It is time for Ethical Wool to become a reality

Many people think that the wool industry is made of sheep gamboling in pastures. That no animal are abused or killed. That placid sheep stand in line quietly and men with large electric scissors shear their hair off.

Not true.

Before you buy wool see the PETA video, released in 2017, of the treatment of sheep in the shearing sheds of the main wool farms across Australia. The undercover video showed workers violently punching frightened sheep in the face, stomping and standing on their heads and necks, slamming their heads on the floor, beating and jabbing them in the head with electric clippers. The violent shearing process left large, bloody cuts on their bodies and  workers stitched up gaping wounds with a needle and thread without any anesthesia. Says one photographer "The 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 …"
Three years before this, in 2014, Peta exposed similar abuse in the top wool exporting farms. Many owners and workers were arrested and given cruelty convictions. The industry vowed to reform. The secretary of the Shearing Contractors’ Association of Australia said that the 2014 footage had been a “wake-up call” to the industry and vowed to implement a zero-tolerance policy on cruelty to animals

After a few weeks it was business as usual and the cruelty was resumed.

Shearers are the bottom of human evolution -  illiterate, impatient, insensitive farm labour, who are paid per sheep. It doesn’t matter whether they cause the frightened animals distress and injury, they simply want the numbers done and their wages.

Is this the only country where such terrible things are done by shearers? Similar exposés have been done in Argentina, Chile and the United States, and they show the same brutality.

If the wool farms are not going to stop this, it is upto us, the consumes, to do it. Go wool free (God, thank you for acrylic !). You could write to wool retailers across the world to demand better conditions. You could start a shaming process through social media.

But, let us look at another way which has worked beautifully in another sector – and which I am very proud of.

Twenty years ago carpet importers, from Europe and America, were under pressure to stop doing business with India because we had been accused of using little children to make them. I was not in government. We made a group called Rugmark, moved into Varanasi and Bhadohi, and went from carpet maker to carpet maker and removed the children. We sent some back to their parents in Bihar where they had been kidnapped from, we put others in orphanages and schools which we established. By the time the exercise was over, children were out of the production system. Carpet exporters signed a pledge, which holds good till today, that they would never use them again. They were then allowed to buy labels from us called Rugmark, and Germany took the lead in promoting the label, which meant Childfree. Soon Pakistan and Nepal followed suit with the same label. The label was paid for by the foreign importers – Rs1 per label at the time and it went to the upkeep of children and their schooling. Rugmark solved an ethical problem and the industry was a willing co-operator.

We need to solve this problem with a similar label. Australia and New Zealand are the largest exporters of wool. Australia alone accounts for one fifth of global wool production. India is one of the top importers of wool from Australia. 60% is imported by China (and they couldn't care less about cruelty). They buy the worst wool. Then comes Italy with 20%. They buy for high fashion designers like Armani. We are the third largest with 15%-18%, and growing at 17% every year. In 2018 Australia exported 152 million dollars worth (41.47 million kg) to India. We import carpet wool, greasy wool, scoured wool, clipped wool, tannery wool, lamb's wool, merino wool and wool waste

We use this wool to make carpets, handloom fabrics, yarn, hosiery and knitwear - cardigans, pullovers, socks, gloves, mufflers and suit material. Carpet manufacturers blend domestic with New Zealand wool. We export the finished products. In 2014 our raw wool imports were 96.13 million kg, 8% higher than the previous year. In 2014 we imported 356 million dollars worth and exported 1.05 billion dollars. In 2019 it is 1.14 billion. Every year we export more because knitwear has a huge market, and our clients range from South Korea, UAE and Japan and, of course, Europe and the United States. Most of the main wool companies are in Ludhiana. From 2014 we have become the highest importers of wool from the United States, with 1.16 million kg.

We are big enough to influence the way sheep are kept, and treated, all over the world.

India’s wool industrialists need to develop a label that says Ethical Wool. Consumers now object to buying things which are not made by paying ethical fair wages, millions have gone vegan or organic, most designers have given up fur. Why not apply this new morality, and distaste for wickedness, to wool ?

Companies like Patagonia have already stopped using wool from the general market, and source it from wool farms that have ethical practices.

Our companies should refuse to buy wool from farms that have cruel shearing practices. There is a hideous practice called mulesing. Sheep are grown to get more and more wool on their bodies - some cannot even walk any more. Because sheep hair is oily, and the area round the anus is warm, and full of faeces and urine, sometimes blowfly lay their eggs on the skin, and the larvae feed on the sheep’s tissue. This, of course, makes the sheep sick and the quality of hair goes down. So, what the industry does is even worse. They cut the skin from the buttocks without anaesthesia. What would you do if some sick individual tried to cut large chunks of skin and flesh from around your anus? Flystrike, as the problem is called, can easily be avoided with better management and the use of skin insecticides. But Australian wool farmers employ very few labourers in order to keep costs down, so sheep are generally neglected. The industry defends mulesing by saying while it hurts the sheep, it saves them from being eaten by flies. This is not true. Flystrike only afflicts farmed, not wild, sheep and this is because the skin keeps getting increased so that more wool can grow on one body. The increased heat and folds are attractive for blowflies. It also creates very unhappy animals assaulted by handlers and shearers. And with each breeding generation, the industry favours sheep with the densest skin folds, thus ensuring that each successive generation will be even more vulnerable to flystrike. 
When the world threatened to boycott mulesed wool, Australia vowed in 2004 that they would ban it by 2010.  It is 2019 and they have still not done it. Many clothing companies have pledged not to use wool from sheep that have undergone this procedure.

There are many other horrible things that happen to sheep. For instance, Sharlea sheep have been mutated to produce a certain kind of wool. However, the same genetic mutation has also made them blind and unable to walk. Millions of sheep perish every year on large wool farms due to disease and individual neglect that occurs when animals, meant to roam freely, are squeezed together. Adequate health, and veterinary care for ailments, is non-existent. And, at the end of their "productive" lives, they're shipped to slaughter to the Middle East in overcrowded ships.  

If we confined our label to anti-mulesing and anti-bad shearing, castration, tail-docking, and ear-punching, we would go a long way. If our Indian wool industry would hire one animal welfare organisation in Australia to check randomly, and then give ethical wool labels, it could change the world. When India banned Pate foie gras in 2014, so did dozens of countries in Europe. When we started Rugmark and cleaned up child labour, it had an impact on so many industries who used child labour. It is time for Ethical Wool to become a reality.

Maneka Sanjay Gandhi
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*Proper wildlife rehabilitation is an extremely biologically and ecologically responsible attitude toward all living things.*