Shepherding Britain’s wool industry towards more ethical pastures Eco-fashion designer Isobel Davis calls for more stringent animal welfare standards, but the British Wool Marketing board say they’re too extreme.
Malorie Bertrand Guardian Professional, Thursday 4 September 2014 07.00
In July, a shocking international video exposé on wool shearing was captured by investigators in Australia and the US for the non-profit group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). The footage (which contains graphic and upsetting images) shows sheep being physically abused and mutilated by shearers, prompting industry leaders and government officials in both countries to launch investigations. Eco-fashion designer Isobel Davis is well aware of the sad fate of many sheep, particularly in her native Britain, and has been working to change it. Davis, a vegetarian and active supporter of animal rights, established an ethical, luxury knitwear label, Izzy Lane in 2007 to help revive the country’s textile and wool industries and to champion animal welfare issues. The brand uses British wool from Wensleydale and Shetland sheep that Davis has saved from slaughter — more than 500 so far. The sheep live out the rest of their natural lives on Davis’ farm in the Yorkshire Dales. When the conscious entrepreneur decided to launch a clothing line, she didn’t want to purchase wool as a byproduct of meat slaughter so she looked at the rare breeds, thinking people would keep them for reasons other than meat. “It was actually worse,” says Davis. “People were rearing the rare breeds for cultural shows so any sheep that didn’t live up to the [breed’s] ideal would be killed.” Davis’s flock is comprised mainly of sheep that would have been sent to slaughter for being male, having missed a pregnancy, or just for being too small. She pays breeders equal or better prices to save them, about £40 to £90 a head or the price that farmers would get for the meat. Davis initially wanted to purchase wool directly from British farmers but says the British Wool Marketing board (BWMB) — a farmer-run organisation that works to give producers the best possible return on their fleece wool — passed an act of law in the 1950’s that demands wool farmers give their wool to a closed group of wool merchants. “It would have been illegal for me to find a local farmer and offer him a good price for his wool,” she explains. “I realised that I would only feel good about using British wool if it came from my own flock.” According to Davis, there is no traceability of the wool sourced from such merchants because once the wool arrives at the BWMB it goes into the bulk. However, Ian Hartley, BWMB CEO contends that the cooperative can identify wool from specific farms and that 99.9% of UK sheep farmers’ wool will always be a by-product of the meat industry. Britain’s wool industry was nearly wiped out when operations moved to Asia, lured by low costs. When Izzy Lane launched, Davis says that products made from 100% British wool could not be found anywhere. Things are beginning to change though and a demand for Made in Britain clothing, such as Marks & Spencer’s Best of Britain collection set to launch this month, is helping things along. “There is a renewed interest in it from consumers, but it is slow to get things processed here because a lot of the mills closed down when operations were moved to overseas,” says Davis. Just as the food industry has been transformed by consumer demand for organic foods and free-range eggs, Davis wants shoppers to be scrutinous about where their clothing comes from. She is trying to establish an animal welfare standard for British wool to identify wool that comes from ethically raised sheep. Hartley, who was involved in discussions with Davis about her proposed standards, says that they were too extreme for the vast majority of UK farms to comply with, despite the UK having some of the most stringent animal welfare standards backed by legislation and inspection. Despite the reservations from BWMB, Davis has received encouragement from others, including a coat capsule collection she designed for high street brand, Topshop. “That was brilliant,” exclaims Davis. “British wool from rescued sheep on high street.” Rather than be elitist about her campaign, the designer recognised that Topshop was the perfect vehicle to communicate her message of supporting the ethical treatment of animals and of Britain’s textile manufacturing to as wide an audience as possible. Malorie Bertrand is a writer, communications professional and editor of Ef Magazine