Emma Håkansson has written and directed Willow and Claude, a documentary exploring the Australian wool industry and a sustainable plant-based alternative.
Our clothing expresses who we are and the values we hold. However, many of us think little about how our clothes are made. Emma Håkansson started as a fashion model and saw clothes as an artform, a way of expressing herself. Little did she know, there was a “dark side: to the clothing industry, particularly involving the wool industry in Australia. So she decided to find out.
In Willow and Claude, Håkansson explains how she became increasingly uncomfortable in promoting unethical brands. After fostering two rescue lambs, the namesakes of the documentary, she realised the wool and meat industries are tightly intertwined.
“Willow and Claude were the first lambs I ever fostered,” Håkansson reveals. “They were orphaned lambs, who were very close to becoming two of the 10 to 15 million lambs who die of exposure, starvation and neglect in the first 48 hours of their lives every winter lambing season.”
Australia has an interest in its wool industry because the industry helped build its economy. The phrase “riding on the sheep’s back” is engrained in Australian culture due to the sheep industry’s value to the Australian local and export markets. Half of the world’s supply of Merino wool comes from Australia.
Since fostering Willow and Claude, Håkansson’s passion for “fairly made” fashion and justice for all beings in the industry grew. She realised the conversation around improving the fashion industry needed to encompass all pillars of justice including environmental, humanitarian, and anti-speciesist.
“It’s less complicated than it sounds when we recognise that animal-derived material supply chains hurt everyone,” she admits. “The non-human animals who are themselves transformed into materials, the people making these materials, and the environment.”
She frames the picture: “If we look at wool, we see that sheep are harmed and killed, greenhouse gases are emitted and land is cleared, and sheep shearers and slaughterhouse workers, while harming sheep, are also often harmed.” This has led Håkansson to launch Collective Fashion Justice at the tail end of 2020.
“The aim [is] to create a total ethics fashion system that values the wellbeing and safety of all of animals — human and non-human — as well as the planet.”
CFJ focuses on these animal fashion supply chains and uses a range of educational tools. “Education that is accessible is very important,” Håkansson confirms. “The benefit of working in a more intersectional way is that a wider range of people may be interested in our work. Far more people are engaged with human rights issues, sustainability and ethical fashion more broadly than they are in the woes of animal exploitation in fashion. Because we care about all of these things, we’re casting a wider net. Different people will be impacted by different things.”
This is where the documentary comes in, as Håkansson offers: “Willow and Claude introduces the importance of animal ethics through rescued lambs Willow and Claude themselves. Animals are their own best advocates and by showing happy individuals, I hope we are able to more effectively explore the dark side of the wool industry that these two sheep were rescued from.”
“This dark side includes standard, legal mutilative practices like tail docking, and the tie between the wool and live export industries. We need to move beyond wool because sheep are not commodities, they are individuals.”
In a country like Australia, traditional perceptions about its sheep industry could be difficult to break. Håkansson admits she has a hard task ahead of her. “It’s a very difficult task. I hope in my work, I can shift each animal material over by one step in the right direction.
“I would like to see the fur industry finished, the recognition that leather is just like fur, and that wool is just like leather, during my time. We’re very far away from people recognising all animal materials are as unjust as fur, and we need to start somewhere.”
To help achieve this, Håkansson’s starting point is meeting people where they’re at. “Right now, people are largely not even aware that the wool industry is a slaughter industry. Not only do we need more education, but we need government support should we see a move away from wool.
“This isn’t an easy task, but given the climate crisis, and wool’s significant greenhouse gas contribution, eventually it will be required, should we see a just transition towards genuinely sustainable agriculture — which is free from animal rearing. There simply isn’t going to be another option but to acknowledge climate science and act on it.”
In Willow and Claude, Håkansson follows the trail to a sustainable solution to wool — cotton. Though in a drought-stricken country like Australia, cotton can be met with scrutiny because of the amount of water involved in production.
“These ideas about cotton are explored in the film, and it’s noted that the Australian cotton industry has developed significantly in past years,” Håkansson argues. “Pesticide use is down about 97% in the past two decades, and water use is down 48% in the same period. This sort of sustainable progress is really excellent, and something we wanted to support as it continues.”
But she adds that the Australian cotton industry is not the standard around the world: “So much cotton is grown with thoughtless and harmful amounts of pesticides, and often is grown and picked with child and forced labour. This is unacceptable, and the fashion industry has a responsibility to opt only for more ethical and sustainable plant-based fibre.”
At one point in Willow and Claude, the camera scans over acres of lush green pasture where dead lambs are strewn throughout. It’s a confronting scene and it’s difficult for the viewer not to ask about their personal values when it comes to their fashion choices. Towards the end, Håkansson’s narrative proposes we should consider an alternative that encourages ‘fluffy plants and friendly people”.
“So often, the barrier between more ethical and unethical consumption is that we simply aren’t wondering where our clothes are from, where the fabric was made, or where the raw material came from, and how,” she argues.
“If we can start with questions, and learn what questions to ask — were the garment workers paid a living wage, what data do you have to support your sustainability claims, how do you justify using animal-derived materials? — we will go far.”
So, what other choices do consumers have that don’t involve wool? Håkansson has started her own cotton fashion line that uses cotton as a wool alternative and is scheduled to be available to the general public soon. “The reception has been very positive, but I look forward to seeing the response from the wider public. All profits from this knitwear fund our continued work for a total ethics fashion system, so we’re grateful for all support.”
And, what about Willow and Claude? What are they up to now? “There are wonderful organisations like Lamb Care Australia and Victorian Lamb Rescue that work specifically to care for lambs just like Willow and Claude,” explains Håkansson. “Today, they live at a sanctuary and are happy and healthy.”