The Real Global Price of What You Wear, Part 4

Last updated February 10, 2024.

Three raccoon dogs peek out from their small wire cages at a fur farm in Poland. The animals are curious about the photographers doing this nighttime investigation. Poland, 2015.
Three raccoon dogs peek out from their small wire cages at a fur farm in Poland. The animals are curious about the photographers doing this nighttime investigation. Poland, 2015. Photo courtesy of Andrew Skowron, We Animals Media.

Understanding whether natural or synthetic fabrics are better for the environment is confusing. As I mentioned in Part 3 of this article series, we need to stop the overproduction of all textiles. But we can make better choices about clothing purchases if we know where something came from, how it was sourced, and how it was created. Today, we will review the most common types of animal-based fabrics used in fashion.

Wool

Humans have used wool from sheep since about 10,000 BCE.1 “Wool is gorgeous and durable. It has the magical capacity to resist odors, wrinkles, and stains,” wrote Elizabeth L. Cline. It provides warmth and can last for many years. Today’s wools are less itchy, softer, and sometimes even machine washable. But it is not always the most sustainable option.

As of 2015, people raised more than 1 billion sheep around the world, producing 2.5 million pounds of raw wool. But if not cared for properly, sheep and goats can overgraze areas which lead to soil erosion and desertification. “Fertilizers and pesticides are often used on pastures and the sheep themselves, driving up wool’s chemical impacts.”2

Sheep release methane and other greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Sheep farming – like cattle farming – also uses large amounts of water and land. Some even identify wool as one of the worst environmental offenders on the market.

Merino Wool & Mulesing

Merinos, typically raised in Australia, have very soft wool. People have specifically bred them to have wrinkly skin because this means they can obtain more wool per animal. But animal rights advocates typically advise against merino sheep products because the sheep are essentially mutilated.

The wrinkles collect urine and moisture, which attracts flies. The flies lay eggs in the folds of skin, and the larvae (maggots) eat the sheep’s skin. To combat what is referred to as ‘flystrike,’ farmers use a cruel procedure called ‘mulesing.’ This is where they restrain the sheep and cut sections of their skin away without any painkillers or anesthetics. These wounds can get infected and kill the sheep. If the wounds heal, the skin forms scar tissue and creates a smooth surface that doesn’t create a moist environment for flystrike. This is an inhumane practice that should be outlawed.

Worse, “after the sheep become too old to produce wool efficiently, they are shipped to the Mideast to satisfy the huge Muslim demand for halal meat.” Companies do not usually ship them under humane conditions and many sheep die on the way there.3

Shearling

Most consumers believe that shearling is sheared wool – but it isn’t. It is sheepskin, meaning the sheep’s tanned skin with the wool still attached to it. Shearling refers to a young sheep, a yearling who has been shorn just once. A shearling garment is made from a sheep or lamb shorn before being slaughtered for meat. Some industry members call shearling ‘a byproduct of the meat industry.’ But it can take dozens of individual sheep skins to make just one shearling garment.

Recycled Wool Clothing

Buying clothing made from recycled wool is a very eco-friendly option. As Patagonia wrote on their website: “Wool is a natural fiber that insulates, breathes and lasts for a long time. Producing wool, however, is resource-intensive. It requires vast amounts of land for grazing sheep, water to clean the fiber, chemicals to treat the wool and dyes to color the finished product. We use recycled wool to extend the useful life of fiber that has already been produced. As a result, we can make clothing with the same great qualities as virgin wool at a fraction of the environmental cost.”4 Buy products made from recycled wool whenever possible.

A white newborn lamb looks up at the camera.
A newborn lamb looks up at the camera. If the lamb is male, he will be sent to slaughter for meat at a young age. If the lamb is female, she will be reared for the production of wool and future breeding. Photo courtesy of Andrew Skowron, We Animals Media.

Alpaca fleece

Alpacas are domesticated South American camelids that look like small llamas. Their fur is a very soft and warm fiber that is also durable and lightweight. It may even be more durable than cashmere. These animals are not killed for their fur, and many companies argue that producers take good care of alpacas.

However, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) did an undercover investigation and discovered workers abusing alpacas during the shearing process. Regardless of what you think of PETA, the video evidence is hard to refute. And it is disturbing to watch. This video was taken at Mallkini, the world’s largest privately owned alpaca farm, near Muñani, Peru. “Mallkini is owned by the Michell Group, the world’s largest exporter of alpaca tops and yarn and a supplier of major brands, including Anthropologie.”5 Hopefully many other companies have followed.

The Alpaca Owners Association, Inc. responded that they were shocked and appalled by the abuse in the video. “While there are good and bad practices in every industry, the investigation uses the most egregious video of alpacas being shorn poorly and inhumanely. Kind and compassionate alpaca owners and shearers throughout the world far outweigh practices like the one shown.”6

Be sure to check that the alpaca clothing you’re buying is from a reputable and cruelty-free producer. You may have to contact the company to verify this.

The face of a brown alpaca against a black background.
This alpaca is taking shelter from the rain at The Farm Animal Sanctuary, Evesham, Worcestershire, United Kingdom, 2022. Photo courtesy of James Gibson Photography / We Animals Media.

Cashmere

Cashmere is made from the soft undercoats of cashmere goats, mainly in China, Mongolia, northern India, and Iran. The fibers are very fine and delicate and feel almost like silk to the touch, and it is warmer and lighter than sheep’s wool. It is one of the most expensive forms of wool because the production and manufacturing process is complicated.7

But two things happened: world demand increased and Mongolia transitioned from a Communist economy to a freer market. So lower quality cashmere clothing entered the market. Also, herders quadrupled the number of goats from 5 million in the 1990s to 21 million by 2018.8 Goat herding clears entire grasslands which causes dust storms and air pollution. It sometimes also causes starvation of the goats.9

There are different grades of cashmere. Sometimes producers mix it with other fibers, which can make it less expensive. But not everyone agrees that this is a good thing. As New York Times writer Tatiana Schlossberg wrote, “Making cashmere a less-than-luxury item…puts the responsibility for making the right choice on the consumer, and that’s not fair. It’s not within your control how some company sources and produces its cashmere, or the size of the herd that they got it from. That should be the corporation’s burden – whether they pay more to source better or they pay for the associated down-the-line impacts – or governments should make sure they act responsibly. And that may make cashmere cost more (upfront, though the long-term health and environmental costs would be less).”10

Be sure to purchase sustainable cashmere. “When shopping for cashmere, shop with brands that are transparent and can reveal where they source their fiber and the steps they’ve taken to source it sustainably.”11 You can also look for regenerated or reclaimed cashmere, which is “made from postmanufacturing waste, such as cuttings gathered from the factory floor. Regerneated cashmere is 92 percent less damaging to the environment than virgin cashmere.”12

Close-up of a white cashmere billy goat.
Image by Alexa from Pixabay.

Angora

Fur from an Angora rabbit is silky and super soft. It is warmer and lighter than wool and it felts easily. Angora fibers are often blended with wool to give it elasticity. Most breeds of Angora rabbits molt naturally about every four months, and producers “pluck” the molted fur from the animal. Some producers choose to shear the fur instead, which saves time, but results in lower-quality angora.

However, this is another type of fur you might want to avoid because it is an animal that producers sometimes abuse. In 2013, a PETA investigation showed human workers plucking live rabbits raw, meaning their hair was ripped from their skin (to obtain the longest fibers) while the rabbits screamed in pain. They are put back into cramped wire cages until their hair grows back. After three years the rabbits are killed.13 Unfortunately, China is the source of 90 percent of the world’s angora and that country has few laws regarding animal cruelty.

Silk

Silk is a gorgeous fabric. It is a natural fiber that is shiny and durable. It has a long trading history across the world. “Silk is the epitome of luxury due to its high cost to produce, soft feel, and elegant appearance…Different weaving processes result in different types of fabric, including crepe (a rough crinkled texture), organza (a thin, sheer fabric), and chiffon (a lightweight, plain-weave fabric with a slight stretch).”14

But it takes about 2,500 silkworms to spin a pound of raw silk. Elizabeth L. Cline explained how people harvest silk:

“Silk is produced by the saliva of silkworms that feed on the leaves of mulberry trees. A single silkworm can spin almost three thousand feet of usable silk thread while making one single cocoon. To extract the silk, a silkworm’s cocoon is boiled and the filaments unraveled.” This process creates very little waste but kills the silkworms. “However, fertilizers and insecticides are often used to grow the mulberry trees, and more energy is used to make silk than for most other textiles.” Some silk is dyed using heavy metals that can be toxic.15

There are organic silks and safe-chemical certifications available, so look for those because they have a lower impact on the environment. Other options include peace silk, which is made without killing the silkworms. A company called Bolt Threads manufactures a lab-grown silk alternative made out of yeast and sugar.16

Close-up of silkworm cocoons, with one opened at front.
Image by LoggaWiggler from Pixabay.

Leather

Humans have been wearing animal skins and leather for thousands of years. Today, companies mass-produce leather with a lot of harsh and hazardous chemicals. “Leather is a $100-billion-a-year business before it is turned into shoes, luggage, or coats,” wrote Dana Thomas, author of Fashionpolis. Consumer demand for leather rises by about 5 percent per year.17

The leather tanning industry produces a lot of solid waste and wastewater and has many polluted lands and rivers. “Leather has been linked to the deforestation of the Amazon and a variety of harmful chemicals are used during the tanning and production processes.”18

Governments regulate the leather industry in most places now, but there are exceptions. For example, some Bangladeshi tanneries don’t provide leather workers protective gear even though many people stand directly in vats of chemicals. The tanneries also dump untreated toxic wastewater into local rivers. “The leather-tanning district of Hazaribagh, Bangladesh, has been named one of the most toxic places in the world, although efforts are underway to clean it up.”19 Sohpie Benson wrote, “The Buriganga River, which runs through Dhaka, Bangladesh, is thick with effluent, hides and litter, and has been declared biologically dead due to the incessant flow of tannery waste.”20

The leather industry is also not known for being green or ethical. The leather industry discharges as many emissions as 30 million cars driven for a whole year.21 Cow leather is the most common type, and cows take a huge environmental toll. “The planet’s cattle herds and the fertilizer-and pesticide-intensive way they’re raised and fed are major drivers of deforestation, land degradation, climate change, and water pollution. Cows are also a major emitter of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.”22

Buy leather for items you intend to keep long-term. If you take care of it, it will last many years. The Leather Working Group certifies and audits leather tanneries on their environmental standards (see Additional Resources below). Responsible companies are transparent about where they source their leather, how they tan the leather, and the environmental and ethical conditions.23 You can also look for upcycled leather at Recyc Leather.24

“Although leather is often positioned as a natural alternative to plastic, leather footwear is often coated in it to make it more durable.” -Sophie Benson, Sustainable Wardrobe25

A mother and baby cow, gray colored, in a field with other cows. They have yellow tags on their ears.
Image by Protocultura from Pixabay.

Furs

Humans historically used the furs of animals they killed to stay warm. But today, most people wear furs for fashion only. Animal farms raise and keep animals in cages explicitly to kill them for their fur. Most of the time, the animals live in horrible conditions. Almost always, the farms waste the rest of the animal after slaughter.

Don’t buy fur.

If you must have a fur item for your closet, please consider a faux fur option. They look just as nice and are just as warm and comfortable as real fur. However, as always, you must be wary of the faux products you buy, as reporters have exposed major retailers selling real fur mislabeled as faux.26 Remember, a good company will be transparent about its production line.

“Killing animals is the most destructive thing you can do in the fashion industry. The tanneries, the chemicals, the deforestation, the use of landmass and grain and water, the cruelty – it’s a nonstarter. The minute you’re not killing an animal to make a shoe or a bag you are ahead of the game.” -Stella McCartney, quoted in Fashinopolis27

Two grey mink on a fur farm stare through the wire mesh of a filthy cage.
Two grey mink on a fur farm stare through the wire mesh of a filthy cage. Korsnas, Finland, 2023. Photo courtesy of Oikeutta elaimille / We Animals Media.

Down

Down is a layer of fine feathers on geese and ducks, which helps keep them warm in colder temperatures and water. Companies commonly use it to insulate jackets, coats, and sleeping bags. But the practices the industry uses to collect it are questionable. “The vast majority of the 270,000 metric tons of commercial down produced each year is a byproduct of goose and duck meat industries in Asia and Europe, where the birds might be live-plucked or force-fed for foie gras before heading to the slaughterhouse. Animal welfare advocates consider these cruel practices that they want to see eliminated from down’s complex supply chain.”28

Elizabeth L. Cline recommends shopping with brands certified by Textile Exchange’s Responsible Down Standard (see Additional Resources below), which verifies high animal welfare standards.29

A mother goose with her goslings, green grass background.
Photo by James Wainscoat on Unsplash.

Read Labels, Buy Second-Hand

Always read labels to see what you’re buying. If something isn’t familiar, use your smartphone while in the store and do a quick internet search on the materials. Sometimes just looking up the name of a product or materials is all you need. Before I wrote this article, I almost bought a pair of shoes made with shearling. I thought that shearling was just sheared wool. I decided to look up what shearling meant, and thank goodness I did! Once I understood that those shoes contributed to the death of an animal, they were no longer attractive to me and I didn’t buy them.

“Any animal-based fiber comes with tremendous ethical responsibility.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Conscious Closet30

Stacks of sheepskins.
This image shows piles of salted sheep and cattle skins, at a slaughterhouse on the outskirts of Melbourne, Victoria. Photo courtesy of Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media.

You can look for sustainable or organic materials certified by organizations such as the ones listed under Additional Resources below. There’s a lot to know, which is why sometimes it’s easier to buy second-hand. Buying used ensures that you’re not directly supporting a certain type of textile production and it reduces overall demand. Giving an article of clothing a second chance also keeps it from going into a landfill or cluttering the landscapes of developing countries. In my next article, I’ll review types of synthetic fabrics. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Fibershed.org is a nonprofit fostering the resurgence of small-scale farmers and regenerative farming practices around the world.

Global Textile Standard (GOTS) “is the worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibres, including ecological and social criteria, backed up by independent certification of the entire textile supply chain. GOTS-certified final products may include fibre products, yarns, fabrics, clothes, home textiles, mattresses, personal hygiene products, as well as food contact textiles and more.”

Organic Content Standard (OCS) is “a voluntary global standard that sets the criteria for third-party certification of organic materials and chain of custody.”

bluesign is has specific safety and environmental requirements regarding chemicals.

Cradle to Cradle Certified “Product Standard provides the framework to assess the safety, circularity and responsibility of materials and products across five categories of sustainability performance.”

Oeko-Tex certifies products and all their components as free of harmful toxins.

The Responsible Wool Standard, run by Textile Exchange, ensures that animal welfare and sustainable land management standards have been met.31

The Leather Working Group (LWG) is a “not-for-profit that drives best practices and positive social and environmental change for responsible leather production.”

The Responsible Down Standard (RDS) “incentivizes the down and feather industry to treat ducks and geese humanely and…gives companies and consumers a way to know what’s in the products they buy.”

Footnotes:

Tokitae Died at the Miami Seaquarium

Lolita/Tokitae the orca with her head just above the pool's surface at the Miami Seaquarium.
Photo by Leonardo Dasilva on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Tokitae has died.

This is the second captive orca to die in captivity in the US this year, as we lost Kiska at Marineland Ontario/Niagara Falls in March.

She was so close to being back in the ocean, where she belonged. Scientists even believe her mother is still living in the Pacific Northwest and that they could’ve possibly been reunited someday.

Tokitae, formerly known as Lolita, lived in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium for more than 50 years. The marine amusement park recently signed an agreement to release her back to the Pacific Northwest, and you can read the updates here. This effort took many years and involved scientists, marine biologists, activists, documentarians, writers, etc. The owner of the Indianapolis Colts offered to pay for her transport from Miami to the west coast. The Lummi Nation was going to monitor and care for Tokitae in her new home. The wheels were set in motion and the plans were established.

But it was too late, the Miami Seaquarium should’ve let her go years ago.

Lolita/Tokitae the orca jumping out of the pool straight up at the Miami Seaquarium, trainers and audience in background.
Photo by Rick Webb on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

I cried pretty hard when I saw the press release from the Whale Sanctuary Project. I really believed Tokitae was going home.

The Friends of Toki and the Whale Sanctuary Project were the two organizations actively working to get her back to the ocean. But there were other individuals and organizations that helped raise awareness and money for over a decade. Thank you to everyone who ever advocated for Tokitae, whether you wrote about her, filmed her, protested for her release, raised money, or raised awareness about her. So many of us loved her and cared about her. She will always be in our hearts.