Feeling Sheepish | The Problem With Producing Ethical Wool
"Mulesing is a cruel process and the sheep can die a slow and agonising death..."
Words by Sam Haddad
When it comes to food, many of us try to shop with thoughts of animal welfare in our heads. We buy eggs from chickens that have roamed free, and meat from beasts that we hope have lived happy lives. But how many of us do the same when it comes to buying clothes?
We might shun fast fashion, having considered the harsh human cost involved in making cheap clothes, but the last time you bought a merino base layer or woolly jumper, did you at any point consider the health and happiness of the sheep whose coat created your garment? I can safely say I didn’t. I had no idea it was an ethical issue, I thought harvesting a flock’s wool was just like giving them each a haircut, albeit a really short one that they hadn’t asked for.
"The problem with provenance has pushed one Swedish brand to adopt a radical solution."
But sheep welfare is a real concern - unscrupulous producers desperate to maximise profits often treat animals cruelly, and even the best-intentioned brands can find it hard to keep tabs on where their wool comes from. It's this problem with provenance that has pushed one Swedish brand to adopt a radical solution.
Christiane Dolva, Head of Sustainability at Fjallraven, is at work when I call her. "The sheep are hanging out outside the house. There are 65 in the current flock but as we’re approaching lambing season, so there should be many more soon," she says. If an office with 65 sheep wandering around outside sounds like an unusual one, that's because it is. Dolva is talking to me from the site where Fjallraven are experimenting with a solution to the provenance problem that's so simple, it's brilliant - they're raising their own sheep.
The project, which was launched as a partnership with a local farm in Brattlandsgården, near the ski resort of Are, is going from strength to strength, producing wool that is not only excellent quality, but also entirely traceable from the sheep's womb, to the loom, to the jumper hanging in your bedroom.
So what exactly is it that's so bad about wool-farming that Fjallraven would go to such lengths? As well as consulting Dolva, we spoke to Adrian Gunn-Wilson, a director at Welsh outdoor brand Howies, who also take steps to ensure their wool is sustainably sourced. He tells me about the practise of Mulesing. “It's a cruel process of removing chunks of skin from the buttocks of a sheep to prevent flystrike." Which is when flies lay eggs in the wool. Mulesing often doesn’t even work and the sheep can die a slow and agonising death anyway. Howies, he tells Mpora, have only used non-mulesed wool since as far back as 2004.
"Mulesing is a cruel process of removing chunks of skin from the buttocks of a sheep."
They're not the only ones - Cornish brand Finisterre have always used non-mulesed wool for their merino. However, as Product Director Debbie Luffman explains: “We can't regularly fly over to New Zealand to talk to the farmer and inspect the merino flock first hand, [but] we [can] ensure that the merino we source is supplied with full traceability and is certified non-mulesed." Like Fjallraven, they've also established their own flock of sheep, in this case Bowmont merino sheep, in the UK.
Raising your own sheep in an ethical fashion isn't just a question of making sure they're well looked after. Fjallraven take an interest in every aspect of sheep farming - even down to considering the quality of the meat from the breed they farm.
Jämtlandsfår, the unique new breed farmed at Brattlandsgården has been chosen not just for the good wool it produces, but also for the taste so there is no wastage. Christine Dolva explains: “Often a sheep breed might be really good for meat but the wool is coarse and poor quality so it gets thrown away. This new breed is pretty special. It has a good balance of meat, which I can vouch for as we’ve been eating it this winter, and top quality wool too. The breed is also adapted to the Swedish climate, which was obviously important for us."
"The hope is that the farm collaboration could one day produce all the wool the brand needs."
She tells me they will be sheared in autumn, when they should have enough for 200 thick wool sweaters. Of course that's a fraction of what the company currently produces, so the bulk of their wool is still bought from external producers. But the hope is that the farm collaboration could one day produce all the wool the brand needs. At the moment, however, the scale is tiny. Once the sheep are sheared the wool is washed and worked on in a nearby spinnery by just a handful of workers. By starting small though, and by working directly with the farmer and a vet they can be sure the process is animal-friendly at every step of the way.
This does of course put the price up for the jumpers currently produced from Brattlandsgården wool. Is Christine Dolva worried about how Fjallraven’s customers will react to that? “We’ll see," she says. “Through chatting to our customers, and on social media, we can tell they’re happy with the ethical story and how transparent the process is. They see the added value, and we’ve had a very good response so far. Using small suppliers with manual handling and working in Sweden drives the costs up, but we hope people will see the added value."
When it comes to pricing, she’s also keen to point out how durable these woolly jumpers are. Dolva says: “The fact remains when you produce anything you use resources but these clothes will be durable, they could last for generations. They are the opposite of fast fashion. Another great thing about wool is that you don’t need to wash it. It cleans itself. Sure if you’ve sweated into a base layer you might need to rinse it but often just hanging out the garment in the air will clean it. That saves a lot of resource in terms of the energy used in washing and tumble-drying something, and the chemicals involved in that."
"Through chatting to our customers, and on social media, we can tell they’re happy with the ethical story."
Dolva tells me the enthusiasm for producing wool at Brattlandsgården runs throughout the company from the CEO Martin Axelhed to the shop-floor workers. “It makes my job easier and more rewarding, as it’s not a big push to get sustainable and environmental policies signed off. The company workers have a common understanding and shared value system. It’s a coordinated effort."
Last year the company took some of their workers to the farm to experience how things were going first-hand. “It reminded us of why we do what we do," social media editor Sarah Benton told me. “Why it’s so important to create products that are in synch with the environment, that contribute to a better planet. The sheep graze where the grass is greenest during the summer and sleep indoors during cold winter nights, which also means grain doesn’t need to be grown for them."
Lesley Prior, who manages the Finisterre flock in the UK, explains the value of wool brilliantly. “Wool is a fantastic resource, sustainable and tremendously versatile. It’s the original 'green fibre', growing as it does on grass." But using this wonder material responsibly has to involve making the welfare of the animals who provide it a priority, Prior says. Hence the importance of ensuring ethical provenance. "When you work this closely together you can be sure of what’s happening at each stage of the production process, from the back of a sheep to the body of a human."
Christine Dolva agrees - she believes that all too often animals are used like any other raw material in the supply chain, rather than as a living thing which can feel happiness or pain. She says: “We want to be respectful. It’s the right thing to do. A moral value you could say. We live and breathe nature, but with that comes a sense of responsibility. We need to be sure that in driving people outside to have these experiences, it doesn’t come at the cost of someone or something. In this case the sheep."
Which is why next time we're looking at a jumper on a rack, we'll be sure to ask not just how much it costs, but also where it came from.