IMPACT
06/19/2018 05:08 pm ET Updated Jun 25, 2018

Asos Bans Silk, Cashmere, Feathers And Mohair. Here's Why They're Controversial.

The cruelty that can be hidden in our clothes.

Online retail giant Asos confirmed on Monday that it will ban the sale of all clothes on its site that contain silk, cashmere, mohair, feathers, down, bone, teeth or shell (including mother of pearl) as of January 2019. 

The company’s animal welfare policy already forbids its suppliers from using angora (rabbit hair) and Mongolian lamb’s fur. While leather, wool and other animal hair is still permitted, it is only allowed “as a by-product of the meat industry from suppliers with good animal husbandry.”

This move by Asos, which sells over 850 labels, has been welcomed by animal rights organization PETA as “reflecting a profound shift in public attitudes towards the rearing and killing of animals for fashion.” However, it presses Asos and other retailers to go further to “also ditch leather and wool, and go 100 per cent vegan.”

This decision taps into a wider awareness of and consumer interest in ethical fashion. Asos isn’t the only retailer to ban certain animal products. Brands including Topshop, H&M and Gap have also pledged to remove mohair from their clothes, and more than 300 brands have banned angora, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Here we look at the animal welfare issues associated with some of these controversial materials and ask what the alternatives are for ethical shoppers. 

Mohair

Mohair is a silk-like fiber produced from the coats of angora goats (not to be confused with the angora rabbits, which are used for angora) and is most commonly found in knitwear, blankets, suits and soft furnishings. More than 50 percent of mohair comes from South Africa, but it’s also produced in the U.S. (in Texas), Turkey, Argentina and Australia, among other countries. 

A man shows the hair of an Angora goat at an Expo in Bothaville, South Africa, in May 2018.
WIKUS DE WET/AFP/Getty Images
A man shows the hair of an Angora goat at an Expo in Bothaville, South Africa, in May 2018.

In May 2018, PETA released graphic undercover footage that showed serious animal cruelty against goats on 12 South African farms producing mohair. Abuse included animals being mutilated, thrown around and having their throats cut while conscious. The outcry following the exposé led 140 retailers, including Asos, to ban mohair from their supply chains. 

The South African mohair industry ― which employs 6,000 workers, according to South Africa news website Independent Online ― rejected the claims that abuse was widespread. The managing director of industry body Mohair SA told the news site that the farms highlighted were bad apples and shouldn’t tarnish the whole industry.

“There was no supervision. The abuses were seen on two farms and that hair was withdrawn from auction,” he said.

Silk 

Silk essentially comes from silkworm spit. Silkworm larvae hatch from eggs laid by silkworm moths and feed predominantly on the leaves of the mulberry tree for about six weeks. They then spin cocoons with silk fibers secreted from their salivary glands.

Once their cocoons are finished, silk is harvested for human consumption by killing the insect with steam, hot air or boiling. Cocoons are placed in hot water to loosen and extract the silk fibers. It takes about 2,500 silkworms to make one pound of silk. The major silk-producing countries include China, India, Uzbekistan and Brazil.

Some silk farms allow the insect to mature into a moth and escape before the silk is harvested. However, this “peace silk” can be of a lower quality, and PETA claims there’s a lack of transparency meaning conventional silk can be passed off as peace silk.

There are companies that produce new kinds of silk. Bolt Threads, for example, a California-based biotech company, makes proteins based on spider DNA to engineer silk. It has partnered with Stella McCartney.

Cashmere

A farmer removes hair from a cashmere goat at a farm in Gachuurt, near Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia.
Stringer/Reuters
A farmer removes hair from a cashmere goat at a farm in Gachuurt, near Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia.

Cashmere is another luxury fiber that comes from goats. It’s made from superfine fibers combed from the undercoat of cashmere goats. To make one high-quality cashmere sweater can take the fur of five goats. Most cashmere is produced in Asia, in the Gobi Desert, which covers China and Mongolia. 

According to PETA, cashmere goats are shorn in midwinter, when they need their coats to protect themselves from the cold, so animals are lost to the low temperatures.  

Feathers And Down

Model Gigi Hadid wears feathers at a Moschino runway show in September 2017.
AFP Contributor via Getty Images
Model Gigi Hadid wears feathers at a Moschino runway show in September 2017.

On jewelry, boas, shrugs and hats ― as well as stuffed into cozy jackets ― feathers and down are having a fashion moment. But they have perhaps flown under the radar when it comes to people’s concern about ethical fashion. 

China produces 80 percent of the world’s down and feathers, most of which come from ducks (which are also used for meat). 

Animals should be killed before they are plucked. But there are still cases of live-plucking, which causes inevitable pain and distress. In 2012, animal rights campaigners found geese being plucked alive in Hungary. These birds were also being raised for foie gras, a delicacy that requires the birds to be force fed, which enlarges their livers. A 2016 PETA investigation found nearly half of 66 Chinese suppliers they contacted were using live-plucking to produce down. 

Industry voices say down can be ethical. Daniel Uretsky, president of down supplier Allied, told The Guardian that moving away from down would be a mistake.

“It’s environmentally friendly. It’s also a byproduct of the food industry ― if it wasn’t being used by apparel companies it would still be there because people are eating the birds,” he said. 

So What Can We Wear?!

Veja makes environmentally friendly sneakers, including vegan shoes. 
Edward Berthelot/Getty Images
Veja makes environmentally friendly sneakers, including vegan shoes. 

Well, it’s difficult. Cotton, for example, is incredibly water intensive and has been linked to worker abuses, especially in Uzbekistan. 

Synthetic fibers like viscose and rayon have been found to cause serious environmental pollution, killing aquatic life. And some, such as acrylic, have been found to add to the microplastic pollution problem

PETA puts its faith in innovation. “New vegan fabrics ― including pineapple leather, yarns made from recycled plastic bottles, and down-alternative seed fibers ― are leading the way,” Yvonne Taylor, director of corporate projects at PETA, told HuffPost. But realistically these fabrics are in their infancy and not yet at a scale and price point able to take on less ethical fibers at the rate needed to sate our fast-fashion habits.

Lucy Siegle, journalist and author of To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?, has written that to align fashion with ethics, shoppers should look outside the mainstream to ethical brands that eschew the fast-fashion model and to buy fewer clothes and get more wear out of them. 

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