Tangled up in Wool

Tangled up in Wool Graphic by: Joan McGuire

How an effort to green the textile market turned into a referendum on animal welfare, national monuments and an iconic outdoor trade show.


There's a new wool standard in town, two, actually — the Responsible Wool Standard and the Patagonia Wool Standard — and one Willamette Valley sheep rancher, with a flock that ranges in the hundreds, was excited to learn about both of them.

The rancher already enjoys moderate success selling fleece to artisans, hand spinners and other crafters. Patagonia, she thought, was a major buyer, “who cares about the wool they’re buying.”

But the rancher’s excitement quickly faded after Oregon Business showed her the document outlining the brand's standard, which was developed over the past few years and includes stringent criteria for animal welfare and responsible land-management practices.

“It’s not a wool standard!” she says. (The rancher agreed to speak on record only if we did not use her name.) “There’s no talk of micron count or fiber hand. It’s a sheep-production welfare manual.”

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As consumers demand greater accountability, apparel brands are stepping up efforts to green their supply chains.

But making the wool supply chain more transparent and sustainable is no easy task, largely because the interests of participating stakeholders are not always aligned.

The latest tangle includes conservative-leaning ranchers producing wool on slim profit margins, animal-rights groups like PETA that aggressively oppose all animal husbandry, and clothing companies like Patagonia stuck somewhere in the middle.

Throw in opposition to the newly designated Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and Patagonia’s opposition to that opposition, which forced the lucrative Outdoor Retail Show out of Salt Lake City, and the knot stands in as a microcosm of the rural/urban divide.Imperialranch

Wool is not a big player in the overall apparel textile market, making up only 1.5% of the fiber used worldwide. But because of its breathability and moisture-wicking properties, it’s making a comeback both as a natural and technical fiber and fashion trend. Prices are rising around the globe, and ranchers and brands are finding new ways to position wool as a hip, eco-friendly choice.

For Patagonia, the iconic outdoor retailer with a big Portland presence, wool is an important but not dominant fiber. Committed to transparency around sourcing, the company cut ties with its last wool source after the release of a damning PETA video, then developed the Patagonia Wool Standard and partnered with Imperial Stock Ranch, an Oregon wool success story, to provide it.

As co-owner of Imperial (and the subject of a January 2012 profile in Oregon Business), Jeanne Carver is thrilled and proud to be the first farm certified to the Responsible Wool Standard, which was released by the Textile Exchange, a global nonprofit, in June 2016. Yet Carver remains so concerned about the controversies swirling around the standard, she refused to speak on the record for this article.

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Imperial stock ranch has operated on Oregon’s high desert for more than 100 years. In the last 25, Carver reshaped the ranch's sheep business, creating a premium, direct-to-market pipeline for their wool and meat.

She added value to fleeces by spinning them into yarn. The prized product finds its way to home knitters and high-end retailers alike. In 2014 Ralph Lauren used her yarn to create the U.S. Olympic team uniforms.

A longtime proponent of sustainable land conservation and management, Carver likes to describe the farm as the leading edge of “farm to fork” and “ranch to runway” sustainability practices. When Patagonia needed more wool than Imperial could provide, Carver partnered with Red Pine Land & Livestock in Utah to be certified under the Patagonia Wool Standard. Both documents demand strict animal-wellness compliance.

The Patagonia standard takes it one step further, regulating how lambs are transported and slaughtered for meat.

Wool JK patagonia 1Photo | Jason Kaplan

At first glance, the partnership looks like a success story. The American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) reports that Red Pine sold all of its 2016 wool to Patagonia for a premium price. Yet despite market demand, pride in the work they do and partnerships with major brands, Red Pine also declined to speak about the standard or the controversies surrounding them on the record.

Patagonia is no stranger to controversy. The 44-year-old, certified B-Corporation already exists in the rarified space between business success and environmental responsibility. The tension is perhaps best expressed in their famous 2011 “Don’t Buy This Jacket” ad campaign. Urging consumers not to consume proved a great strategy. The company is close-mouthed about revenues, but profits for the privately held maker of outdoor apparel and gear has tripled since 2008, according to World Stock Market News.

Despite their best efforts, watchdog groups have reported embarrassing kinks in Patagonia practices — conditions akin to slave labor in a Taiwanese factory and the force-feeding of down-producing geese in their supply chain.

The latest revelation, the 2015 PETA video showing three graphic minutes of sheep mistreatment, caused the company to re-examine their wool supply chain and finish work on the Patagonia Wool Standard. The collaboration with Imperial was reportedly set in motion when CEO Yvon Chouinard was rock climbing nearby and read about the ranch in a local paper.

“We have a big materials development team, and they brought us options,” elaborates Corley Kenna, Patagonia’s communications director. “We vet them based on our standards. Imperial came out on top.” 

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WooltimelineIn Oregon, wool has been a declining industry. The state counted 170,000 head of sheep and lamb in 2017, down 6% from the year before, according to the USDA. For the most part, sheep raised on the wet west side produce a coarser wool, more fit for carpets than clothes. But Imperial, set in the high desert, is different. Carver’s fine wool produced from all-white Columbia sheep, coupled with her ranch-to-runway ethos, seems like the perfect fit for Patagonia’s socks, which the company will debut in the next few seasons.

How adhering to the new standards will alter Imperial’s operations is unknown. The west side rancher speculated that not much will change.

“There are already sheep protocols in place throughout Oregon,” she told Oregon Business, referencing ASI’s Sheep Safety and Quality Assurance program, along with Oregon Tilth and the Food Alliance.

Still, in a Capital Press blog post, Carver called the Textile Exchange’s Responsible Wool Standard the “most comprehensive … it requires a little more record keeping and the willingness to open our books, records and operation to inspections.”

Getting that kind of access has been an uphill battle for the Textile Exchange. Anne Gillespie, director of industry integrity for the exchange, speaks to the strong pushback she heard from ranchers around the globe.

“Their initial reaction was skepticism,” she says.

While she admits that because of regulations on one end and targeted special-interest groups on the other, “farmers feel like they’re losing their right to farm,” Gillespie says the RWS is a “credible and meaningful way to deliver what brands are asking for.”

The Oregon Farm Bureau begs to differ. Certifications like this create a good guy/bad guy scenario, according to Anne Marie Moss, OFB's communications director.

“While a specially certified sheep ranch may take different or additional steps, any successful ranch must take excellent care of their animals. Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s the law.”

The more farmers and ranchers have the opportunity to tell their own stories about how they care for their animals, crops and the environment, Moss added, “the less the public will look to outdoor retail companies for that reassurance.”

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No matter how far any standard goes, it will never be far enough for an organization like PETA. It’s a frustrating stance for Doug Hoschek, owner of Portland Woolen Mills.

“PETA makes some good points, but I will punch them in the nose when they say eating lambs and wearing wool is bad,” Hoschek says. “You’re going to kill them with the climate change brought on by producing synthetics from fossil fuels.”

As many ranchers point out, the wool industry has already put in place guidelines and standards, like ASI’s SSQA program, the west side rancher says. Even manufacturer-specific programs are not uncommon. Pendleton Woolen Mills Eco-Wise Wool program monitors dyes, drying and other aspects of wool manufacturing and has been used for seven years, says Pendleton wool buyer Dan Gutzman.

The company sources about 4,000,000 pounds of “grease” wool from the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and Uruguay every year for apparel, blankets and more. Forty percent is purchased in the U.S., much from the Pacific Northwest.

“Local wool is part of our competitive edge in wool sourcing,” Gutzman says, providing “some of the best fleeces in the world.”

Gutzman says he conducts on-site shearing audits that combine animal-welfare protocols with best management practices.

Clint Krebs, owner of Krebs Livestock in Eastern Oregon and a former ASI president, says he understands the value of certifications to both consumers who want to know where their wool comes from and producers who want to tell a story.

“Everyone is struggling to create separation and brand identity,” he says.

As a member of Country Natural Beef, a co-op that pledges to humanely and sustainably raise cattle, Krebs applauds efforts that bring a higher price for cows and wool that can be funneled back to better land management. But he is equivocal about the sustainable wool standard, saying the textile industry is responding to a “bunch of activist claims.”

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Patagonia has a long history of supporting environmental causes, donating 1% of their daily sales to grassroots organizations. For the 2016 Black Friday, the company gifted 100% of sales, $10 million, in response to November’s election, according to Fortune magazine.

Since 2002 Patagonia has given $352,000 to enviornmental groups in Portland, where the Ventura, Calif.-based company has maintained a retail shop in the EcoTrust building for the last 16 years. Last month it moved to a smaller yet splashier location on West Burnside. The high-traffic location promises to deliver more eyeballs to the environmental issues and causes showcased in the store’s large, street-facing windows, said Joy Lewis, Patagonia’s director of stores, in a company blog post.

Wool JK Patagonia 02Photo | Jason Kaplan

But if urban Portland loves Patagonia, the retailer's political stance has alienated many rural communities in Oregon and other states. That Patagonia donates money to environmental groups opposed by ranchers adds yet another tangle to the web. The apparel retailer has voiced strong opposition to President Trump’s call to rescind Bears Ears National Monument and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s support of that call.

Ranchers will not go on the record about the monument, but Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) summed up feelings best in his December op-ed for the Washington Post: “They do not want this monument. They do not want outside interests from coastal urban areas dictating to them how to live their lives and manage their lands.”

Oregon ranchers are also uneasy about national monuments. The Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument expansion in Southern Oregon caused dread among cattle groups, and many ranchers throughout the west rejoiced when Trump signed an executive order to review 30-years’ worth of designations.

Conversely, Patagonia threatened to sue. They, along with partners in the Outdoor Industry Association, also pulled the Outdoor Retailer show out of Salt Lake City. Patagonia’s Chouinard outlined his position starkly in an open letter published in January. He pointed to “gobs of money” (about $45 million a year) the biannual show generates and expressed confidence that “other states will happily compete for the show by promoting public-lands conservation.”

Wool bears ears Shutter634777319
The decision prompted a flurry of speculation about Oregon as an improbable home for the show. Gov. Brown has the “right” letter after her name, but Oregon cities don’t have the infrastructure or hotel beds to accommodate the show’s 50,000 attendees.

The Outdoor Retailer conflict brings a sharper question into focus. States with wild, untamed land that outdoor enthusiasts covet also participate in extractive industries that leave their mark — industries like sheep farming.

Did Oregon’s Imperial Stock Ranch or Utah’s Red Pine Land & Livestock have to pass a political purity test before Patagonia agreed to do business with them?

“Politics doesn’t play a part in our negotiations with our suppliers or business partners," says Patagonia's Kenna. "We seek partnerships with suppliers that have the highest ethical standards and are meeting Patagonia’s rigorous requirements.”

So again, the company finds itself balanced on the edge. They can demand that their suppliers produce a cruelty-free product but can't ask the supplier if they think more regulation is a good thing. They can punish a state for pursuing policies they find abhorrent, but they have to admit that the wide-open spaces they covet are peopled, for the most part, with conservative voters.

RELATED STORY: SPINNING A YARN

As comprehensive as the Patagonia Wool Standard is, it’s certainly not perfect. One secret video from one bad day could sink it. As for using financial clout to protect public lands … well, with more than a billion acres of public land and water back in play, let’s hope Patagonia has done their endurance training.

But of course, this story is bigger than Patagonia. Sustainable wool — with its Gordian knot of ranchers, independent regulators, brands and the federal government — is the perfect illustration of the urban/rural divide. And Oregon, a pioneer in sustainable farming and ranching, is front and center.

At least Patagonia’s new Burnside location, with its big picture windows, will give Portlanders a front seat to the fight.

A version of this article appears in the June issue of Oregon Business magazine

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