Spurred by a horrific video from PETA, an increasing number of retailers are jumping on the cruelty-free bandwagon.
Some of the world's biggest fashion retailers have vowed to stop selling clothes made with mohair wool. Over 80 retailers, including H&M, Zara, Gap, TopShop, UNIQLO, Banana Republic, and Anthropologie, made this announcement in response to a video that PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) released on May 1 that depicts abusive treatment of angora goats on industrial farms in South Africa.
Angora goats are prized for their soft, silky wool, known as mohair. Like regular wool, it is known for its insulating properties, while remaining cool in summer; but angora is considered to be more luxurious than most wools, ranked alongside cashmere and silk. PETA says that 50 percent of the world's mohair wool comes from twelve farms in South Africa.
The video, which was captured on secret camera and has a warning for viewers, ruins that perception of luxury, revealing an industry that's horrifically violent and cruel. PETA describes it:
"Some shearers lifted the goats up off the floor by the tail, likely breaking it at the spine. When one goat struggled, the shearer sat on her. After shearing, workers threw the animals across the wooden floor and hauled them around by their legs...
The coats of some of the goats were matted with feces. To clean off the mohair before shearing, one farmer dumped rams into tanks of cleaning solution and shoved their heads underwater, which he admitted would poison them if they swallowed it."
In the video, goats are dragged across the floor, even flung across the room. The shearing process is painful to the animals, with workers cutting chunks of skin along with the wool. Some farmers said even teats get cut off accidentally sometimes. The problem, PETA explains, is that shearers are paid by volume, not by the hour, which drives them to work quickly. On one farm goats' throats are cut with a dull knife before their necks broken, and in a slaughterhouse they are shocked with electricity, hung upside down, then cut across the throat.
The images are gruesome, and it is understandable that no fashion retailer would want anything to do with such a supply chain. H&M spokeswoman Helena Johanssen told the Washington Post:
“The supply chain for mohair production is challenging to control — a credible standard does not exist — therefore we have decided to ban mohair fibre from our assortment by 2020 at the latest."
The video comes five years after PETA released similarly harrowing footage of workers at an angora rabbit farm in China ripping chunks of fur from live animals. Following that, many of the same fashion retailers pledged to stop selling angora fur, or, like Gucci, go entirely fur-free.
Switching to petroleum-based synthetics, however, isn't a straightforward solution. Wikipedia informs that "fake fur is made from several materials including blends of acrylic and modacrylic polymers derived from coal, air, water, petroleum and limestone" -- in other words, plastic, which we know to be enormously harmful to wildlife. It does not biodegrade and, when laundered, releases plastic microfibres into the environment that animals ingest. So, while using synthetics might help captive animals, it ends up harming wild ones.
Is there a better solution? I don't know, but I do not think that angora wool is inherently harmful as a textile, IF -- and this is a big 'if' -- the animals are cared for respectfully and kindly by farmers. That greater degree of care would have to be reflected in the price tag, returning mohair to the category of true luxury, rather than a fabric of the fast fashion giants. At the time of publishing this article, H&M Canada's website shows no less than 40 items that contain mohair, some of which cost as little as $14.99. At that price, what kind of animal husbandry does a shopper expect?
The takeaway message is the same as always from these ethical fashion stories: We MUST start asking where and how our clothes are made. If you're unhappy with production standards, tell the company. Take a stance! If you are uncomfortable purchasing synthetics, seek out non-animal-origin natural fabrics or buy second-hand items. Fight against the insidious fast-fashion mentality by buying high-quality clothes and caring for them properly to ensure they last.
One final note: Keep in mind that production ethics go beyond the animals used for wool, down, fur, and leather. There are millions of humans who also suffer horrific conditions in the factories that produce clothes for fast fashion retailers, and yet videos about their suffering tend not to result in broad policy changes for these companies. Perhaps it's because haggard humans are less adorable than angora goats? More likely, it's because the industry relies on humans working for slave-like wages more than it does on fur trim and mohair sweaters; it can afford to do without those.
As conscientious consumers, however, we have a responsibility to those humans, as well as to the animals. Buy fairtrade, ethically- and/or domestically-produced clothing whenever possible. Buy from retailers that promise full transparency, such as Everlane and Patagonia.