. (In addition to the RWS, Textile Exchange also manages the Responsible Down Standard, the Organic Content Standard and the Global Recycled Standard, among others.)
“We are thrilled,” said Anne Gillespie, director of industry integrity for Textile Exchange. “I think this is the first time there’s been recognition at a national level of one of our standards.”
The sequence of events that led to the landmark decision didn’t have the most auspicious of beginnings, however.
In August 2015, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals accused Ovis 21, an Argentine network of farms that trafficked in so-called “ethically sourced” wool, of grossly abusing its lambs and sheep. Footage from the animal-rights group presented grisly tableaus of livestock workers tackling, cutting, skinning and stomping on still-conscious lambs and sheep.
Not all of the facilities seen in the video were part of the Ovis 21 network, but the repercussions were still devastating. Ovis 21 rushed to sever ties with the facility caught on camera, but it could not contain the reputational fallout.
Ricardo Juan Fenton, co-founder and sheep and wool manager of Ovis 21, recalled feeling both “surprised and disappointed—surprised at how much misleading information the reporting contained, and disappointed to have had the work of Ovis 21 targeted in such a negative manner.”
Ovis 21 had been working with the Nature Conservancy to reverse 100 years of overgrazing on 15 million acres of Patagonian grasslands. As a result of the scandal, however, “1 million hectares stopped certifying their management, and many of the ones starting regenerative management stopped,” Fenton said.
British designer Stella McCartney, who had previously praised Ovis 21 for its holistic remediation of the region, said she would no longer buy wool from the farming collective.
Patagonia, which had collaborated closely with both Ovis 21 and Nature Conservancy on their grazing protocol, also severed ties with its former supplier.
“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,” Rose Marcario, Patagonia’s CEO, said in the aftermath of the exposé. “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. This is a difficult decision, but it’s the right thing to do.”
Patagonia further agreed to suspend its wool purchasing until a time when it could assure its customers of a “verifiable process that ensures the humane treatment of animals,” Marcario said.
Patagonia would make good on its promise a year later with the unveiling of the Patagonia Wool Standard, which it claimed went “above and beyond existing wool industry animal-welfare standards.” This included the RWS, which it adopted as an initial framework but then surpassed by including special provisions for transportation and off-farm slaughter.
In the days that followed PETA’s revelations, however, the path forward was less clear. The timing of the video proved especially awkward for Textile Exchange, which, along with Patagonia, Ovis 21, and 80 other members of its coalition, was in the midst of forging what would later become the RWS.
The RWS took on a new urgency; Argentina needed to seize control of the narrative before it got worse.
“The PETA video made the government more aware of the need to demonstrate within an international arena that Argentina is a progressive and responsible producer of quality wool,” said Stuart Adams, founder and principal of Continuum Textiles and a member of the RWS’s technical committee. “It was suggested for the benefit of the Argentine wool industry that a national position for animal welfare be adopted.”
It was Adams who helped jump-start the deal after conversations with Fenton of Ovis 21. Rallying senior officials from Prolana and Federacíon Lanera de Argentina this past July, they made the case for embracing the RWS.
“[We] discussed the advantages to Argentine wool growers of using the RWS as the backbone for their production standards, including gaining international recognition for the quality of their production methods,” Adams said. “There was also input from domestic certifying bodies who had connections in government suggesting this was an outcome worth driving towards for the Argentine wool industry.”
And it wasn’t just improving animal welfare that appealed to the sheep farmers and top producers. Ariel Aguirre, a coordinator with Prolana, lauded the RWS for promising greater production efficiency.
“We see the RWS as a set of protocols that help sort the handling and management of the property and subsequent links in the wool supply chain,” he said. At the same time, the RWS confers credibility, something that will help Argentina “better position our wool in the international arena,” he added.
The Argentine deal provides a proof point, Adams said. As Herculean a task as coordinating multiple stakeholders across government and industry may seem, it’s by no means beyond the realm of possibility, particularly when all parties stand to benefit.
“This initiative demonstrates how international NGOs, government authorities and individuals can work together to create an international opportunity for everyone involved,” Adams said. “It was really a multi-organization initiative to complete the outcome.”
Fenton noted that a mechanism like the RWS can provide a common language and align expectations.
“It is vital to engage the different stakeholders, above all the two ends of the value chain: the brands, who drive demand, and the supplier, which in this case is the farmer,” Fenton said. “It is critical that each understand the challenges the other faces and commit to work together with a goal of continuous improvement. In addition, everyone needs to better understand the important work being done by farmers and the impacts they can have on the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the environment in which we all live. Instruments like the RWS are a good benchmark tool for this.”
Meanwhile, Gillespie from Textile Exchange said there are noises that other countries may follow Argentina’s lead, something she said she feels buoyant about. Still, she hopes to see a future where the RWS will no longer be needed.
“In the end, the ultimate goal would be that the standard just disappears because everybody is adopting these best practices on their own,” she said.