Over the past 10 months, we have been working diligently to develop a new wool supply chain that reflects high, and verifiable, standards for both animal welfare and land management. We’ve now reached some important milestones, and we’d like to update our customers on what we have accomplished so far and what we have yet to accomplish.
In 2011, we partnered with The Nature Conservancy and Ovis 21 in a new program to grow merino wool that, through the use of holistic grazing practices, helped restore long-degraded grassland to health. The revival of the grassland also promised to keep sheep ranching, a threatened way of life, alive in Patagonia, Argentina.
For restoring grassland, this was the best wool-producing program in the world for its time. It reflected what we had learned thus far about the compassionate treatment of animals. Patagonia, the region, did not have blowfly, so the sheep were not subjected to painful mulesing, they had room to roam, they were not fed hormones or antibiotics.
Although we had begun, in 2014, to work within the Textile Exchange on the development of a Responsible Wool Standard, our own wool supply chain did not previously take a holistic approach to the twin issues of land management and animal welfare.
We were dismayed when a representative of PETA, the animal rights organization, photographed ill treatment of animals on ranches supplying our merino wool. Although we took issue with many of PETA’s assertions, and to its tabloid tone, we were taken aback by what we saw in the video: callous indifference to animal suffering and a lack of compassionate handling.
We explained to our customers that we would cease buying wool from any supplier until we were confident that we could meet an appropriately high standard of animal welfare—without sacrificing regenerative grazing practices.
We’re glad we’ve had the opportunity to regroup, because we’ve learned a tremendous amount. The whole process—of consulting experts in animal welfare, engaging U.S. growers dedicated to humane treatment of animals, conducting in-depth field audits, and closely observing what it takes, in practice, to both revitalize the land and treat the animals well—reminded us very much of the days when we made the switch from conventionally grown to organic cotton. We’ve talked to the people who do the work, worked through what is actually possible, and put forth the highest possible standards in a new supply chain that involves the best possible partners.
The Challenging Realities of Animal Husbandry
This is as good a place as any to talk about the difficulties involved in this task. Wool, like down, is a by-product of an animal that is ultimately killed and sold for its meat. Vegans, like some who work at Patagonia or like activists who work for PETA, may opt out by avoiding any human use of domesticated animals. For the rest of us, those who produce and eat meat and wear wool, down or leather, the question is more complex. We can do everything we can to ensure that animals do not suffer before they are slaughtered, and to slaughter them compassionately. But there is much work we need to do to develop a 21st century moral standard for the ethical treatment of animals.
In the 20th century, our society adopted increasingly brutal methods of treatment for animals involved in factory farming, the penning and transportation in close, foul quarters, the wholesale administration of hormones and antibiotics, manipulation through targeted genetics that deprive animals of the ability to move or have a creaturely life. The actions of the ranch hands we saw in PETA’s video were more hands-on, less industrially cruel—but yet deeply ingrained in the way humans deal with animals, a product of culture centuries in the making. How does that change?
Step 1: Consulting Experts in Animal Welfare
To help answer that question, we initially consulted a number of experts who are engaged in a critical shift in thinking about the emotional and intellectual capacities of animals, and what constitutes compassionate treatment of those whose lives we take for food.
In addition to engaging directly with Four Paws and other animal rights organizations, as well as seasoned field auditors, we invited Dr. Temple Grandin to our headquarters in Ventura for a daylong meeting in which we absorbed the lessons of her lifetime spent advocating for the humane treatment of animals used for human consumption of all kinds.
Through this process, we grew to understand there are three major opportunities to make meaningful, accountable change for the welfare of sheep in our wool supply chain:
- Initial commitment from the ranchers who own the land and the sheep
- Education of ranch hands (who, when properly engaged, can exercise a deep responsibility for the health of both the land and the animals in their care)
- Adoption of clearly defined boundaries for noncompliance in critical areas—the bright lines in our approach that make up the highest possible bar for animal welfare—along with continuous reevaluation and improvement of our standards
Step 2: Defining Patagonia’s Standard for Animal Welfare & Land Management
Over the course of many months, we’ve developed a new Patagonia Wool Standard that we believe brings together from several important sources the world’s most stringent criteria for animal welfare and responsible land management.
Our standard provides strict guidance and accountability measures in key areas:
Animal Welfare: The standard adopts the provisions of the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) as a baseline for animal welfare, but also goes above and beyond:
- Patagonia’s standard includes special animal welfare provisions covering transportation and off-farm slaughter, as well as stockperson training in compassionate handling, avoiding shearing injuries, acceptable age ranges for castration and tail docking, and consistent availability of food and water.
- We will also exceed RWS baselines in the methodology for audits, which we require to be conducted in two phases: 1) during shearing, so that auditors can actually observe shearing practices and ensure standards are met, and 2) during lambing, so that auditors can witness the process of birth, tail docking, castration and all associated risks. (We are advocating that future versions of the RWS adopt these two phases as well, based on feedback we received from Dr. Grandin and others.)
Responsible Land Management: Our approach includes the RWS’ strong land management provisions, which Patagonia played a lead role in developing based on our previous experiences with regenerative grazing practices. These requirements pertain both to grasslands and other biotic communities where sheep may be raised, including biodiversity protection, soil management, and pesticide and fertilizer use.
Quality: Quality has always been and will continue to be a major pillar in our requirements for any materials sourcing, including wool. Our quality requirements exist independent of the Patagonia Wool Standard, and we expect the quality of our wool to only increase in our new supply chain.
With these important pieces working together, we’ve built a rigorous standard containing strong accountability measures that—when coupled with strong supplier partnerships—will give us the greatest possible confidence that sheep in our wool supply chain will be assured:
- A compassionate end of life, whether through on-farm or off-farm slaughter
- Reasonable transportation times and appropriate safeguards for safe food and water consumption
- Careful, humane treatment by farm workers, including treatment during shearing and other practices
- All potentially painful procedures done under strict control
In the end, 33 individual pieces of criteria in the Patagonia Wool Standard came directly from Dr. Grandin, who also participated in a review of our near-final standard in recent months, and many more came from or were refined during a robust stakeholder review with Four Paws, independent auditors, farms in the United States and New Zealand, and other expert organizations and individuals.
You can view the Patagonia Wool Standard by clicking here.
Step 3: Choosing Partners Who Share Our Values
Once our standard for animal welfare began to take shape, we went to the ranches themselves—in the United States and abroad—in search of partners as knowledgeable and passionate about animal welfare as they are about restoring the health of the land. We then began conducting audits that put to the test many stakeholders’ criteria proposed in the RWS, as well as our own independently adopted safeguards for humane transportation and off-farm slaughter.
So far, using our newly-formed criteria, we’ve initiated a partnership with the Imperial Stock Ranch in Wasco County, Oregon, whose owners in turn helped us identify additional like-minded suppliers—including the Red Pine Land and Livestock Company in Park City, Utah, who we’ve brought on board as well. These suppliers have undergone third-party audits during shearing and lambing to date, and we’re confident they will be excellent partners in upholding the rigorous criteria in the Patagonia Wool Standard.
The two U.S. farms mentioned above will supply Patagonia with the wool we need for production of socks in future seasons. We continue to explore additional partners to round out our needs for merino baselayer and other products—all of which will undergo a full audit process under our new requirements.
We will continue to keep you posted on our progress—and on the availability of our first products to include wool sourced under these high standards for animal welfare and regenerative grazing.