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“The Challenging Reality: Wool and Ethics”

  One of the topics I’ve been learning about recently has been the use of wool in the fabric industry. Generally, we as vegans tend to be very much against this practice and advocate for plant-based textiles made from hemp, organic cotton, recycled fibers, etc. as replacements for animal-derived fibers. However, I’ve discovered there are some interesting points people often overlook.

  This might not apply to everyone. I’m speaking strictly from personal experience. Over the years, I’ve found that staying away from wool has become an incentive to purchase cheaper, fast fashion items made from synthetics that are almost always derived from (you guessed it) plastic. Plastic, as previously mentioned, will be shed into the environment sooner or later, regardless of what form it takes. Lately there has been a shift in the fashion industry to produce more “vegan” and “vegan-friendly” clothing. However, like synthetic leather, many of the products I’m seeing are made from nothing but more plastic.

I have several concerns about this change in the clothing industry. While it is a positive thing in some respects, it might come with a few hidden negatives.  For one, it theoretically gives manufacturers an excuse to increase the price of substandard products simply by putting a vegan label on them.

Plus, we might be wise to ask the quest: “Exactly how much research have these people done to make sure that what they’re producing actually is vegan-friendly?” If a clothing item is free of animal byproducts, then we automatically tend to assume that the fibers, glue, dyes, etc. are derived from plants. This is often not the case, unless the company has taken additional time to get certified by someone like PETA or Leaping Bunny.

Also, we must keep in mind that many (though not all) of the companies who produce fast fashion – and even some in the more elite fashion circles – have been known to employ substandard labor at below minimum wage. This is not only unfair but unethical.

There is also often-asked the question: “When are Americans going to become self-sufficient again?” After all, nearly all clothing, household goods, etc. are at least partially produced over seas. Admittedly, this is a good point – and not just for this country but for others, too. Wouldn’t every country, community, or village in the world benefit from being more self-sufficient? This is not to say we shouldn’t share, but it would certainly bring a little more balance to the lives of people who could use it.

I noticed that in the early days of the most recent health “revolution”, there was a resurgence of local business and family-owned, Mom and Pop companies here in the US. Now organic companies seem to want to “Hollywood-ize” themselves with glossier advertising, pricier packaging, fancier names, and (invariably) higher prices. There have even been a few that were around before health was trendy that have compromised their quality. Interestingly, this happened shortly after choosing to do business with foreign countries that may or may not have high enough standards to support a truly ethical health product. 

This is not to put anyone down or suggest that the people involved are inherently greedy. However, as my mentor has told me , “Money truly is the root of all evil.” Those words are deeper than many think. My point is, think back to those days. Wasn’t it more freeing and exciting to have homegrown industry that was not only healthy but benefited the stability of people you actually got to meet in-person? You met the wife who cooked up a batch of soap in her kitchen, the children who packaged and labeled it, and the husband who delivered it to the store in the back of his pickup truck. It felt like we were getting a little of that small-town, 1950’s life back.

Now when I search for organic and/or vegan products, it has become more of a source of stress. I have to read and re-read the labels, watch out for green-washing, keep up to date on the latest scandal in the health industry… Even vegan items are coming under fire now as there have been supposedly safe products that were revealed to not be so vegan-friendly after all.

This is not the industry we or anyone else on this planet needs. And while it’s all fine and well to talk about how some non-GMO or non-GME companies are helping restore communities overseas (which I support whole-heartedly), it does not take away from the fact that you can’t help anyone until you help yourself. I’ve learned the hard way that there is such a thing as putting too strong a focus on charity – at least in the sense that most people define it. Too much of a good thing leads to imbalance.

  What does this have to do with wool production? A lot. One of the things I’ve learned from researching farm sanctuaries and various animal rescue groups who have cared for sheep is that it’s not the keeping of sheep for wool that’s the problem. It’s the treatment, forced breeding (a.k.a. rape), and sheering practices the sheep are exposed to that seems to be the real issue.

Some people have gone so far as to believe that the sheep’s wool should never be taken. I was of the same opinion. Thanks to the wonderful people at sanctuaries who are putting out a lot of fun but educational content, I now understand that failing to regularly – and properly – sheer their coats is just as abusive as cutting them too often or too close. If you think a wet wool sweater is heavy, imagine how heavy a sheep’s coat would be if it was never cut? Imagine what that weight would do to their skeletal structure. Plus, they would eventually not be able to move – which means they wouldn’t be able to eat. I’ve seen images taken by volunteers of situations like this, and the reader is more than welcome to do their own research, as well. I encourage it. That’s what this mini series is all about.

  Happily, there are some companies that are supporting taking wool only from villages where the sheep are treated well. I’ve even seen instances where the fabric is even woven by the same people who tend the sheep. I have even heard that – sadly – many people are now opting to compost the wool because they aren’t getting paid enough to make selling it a viable option. Personally, I think it would be a wonderful thing if sanctuaries could earn a little money to help with expenses if they were able to sell the wool they had to sheer to keep the animals healthy while still treating them well.

As someone who has quite a bit of tribal heritage as well an affinity for nature spirits and a more traditional way of life, I’ve sometimes had to weigh the old / commonly-accepted practices with my own ethics and understanding of what’s good or bad for the animals and the environment. My ancestors didn’t have the pollution, overpopulation, and corporate greed we have now (at least, not to this extent). Therefore, when recently faced with the option of either buying a plastic-based sweater that could technically be considered vegan but would never last or keep me warm – or a 100% wool sweater that blocks out he cold like nobody’s business – I opted for the wool.

Does that make me a traitor? I’m sure there are others out there who are asking themselves the same question. I know many vegans and animal activists will say yes, but I’ll put in my two cents worth here: no.

My mother once told me, “It’s an imperfect world. We can’t fix everything, but we can do the best we can.” Alura recently reminded me of the serenity prayer, which I highly recommend to anyone struggling with this issue or others like it. There’s a big difference between making a purchase based on your own impulsive need and making a purchase after spending half an hour (or in some cases, half a year) weighing every option you can find. What has the bigger impact: a sweater that will last you twenty years or a sweater that will be thrown out or donated in two years because it doesn’t get the job done? Look at how much clothing ends up in the landfill every year! I was shocked and horrified when that was brought to my attention.

Today, my solution to all things clothing related is this: buy wisely to buy less. One well-made jacket, sweater, handbag, pair of shoes, etc. will save far more animals’ lives that a dozen trendy but poorly-made and/or synthetic options that will eventually become another source of trash cluttering up this beautiful planet and choke even more land, sea, and air animals. This doesn’t even begin to touch on how the trash epidemic has and will continue to impact our food supply (plants included) and air and water quality, as if those things aren’t polluted enough already. That is the impact we’ve had on this Earth.

Our ancestors’ philosophy? Wear it, mend it, polish it, and hand it down to the next generation with a note reading: “When in doubt, repurpose.”

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