Fashion makes a statement. Even if you are not the type of person who goes to fashion shows, reads fashion magazines, or even vaguely pays attention to what they grab from their closet in the morning. You can’t deny it: fashion matters.
Even if you aren’t particularly picky about your daily ensemble, all clothes have a design. They’re all made from something. The shape, the fabrics, the essence, it all stems from a mother fashion puppeteer. This puppeteer’s fashion designs trickle down to every Target and outlet store known to man. The imitation pieces are seen on the backs of everyone from glamazons to truckers to preschoolers.
The convention of said fashion puppeteers — New York’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week — happened last week. And, unfortunately, two very political trends stuck out on nearly every designers’ runway: fur and wool.
“Fur!” you may be saying. “Disgusting! How cruel!”
But wool? Many people believe sheep need haircuts, that we’re doing them a favor by shearing them. And isn’t wool a nice, eco-friendly, sustainable product?
Well, no. A lot of people — even those still wearing fur — have heard of the cruelty of the fur industry. There are a number of videos (viewer beware: the images are hard to handle) showing the horrible realities of fur. But the cruel happenings within the wool industry don’t always garner the same attention. There are a lot of people who still consider wool to be a “humane” alternative to fur. And some eco-friendly clothing stores and websites carry wool products, adding to the misconception that wool is just a leftover from when a hippie gives a pet sheep a haircut.
But the real story of the wool industry is far from a fairytale of life on the commune.
Let’s start with this fact: people who shear sheep get paid per sheep, not by the hour. So when they cut sheep’s hair away, they want to do it as fast as they can, which inevitably leads to rough handling and abuse of the animals. The handlers don’t wait patiently for the sheep to canter over and the sheep don’t sit still while they’re being sheared. The process is quite rough. Most sheep are injured and bleed. To maximize thickness of the coat, many sheep are sheared in Spring, long before they would naturally shed their wool. This leaves sheep naked and cold.
The sheep live in crowded, dirty conditions, like every other mass-produced animal. And like other exploited animals, we have bred sheep so large that they can barely support their own body weight. Many die in their holding pens. They get lice, fleece rot, foot rot and their tails are cut off without anesthesia. And male sheep are castrated without anesthesia, too. The procedure is either performed with a knife, or by placing a tight rubber band around the animal’s scrotum until it shrivels up and falls off.
And many baby lambs born in these crowded conditions are trampled to death.
Then there’s mulesing, an incredibly painful and cruel practice only necessary because of the mutations we have bred into sheep to get the most wool out of them. Over 50 percent of the world’s Merino Wool comes from Australia, where the sheep’s wool is extra thick and the climate is extra hot and dry. Their skin is wrinkled and because they’re are so fat and live under the hot Australian sun, the skin folds become moist, love nests for flies, who burrow into the folds of the sheep’s skin. Maggots then infect the flesh, a condition known as flystrike. The maggots consume the sheep from the inside, leaving the sheep so distressed they stop eating, drinking and can not sleep. Can you blame them? They’re being eaten alive by maggots! If untreated, the sheep will die a slow, agonizing death. To avoid the skin folds from being infested, large chunks of skin are cut from the sheep’s rear end, which is known as “mulesing.” This procedure is done without any anesthesia or painkillers.
And when sheep stop producing wool, they’re not sent to pasture, allowed to peacefully utter their last “bah.” Instead, when their production value is no longer enough for the wool industry, they’re sent to slaughter to benefit the meat industry. Doesn’t that make you feel all warm and cozy inside?
The whole theory of sheep “needing” to be sheared is concocted from human design. Natural, wild sheep will grow just enough fur to keep them warm in the winter and cool in the summer. They shed naturally, when necessary. But we have bred sheep to be wool-producing factories. As a result, they do need “haircuts”. But these haircuts are not animal-friendly. They are not benevolent favors. They are part of an industry–a machine that is not the “green” solution to fur that clothing designers claim. If you want to look at it purely from an environmental perspective, sheep need food, space and fuel for transportation just like cows and other factory-bred animals. They are livestock, part of a production that pollutes water, emits greenhouse gases and degrades natural resources. In Australia, sheep eat so much natural fauna that wallabies are endangered. And millions of kangaroos searching for food are killed upon invading the herd space.
So if you shun fur, consider yourself an environmentalist or an animal lover, or even if you’re a “cute-atarian,” someone who doesn’t eat anything they deem adorable (and what’s cuter than a lamb?), don’t pull the wool over your eyes. Wool may not be quite the same as fur, but it’s not far off either. Wool is warm, I’ll give you that. But there are non-wool alternatives that keep you just as warm during cold winter weather. The choices are out there if you look for them.
We need to be the change we want to see. If we buy non-wool items, people will make non-wool winter clothes. We will find increasingly more materials and more technology that can replace wool, if there’s demand for it. Fashion Week may be the puppeteer of the clothing industry, but we don’t have to be puppets. Cut the strings. Check labels. The next time you are eco-shopping with your organic pals and scoffing at the fur-wearing hag buying the snakeskin clutch, check the label of that sweater you were eyeing. It may once have been a home for maggots on a sheep’s backside.