Larger brands are increasingly waking up to the PR nightmare when an animal rights group exposes cruel treatment of sheep in their supply chain. Can the Responsible Wool Standard guarantee that the sheep have been treated responsibly and the land is managed in a sustainable way? And from the point of view of animal rights groups like PETA, is the standard enough?

The Responsible Wool Standard is in initiative from Textile Exchange. Founded in 2002, Textile Exchange is a global non-profit organization that promotes the increased use of preferred fibers, standards and sustainable supply chain practices in the textile industry. Textile Exchange’s Sustainability Specialist Hanna Denes has 15 years of experience in environmental management and sustainable development, and now heads the organization’s Responsible Wool Standard (RWS). She explains:“The RWS is an independent, voluntary standard that verifies the process by which wool is produced. It helps improve the humane treatment of sheep, the progressive management of the land on which they graze and a fully traceable supply chain. Independent, third-party audits are conducted at each stage of the supply chain on a regular and on-going basis to ensure that the standard’s requirements are met consistently.”

There are currently certified farms across all major apparel wool growing regions of the world. As one of the foremost global wool standards, RWS has gained widespread support in the textile and apparel industries, and its partners include such outdoor brands and retailers as REI, Mountain Equipment Co-op and Vaude.

“Our standard enables textile and apparel industries to source wool in a way that meets their corporate responsibility goals, and to make claims about their wool with confidence.”

PETA still critical

As described in the article about Ovis 21, the animal rights organization PETA has accused wool suppliers and outdoor brands as being complicit in an industry where sheep are mistreated. According to Frank Schmidt, senior specialist for animals in the clothing industry at PETA Germany, mistreatment in the wool industry is rather the rule than the exception.

“To begin with, sheep farming is not sustainable from an ecological point of view in many regions of the world as it demands huge water consumption and causes land erosion especially in warmer climate zones. Furthermore, as in all industries, cost efficiency is often the highest priority. Shearing is performed under immense time pressure, which easily leads to high stress levels and injuries for the sheep,” says Frank Schmidt.

As PETA sees it, the RWS is not enough. Frank Schmidt goes so far as to call RWS “greenwash,” and claims that a customer choosing between one wool product with RWS certified wool or another with regular wool can pick either one. Or rather neither of them, if PETA had its way.

“The recurring farm inspections, which RWS claims to be their primary control mechanism, are not performed often enough. And despite officially being said to be un-announced, in practice it often turns out that the farm is given a time frame in advance, within a couple of weeks, during which the inspection will occur. This contradicts the whole purpose behind the visits as it gives the farm a chance to prepare for the inspection and show a polished facade, for example, by getting rid of injured or unhealthy animals. In order to make progress, these inspections would need to be performed entirely un-announced and much more frequently.”

A global benchmark

Textile Exchange strongly opposes PETA’s claim that the Responsible Wool Standard is a kind of greenwash. Hanna Denes points out that the RWS is by far the best available global tool to help improve the welfare of the sheep that supply fibers.

“At Textile Exchange, we have worked closely with leading animal welfare experts from Four Paws, Humane Society and Wildlife Friendly, alongside industry stakeholders, to develop the standard. We are horrified by any mistreatment of animals at the hands of farmers or the workers they depend on, and find it much more effective to recognize and support those who are farming well, which the RWS provides the platform to do.”

“PETA has claimed that mistreatment of sheep is the rule, but there is no global data available to confirm this. To the contrary, we have seen many examples of progressive farmers that work hard to ensure the health and welfare of their animals,” explains Hanna Denes.

As Textile Exchange sees it, the RWS sets a global benchmark that enables companies to align their sourcing policies, and to buy wool that meets strict animal welfare and land management criteria. The RWS is not a guarantee but rather an instrument for best practices in both animal welfare and land management, where there was no previous industrywide standard. The standard has built-in consequences for not meeting the requirements, including certifications being revoked and farms found with serious animal welfare violations being ineligible to apply again for a year or more.

“The goals of the RWS are bold, and achieving them will not happen overnight. It will take commitment from farmers, brands, suppliers, and animal welfare experts to move the industry towards the best practices we are trying to achieve on farms in regions all around the world.”

Cooperation in Argentina

With regard to the wool sourcing in Argentina that created a heated debate in 2015 (described in the Ovis 21 article), Textile Exchange has been working together with two key wool-industry organizations since 2017.

“The RWS content, language, and best practices will be used as a basis for training regional farmers, including those associated with Ovis 21, marking the first time Textile Exchange works at a national level to implement the principles of a standard,” says Hanna Denes and continues:

“Without a global standard like the RWS, this level of positive change wouldn’t be possible. Textile Exchange remains more committed than ever to the RWS and we look forward to continued collaboration with industry leaders and animal welfare experts.”

Karen Hensel
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