A growing emphasis on animal health and welfare standards holds the textile supply chain up to high ethical standards.
By John Russel Jones
In August 2020, architecture and design website Dezeen.com featured a barn located not far from Montréal, Quebec, Canada, that was designed “to improve the quality of life for both the animals and the workers at (an) organic cheese farm.” The structure’s translucent exterior was designed to allow natural light “to enhance both well-being and productivity.” The architects also accounted for “free-stabling,” allowing the cows a more natural, confine-free movement, which also complemented the dairy farm’s operations. “Cows love stability and routine,” explained the architect.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that animals (not to mention people) were treated as cogs in the ever-turning wheel of industry: a disposable commodity spent in the name of progress. As sustainability and supply chain awareness have made consumers both more educated and more demanding, it’s become apparent that we owe the animals that are responsible for creating so many high-performance raw materials a happier existence.
When Change Happens
Isabelle Lefort of Paris Good Fashion says, “We know that we need to consume fewer animals. It’s good for us and good for the planet. But we also realize that for our own well-being, we need to treat animals well, too.”
“Cruelty and abuse have to stop.” — Temple Grandin
Colorado State University Professor of Animal Science Temple Grandin points out that change happens “when big buyers enforce it. Cruelty and abuse have to stop, so we can either ban it, or clean up the industry. I’ve been in meetings with apparel manufacturers who didn’t even know how sheep are shorn and when they’ve seen the kind of cruelty that goes on, they see the need for change. They can go to New Zealand to see it done correctly.”
Nicola Gelder of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has been working on a project to set up standards specifically for Angora rabbits. In 2014 the Italian fashion industry (and other countries’) came under attack by animal rights activists who claimed that the animals were being mistreated in the process of harvesting the soft hairs which are blended with wool and other fibers for novelty fashion textiles. Gelder points out that although the European Union has strict regulations about the treatment of animals used in the food supply chain, those species that are used for fibers fell into unregulated territory.
“We wanted to ensure that Angora rabbits had at least the freedoms that other farm animals were afforded,” says Gelder. “Our aim is to build a robust supply chain of traceable Angora fiber that comes from rabbit farms where all the best practices are set forth in this new standard. While there is Angora production in Europe, most of it is in China. By proposing this standard at the ISO level, we can bring China, Japan, and Korea to the table.”
Gelder points out that the committee’s starting point was always about the animal welfare, rather than the impact that good practices might have on the quality of the finished product. “We’ve got a fantastic fiber that is a niche part of the Italian fashion industry, and we want to be sure that we can continue to use it, provided that the animals are afforded the level of welfare that they deserve, and that the conscious consumer desires.”
The standards that the ISO is developing include considerations about the animals’ housing and space requirements, reproductive cycles, feeding cycles, social behaviors, general health management and avoiding disease. “Of course, fiber collection needs to be stress-free, allowing time to acclimatize before and after. Respect the seasonal cycles of shedding,” says Gelder. “Those who follow the standard should be able to declare it and benefit from it in some way, too, allowing them to provide the consumer the transparency they need, taking away some the lingering doubt about the cruel treatment of some of these poor Angora rabbits.”
Both Gelder and Grandin also point out the importance of training and professional advancement for workers, “because that’s where the responsibility for the animal comes from, and the passion we want to see,” says Gelder.
Grandin emphasizes measurement and pacing. “I can measure how many animals slip and fall. In shearing, we can measure how many times an animal is nicked. Don’t overwork the shearer so they don’t care about what they are doing.”
Although we were unable to connect with the organization for this specific story, Textile Exchange has been creating groundbreaking certifications for best practices that impact the environment, with particular emphasis on responsible standards for down, wool, and mohair. A mid-December 2020 Responsible Leather Roundtable included a focus on an animal welfare standards benchmark incorporating nutrition, living environment, animal husbandry, transport, and slaughter.
Textile Exchange keeps a focus on the Five Freedoms of animal welfare:
- Freedom from Discomfort
- Freedom from Hunger and Thirst
- Freedom from Pain, Injury, or Disease
- Freedom to Express Normal Behavior
- Freedom from Fear and Distress
The ISO committee has been working closely with the University of Perugia for its farm management and animal husbandry expertise on developing its own standards, but there has yet to be a study to determine if all of this proper care might also result in superior fibers. Of course, they are willing to set up a pilot project should the funding appear.
Paris Good Fashion has partnered with Deloitte to conduct a study which will come out later this Spring analyzing the effects of treating animals better. A different, just-released study surveyed French attitudes towards responsible fashion. The study showed that the animal well-being ranked pretty low on a list of concerns (recycling/second hand/rental proposals ranked highest, as well as issues around local production, and materials and manufacturing processes), but Lefort sees it as important for a younger, vegan generation; citing the influence of groups like Extinction Rebellion (a movement of non-violent action and civil disobedience addressing climate change).
“We know that more and more it will begin to be important. The Collectif Tricolor, for example includes more than thirty brands, from producer to manufacturer to farmers, who are working to revive the wool industry in France. We think that quality and well-being are related. It’s a new movement, but it is growing.”
It’s estimated that humans have been domesticating animals for nearly 10,000 years, so concerns about animal health and welfare are hardly new. This renewed emphasis on care and stewardship, though, is in pioneer territory, moving step by step with sustainability and climate-focused practices, sure to have effects across the textile industry.