Money is power, and we are empowered with our choices about where to spend our dollars. As a conscious consumer, I'm a label reader. I scrutinize not only the labels on my food and household products, but also on the clothing I buy. Demand causes supply, and I don't want to contribute to a demand for products that cause animals to suffer in order to supply them to me.
Last year, I needed a dressy winter coat, but most of the coats I found online or in stores contained wool.
Sadly, our images of sheep peacefully grazing in the Alps until the Swiss Miss girl comes and gently combs away their wool to keep them cool could not be further from reality in our mass-produced market. What I'm going to tell you about is the reality of the wool industry.
We don't *need* to kill sheep for wool, right? But we do. And we do it very cruelly.
Australia leads the world's wool producers, producing half the merino wool and 30 percent of all wool used worldwide. The country exploits more than 100 million sheep, and it is considered normal in the Australian wool industry for as many as 6 million to die each season as a result of neglect, starvation, disease, and exposure. Flocks usually consist of thousands of sheep, making it impossible to give attention to individual needs.
Within weeks of birth, lambs' ears are hole-punched, their tails are chopped off, and the males are castrated without anesthetics by one of the most painful methods of castration possible.
Shearers are usually paid by volume, not by the hour, which encourages fast work without regard for the welfare of the sheep. According to industry publications, shearers clip more than 350 sheep in one day. Says one eyewitness: "[T]he shearing shed must be one of the worst places in the world for cruelty to animals … I have seen shearers punch sheep with their shears or their fists until the sheep's nose bled. I have seen sheep with half their faces shorn off …."
But that's not all.
In Australia and New Zealand, the most commonly raised sheep are merinos, who are specifically bred to have wrinkled skin, which means more wool per animal. This unnatural overload of wool causes some animals to die of heat exhaustion during hot months, and the wrinkles collect urine and moisture. Attracted to the moisture, flies lay eggs in the folds of skin, and the hatched maggots can eat the sheep alive.
In order to mitigate this condition, called "flystrike," Australian ranchers perform a barbaric procedure called mulesing, which involves carving huge strips of skin and flesh off the backs of lambs' legs and around their tails—with no painkillers whatsoever. This is done to cause smooth, scarred skin that won't harbor fly eggs, yet the bloody wounds often get flystrike anyway before they heal.
One farmer—who successfully protects his sheep from flystrike by using a combination of fly traps, chemical sprays, breed selection, and grazing management—attributed the industry's resistance to giving up mulesing to "a bit of old-boys'-club arrogance in a once-grand industry that is now struggling a bit."
The terror sheep endure today does not end with mulesing. When sheep age and their wool production declines, they are sold for slaughter. This results in the cruel live export of 6.5 million sheep every year from Australia to the Middle East and North Africa. Sheep are crammed aboard enormous multitiered open-deck ships, and severe overcrowding causes many to be trampled to death or to starve when they cannot reach food and water. Treated as mere cargo, sick or injured sheep may be thrown overboard to drown or be eaten by sharks, or tossed alive into shipboard grinders.
Investigators found that animals were dragged off the ships by their ears and legs, bound and thrown into the trunks of cars, and slaughtered in prolonged and cruel ways that are illegal in the United States, Europe, and Australia.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Upon learning these facts, many people ask where they can find humane wool. It's difficult to find considering that the raising and shearing of sheep even outside of Australia is often inhumane, and it's extremely hard to tell where a wool product originated.
An Internet search for humane wool turned up an organization that boasted to be the first sheep farm in the United States to be "certified humane" by major "humane" organizations. However, it also offers "flavorful lamb cuts." I suspect that like "humane meat," "humane wool" is an oxymoron, unless perhaps it comes from private individuals on a subsistence scale, rather than companies exploiting animals for profit.
The only way to be certain that you are avoiding wool from sheep raised in Australia and New Zealand is to avoid wool altogether, and boycotting merino wool is a great step in the right direction. You can also buy clothing from retailers that have pledged not to sell Australian merino wool products until mulesing and live exports have ended, such as American Eagle Outfitters, Abercrombie & Fitch, Timberland, Aéropostale, and Limited Brands.
Alternatives to wool include cotton, cotton flannel, polyester fleece, synthetic shearling, and other cruelty-free fibers. Tencel—which is breathable, durable, and biodegradable—is one of the newest cruelty-free wool substitutes. Polartec Wind Pro, which is made primarily from recycled plastic soda bottles, is a high-density fleece with four times the wind resistance of wool, and it also wicks away moisture.
As for me, I'll keep reading labels. Last winter I finally found a soft, warm coat that met my needs but was completely synthetic. My first opportunity to wear it was at Farm Sanctuary in NY last Christmas, where I met Thelma, a beautiful sheep who followed me around to be petted. I was really happy with my choice as a consumer. I could hug this sheep knowing that my coat had not been manufactured out of the blood and suffering of other sheep like her.