The environment is not the only victim of unsustainable farming - animals and farmers are also being hurt. The market pushes farmers to keep increasing their production volume, at even lower prices. Livestock farmers are often in weak bargaining positions, with little to no control over the price of their wool.
Most wool today is mass produced on farms in Australia, China, the United States, New Zealand and Argentina. Closer to home, in Europe, 75% of all wool in the UK is produced on small-scale farms. Are wool farmers getting fair prices for their wool? COSH! Investigated this by interviewing several farmers at home and abroad. Discover our findings and farmers' testimonies below.
Are European farmers guaranteed better conditions?
All wool in the UK is collected through the British Wool Council (BWC) before being sold on to spinning mills. The BWC is the only organisation in the world that collects and resells wool. It operates on a non-profit basis and pays farmers the market price for their wool minus the BWC's own costs. We found that BWC's annual income was particularly high. Indeed, in 2019 the BWC earned €28 million in revenue… comparable the revenues of Starbucks and Tesla. Revenue, of course, does not equate to profit, but we suspect that BWC's executives earn particularly high salaries.
The opposite is true for farmers. The British Wool Council sets a fixed price for wool that farmers can not negotiate. The price is dependent on the wool market, and thus on the large quantities of wool from Australia, China, the United States and New Zealand.
'Depending on the amount of industrial wool available, we get an acceptable or way too low price for our wool,' the Macclesfield sheep farmer told Niki de Schryver during her 2018 investigative tour.
During her road trip past several sheep farmers, Niki de Schryver saw how the system works; every year, the British Wool Council visits different farms in the UK to shear the sheep. The farmers pay the sheep shearers by the hour, on the day, and all the wool immediately leaves by truck for the large wool warehouses. After this, the wool is further resold by the BWC to spinning mills. 'We are told a few days or weeks later how many kg of wool our sheep have produced. The price is then non-negotiable,' the sheep farmer's wife told me. Local farmers therefore have no impact on their income, and have to settle for the price they are paid. This is far from fair trade it seems to us, here at COSH!
All farmers are also experiencing financial stress due to climate change. For instance, the severe drought in Australia in recent years has really driven down the price of wool and thus the wool farmers’ income.
Corona also threw a spanner in the works. Wool prices have already fallen by 40% since January 2020. This is because global demand for wool has fallen, creating a surplus.
We recently read a facebook testimonial from an Irish sheep farmer Bernard King about how his farm has suffered from the covid-19 market crisis. In July, he received just €0.05 for a kilo of good-quality organic wool. In total, he brought in 355 kg of wool, and only earned €17.75. An outrageously low price for a quality product, into which a lot of work and love has been poured.
How can clothing brands source organic wool? With that question in mind, Niki de Schryver and her then colleague Elisabeth conducted research in 2010 in the UK for clothing brand HonestyBy where they were both active at the time.
After many phone calls to English and Scottish farmers, they always came to the same conclusion. 'The British Wool Council collects the wool from all farmers, whether organic or not, and all the wool ends up together in the same pile'. It is, therefore, extremely difficult to distinguish British organic wool from non-organic wool. This is particularly unfortunate because organic farmers are more mindful of animal welfare and have higher production costs, for which they should also be fairly compensated.
The British Wool Council puts farmers under enormous pressure and imposes unfair prices on them.
All farmers with more than four sheep are required to register with the British Wool Council, who give them a fixed price for the wool. Only some rare wools including British merino wool, Lincoln longwool and Castlemilk wool don’t have to pass through the British Wool Council.
This BCW system originates from post-WWII when farmers tried to sell their produce on the free market, which was seen as chaotic and discriminatory at the time. But today, the system is completely skewed. Farmers get far too low a price for their wool, resulting in poverty and unfair trade.
Farmers are only allowed to keep up to 3,000 kg of their own wool for artisanal purposes (including clothing) and 15,000 kg for non-clothing uses such as insulation. That farmers are only allowed to use 3,000 kg for artisanal products worries us: how does the BWC determine what constitutes “artisanal”? If a clothing brand wants to buy animal-friendly artisan wool directly from the farmer, it is virtually impossible to do so in large quantities, due to the BWC’s limits.
Due to difficult working conditions, many farmers in the UK have now quit. Between 1995 and 2015, the number of sheep farmers halved from 91,000 to 46,000. The number of sheep also fell by 40% over the years: in 1990 there were 65 million sheep for wool production but in 2012 only 40 million sheep remained. Low prices and heavy workloads mean European farmers and sheep will continue to decline. This is a pity, because there is also a huge amount of knowledge, craft and future potential in small-scale farms.
Belgian wool from local livestock
When you think of wool production, you do not immediately think of Belgium. Sheep are mainly used here to graze pastures or to make meat. Every year, some 120,000 sheep are slaughtered in Belgium. In a circular economy, it would be good not to let the wool from these sheep go to waste. Belgian sheep’s wool is less fine, though, than in the UK or Australia, making it not ideal for use in clothing but perfect for quilts or carpets.
When asking around about Belgian sheep farmers, we got to know Ingrid van den Driesche from Assebroek. In 2019, she was paid a fair price for her wool from the company BDC Wool in Wallonia. The wool was then used to make mattresses. 'The better the wool is sorted, the better the price' explains Ingrid. In 2020, however, the company was no longer collecting wool so she sold it to the wool merchant Bucquoye in Pollinkhove. He is one of the only wool traders, so is able to set a fixed price. Like in the UK, wool farmers in Belgium also don’t have much influence on the price of their wool. After asking around on Facebook, we found that many Belgian sheep farmers are struggling to sell their wool. To earn extra income, Ingrid now makes her own products from wool, which she sells in several shops in Wallonia and a baby shop in Antwerp.
To stimulate the local economy, Kemp vzw recently started selling pillows and duvets made from local wool. Under the brand MolWol you can buy bedding made from wool from Kempen Heath sheep. MolWol get tailor-made company Lidwina to produce the products, thereby also offering social employment. In short, a perfect example of a local, social and honest product from the Kempen region!
Wool prices are abnormally low because of pressure from the international market. In 2019, farmers could sell Belgian carpet wool for €0.40/kg. By the end of 2020, prices had dropped to €0.15/kg. A scandalously low price for a quality product. If we go back in history, we see that Belgian wool farmers were getting €2/kg for their carpet wool in the 1980s. Belgian farmers now get only 10% of that price.
This drop in prices is definitely being felt by Belgian wool farmers. Ingrid van den Driesche says the price for her wool in 2020 will be a lot lower than the year before.
A recent study by the Institute of Agriculture and Fisheries shows that farmers in Flanders are experiencing a lot of psychological stress because of the fluctuating prices of products and their weak bargaining position. In addition, poor weather conditions, diseases and pests, and uncertain future prospects are also contributing to increased stress levels.
What can you do?
Globally, despite their love for their profession, all farmers suffer from hard work and low wages. This system must change! You can help support farmers by buying only clothes made out of organic wool and by choosing sustainable brands.