Winter warmers: the cold facts about down, angora and wool

For those of us in the southern reaches of Australia, winter isn't coming... it's well and truly here. Attempting to fight off the chill in the air, some people reach for angora scarves and woollen mittens, feather quilts and down coats, which begs the question — who is being left out in the cold?

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LAST UPDATED: 18 November 2016

There is a dark side to winter fashions and comforts that we've been insulated from: the truth about the cruelty sheep, rabbits, geese and ducks can be subjected to in the production of these products.

The lowdown on down

Down is the layer of soft and tiny feathers closest to a bird's body. For ducks, geese and other birds, it does the job that nature intended, keeping them warm during the long, freezing winter months. But it has also been touted as one the lightest and warmest 'fillers' possible for a quilt or coat — for people.

Even if you're someone who consciously makes ethical purchasing decisions, many people are completely unaware of the cruelty involved in the production of down.

Most down sold in products in Australia comes from China — a country with few animal protection laws. Down is most often 'harvested' through a process called 'live-plucking', which is as disturbing as it sounds: struggling geese and ducks as young as 10 weeks old are held down, potentially having a wing or leg broken in the process, and then have their feathers ripped out by the roots.

Their delicate skin is often torn during this violent defeathering, and the wounds may be stitched up with long needles — without anaesthetic. This 'harvest' can occur up to six times a year, until the traumatised birds are fattened up and sent for slaughter.

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Photo credit: Earth by Anna

Some companies claim they source their down through 'ethical harvesting', where down is collected after the birds naturally moult, but this 'production' method makes up only a tiny fraction of the market.

The most ethical action would be to not use down at all — and, thankfully, that's easy to do with synthetic alternatives readily available in most department stores. The famous adventure-wear outfitter North Face has developed a new jacket filler called 'ThermoBall', that is not only as warm as down, it's kinder — and often significantly cheaper. Other heavy-hitting outerwear manufactures, such as Columbia and Patagonia, also stock ranges of down-free products.

So whether you need the lightest coat, or the toughest of extreme sport jackets, there is a down-alternative out there for you!

The agony of angora

Angora rabbits have been bred to have very long and soft fur, which is harvested and turned into 'luxury' clothing and accessories like gloves and hats.

An investigation by PETA at an angora 'farm' in China, where 90% of the world's angora is produced, exposed the brutal reality of this industry.

The footage shows rabbits being tied down on racks then screaming as their fur is torn from their bodies by hand. Other rabbits are shorn with scissors or razors, and injuries are frequently reported. The rabbits are then crammed into small wire cages, where they'll be kept for two months — before the whole gruelling process starts again.


Undercover video courtesy of PETA. [Warning: contains disturbing images.]

Rabbits aren't the only animals farmed for their fur with foxes, mink, racoons and chinchillas just some of the others on the long list of the fashion industry's victims.

As a result of increased consumer awareness and concern about the cruelty of fur production, many retailers in Australia are pledging to adopt fur-free policies. The latest addition is women's clothing chain Sportsgirl which has, after a campaign by our friends at Freedom for Farmed Rabbits, committed to no longer stock angora rabbit fur products.

Wool: not so cosy after all

Merino wool is widely marketed with pride as a classically Australian product — but if consumers knew of the welfare implications for sheep in the wool industry, many would reconsider this moniker.

An ever-present risk to the welfare of wool-producing sheep in Australia is the prevalence of farms without adequate shade or shelter. As many as 15 million lambs also die from exposure every year — most within their first 48 hours of life — due to a lack of food and shelter in barren and freezing paddocks, or due to predation.

Lambs who survive do so to be met soon after by another harsh reality of being born into the Australian wool industry. At six months old, sometimes younger, lambs can legally have their tails cut off, and the males can be castrated, all without anaesthetic.

Surgery Hurts — why the wool industry needs to use pain relief.

Even more disturbing is the controversial practice of 'mulesing' — undertaken to reduce flystrike. Nearly 10 million lambs are subjected to this horrifying procedure every year — they are strapped down, and the wool-producing skin around their buttock and tail stump is cut off. Barely half of these animals will be provided with even short-term pain relief — and scarcely any will receive any subsequent veterinary care. Open wounds can take weeks to heal — during which time the injured sheep are at particular risk of suffering from flystrike!

Shearing is also stressful for sheep — primarily because they are 'prey animals' fearful of human handling. Annual shearing subjects them to noise, forceful and often rough handling, separation from the flock, and cuts from the sharp shearing blades regularly occur. Shearing during the winter months is common, and (particularly) in southern Australia newly shorn sheep will suffer and some will die during cold, wet and windy weather.

Breeding sheep can endure other invasive procedures such as 'laparoscopic artificial insemination', whereby a long metal rod is poked through the ewe's abdomen to insert semen into her uterus. As with other surgical procedures, this can be done without pain relief.

These facts add up to a public relations nightmare — which is why most of us have had the wool pulled over our eyes regarding what sheep are put through for us to have woolly jumpers and coats. Thankfully, there are plenty of sheep-friendly warming winter options available.

How to keep warm this winter — cruelty-free style!

Down, fur and wool don't grow on trees — but cotton does! (Well, they're more like shrubs ... but the point is there are countless natural, cruelty-free alternatives to animal products out there!)

This means you've got a great excuse to go shopping! So take this opportunity to be an informed-shopper and stock up on warm and cosy synthetic and plant-based alternatives to wool, down and angora — such as bamboo, modal, microfibre, Tencel (made from eucalyptus!) ingeo (made from corn fibres), Primaloft and Microcloud. Microcloud is Australian made and owned too!

The great news is that, every day, it's getting easier to be a compassionate shopper. Thanks in part to the tireless work of our Fur Detectives, a growing number of retailers and designers are responding to consumer demand and rejecting animal cruelty by adopting fur-free policies. Check our Fur Free Shopping List to make sure you can shop without worrying — and then you could encourage others to go fur-free too, by pledging to only wear their own skin (and cosy cruelty-free fabrics, of course!).


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