By Mike Safley | December 29, 2022

AIA Interview

Our founder, Mike Safley, sat down recently with Herbert Murillo from the International Alpaca Association (AIA) to chat about the conservation of South American camelids, their impact on the environment and their role in the fight against global warming. Please visit https://aia.org.pe/en/bulletins/ to read the full publication.

Herbert: Mike, it is very interesting the approach of your recent publications, about the impact that South American camelids have on the conservation of the environment and global warming. What are your claims based on, from the point of view the physiology, evolution, and nature of these animals, as well as their habitat in which they evolved for thousands of years? 

Mike: I am currently writing a book entitled, Alpaca Culture: Pastoralists, Natural Fiber, Water Conservation, and Global Warming, about exactly these topics. My research of scholarly journal articles (often written by Peruvian authors), books on water conservation, fashion magazine critiques, fast fashion, environmental experts on grasslands, carbon sequestration, photosynthesis, holistic grazing, and regenerative agriculture all point to the conclusion that the alpaca and vicuna, and natural fiber, begining with the indigenous producers has the smallest carbon footprint. Particularly when the United Nations, Scope, 1,2,3 emissions are taken into consideration. This especially true when alpaca is compared to other textile products such as polyester, cotton, and wool.  

Herbert: Being animals that were a fundamental part of the survival of the pre-Hispanic cultures that developed in this part of South America, how do the management practices of the herds that still exist today influence the environmental conservation approach, with special emphasis on the shearing? 

Mike: Peru’s pre-Columbian indigenous people are the “keystone” to managing the forests and grasslands of South America. Their methods are an entirely different approach to environmentalism than the Anglo European post-1492 colonists.  

The alpaca pastoralists have managed the grasslands of Peru’s altiplano to perfection. Their pastures are not overgrazed or “de-certified,” in fact they sequester carbon per hectare at the same rate as the forests of the world but without risk of fires and clear cutting releasing their store carbon into the air.  

Consumers can decide who is doing a better job of protecting their respective habitats and battling global warming by conserving water and encouraging photosynthesis to remove carbon from the atmosphere. It’s hard to argue that it is not the alpaca pastoralists of Peru. 

The shearing question is a red herring. There are few people in the world that don’t understand that sheep, cashmere and mohair goats and alpaca all require being shorn or they will die of heat stress, suffer from skin diseases, and generally have more difficulties birthing.  

I have watched the PETA tapes criticizing the shearing practices of alpaca shepherds. Few if any fiber bearing animals ever die from being shorn. This same charge has been made about sheep and goats. But more than anything else, the indigenous pastoralists love their alpaca and would never harm them. 

I remember a Quechua alpaca shepherd telling Quechua Benefit that they needed preventive medicine in her community. When I asked what kind? She said, “for our alpacas.” I was a bit surprised and asked her what about her children, she answered, “If my alpacas die my children won’t eat.” 

PETA simply uses sensationalistic, hyperbole, animal shearing hysteria to raise donations for a charity that will only be happy when the entire world chooses to be vegan. Given that the population of the world is 8 billion people and only 79 million people are vegan. Fighting with PETA only serves their purpose and creates more fund-raising campaigns. 

Herbert: An aspect sometimes not considered in the analysis of effects on the planet is the factor of incidence in society, that is, its social impact. As the breeding of alpacas and vicunas is directly linked to communities or high Andean inhabitants, which are mostly still facing situations of poverty and basic deprivation, what do you think should be the focus our attention that this critical aspect should have? 

Mike: The Peruvian textile companies and fashion brands would do well to “humanize” alpacas. Show the world their story in human, ecological and global warming terms. Consumers love the image of Quechua herders in the highlands raising their animals as close to nature as is humanely possible. They want to buy authentically sustainable products that contribute to battle against global warming. That’s Alpaca! 

I think the entire Alpaca supply chain needs to come together and create an alpaca brand based on story telling. I think it is a mistake for the industry to focus on brand as an individual company’s logo and not the entire alpaca supply chain that creates a value proposition for the world. 

Good story telling will create a desire in people to buy alpaca products because they fight global warming, support indigenous communities, and treat the environment with respect. Today’s consumer by a significant percentage wants to be part of this story. 

Once the international alpaca brand comes into focus it will create increased demand for what is one of the worlds scarcest natural fibers. Supply and demand will take over, the price of alpaca will rise, and the indigenous producers will reap the benefits of higher prices for their fleeces. As JFK said about economic prosperity, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” 

This question reminds me of an answer to a similar question put to Andrew Michell during his interview for Quechua Benefits documentary, Vicuña Salvation, his answer was, 

I think that Peru must get out of its industrial mindset. I think that in general we are stuck there, we haven’t been able to create brands and we haven’t been able to create value for our products. I think that in general we need new ideas to create brand stories for our products; not how we process the fiber. Then we need to bring the consumer into these stories and bring them into the countryside. If the vicuna for instance would have a wider market, there would be more protection and more vicuñas.

Andrew Michell

I think that Peruvians lack a view of how the outside world perceives Peru. Whenever I tell people that I’m going to Peru they immediately say, “Peru is on my Bucket list”. Everyone wants to go to Machu Pichu, they love Peruvian cuisine, quinoa, Peruvian coffee, alpaca sweaters and the list goes on. Commercials in the USA feature llamas and alpacas all types of diverse products, Japanese couples travel all the way from Japan and pay a lot of money to get married on my alpaca farm just to have their photo taken with an alpaca.  

I think the Peruvian textile industry spends too much time back on their heels defending their product as if it was inferior to other fiber. They pile up certifications and get mired in technical attributes of the fiber. Most of this simply does not resonate with consumers worldwide. 

Alpaca fiber is currently sold based on micron count, coefficient of variation of length, standard deviation etc. And of course, price. It is treated as a commodity. Everyone knows that commodities are sold based on the lowest price.  

I hope that once my book is finished, I can turn it into a documentary entitled, Alpaca Culture and the fight against Global Warming. The world needs to know this story. 

Herbert: It is known the impact that industrial textiles and in particular Fast Fashion has on the environment, especially the disposal of huge amounts of waste. What is the impact that industrial transformation processes and the use and disposal of garments of the fiber from the alpaca and vicuna have, compared to other types of natural, artificial, or synthetic fibers? 

Mike: I think fast fashion is one of the most immediate threats to the alpaca’s industry. There is a growing market for cheap disposable garments and new styles that are taking a significant toll on our environment. 

What’s more, 85% of all textiles go to the dump each year and washing many types of clothing sends thousands of micro bits of plastic into the ocean. 

Here are the most significant impacts fast fashion has on the planet.  

  1.  The equivalent of one dump truck full of fast fashion is dumped every second of a 24-hour day and ends up either burned or buried. 
  1. Polyester is found in 60% of all garments.  
  1. Polyester production emits 2 to 3 times more carbon into the atmosphere than cotton and it does break down in the ocean. 
  1.  The environmental impact of fast fashion accelerates the depletion of non-renewable sources, emission of greenhouse gases and uses massive amounts of water. 

There are so many negatives about fast fashion that entire books are devoted to the subject. We can only hope that the United Nations, COP27, The European Union and the governments of developed nations continue to regulate fast fashions practices until they are brought to their knees. But therein lies an opportunity for alpaca to brand itself as a “slow fashion” product with classic design, natural fiber, nonpolluting processing and long product cycle.  

I recently had lunch with Luis Chaves who is one of the most knowledgeable alpaca experts I know. He told me that he has coined the name for a new index for alpaca products sustainability; “The Closet Index.” It is based on how long a garment remains in your closet. Polyester is gone in 6 months, cotton shirts a little longer, alpaca longer yet and vicuna is forever. I thought about this a bit and came up with some of many ways alpaca clothing would score in the upper percentile of such an index. 

  1. Alpaca and knitting yarn is sold to women who often use it to knit sweaters for their friends and families. You can believe no one throws away grandmothers handknit sweater. 
  1. Vicuna garments are not thrown away they are inherited. 
  1. Mast alpaca designs are classic styles and rarely go out of fashion. 
  1. The industry has increased its production of baby alpaca from just 8% of the total clip to over 30%  including royal alpaca and Kuna’s new line of 16-micron garments which allows the manufacture of lighter garments which even in the era of global warming can be worn year-round. 

Herbert: Finally, we know that the success of any project specially those linked to conservation issues, is directly related to its sustainability. In this case, it will be the acceptance of the market and the recognition of the contribution of an additional value of vicuna and alpaca fiber in terms of contributing exceptionally to the conservation of the planet. As AIA we are committed to spreading the properties of alpaca, but what do you think should be the commercial approach and through what channels to achieve the goal of positioning these magnificent fibers in the world market? 

Mike: Sustainable is a word that means something different to almost everyone. This word creates the opportunity for something to be simultaneously called sustainable or unsustainable. In the fashion and textile world, “sustainability” is a term often used to conflate the issues of global warming, climate change and environmental impact.  

The modern use of the of the term sustainable has become an opportunity for brands to “green wash or green wish” their products to the public.” This allows clothing brands like the Chinese brand Shein, H&M, Zara and many other fashion manufacturers to claim that fast fashion sold cheap and made of petroleum products or recycled material is somehow “sustainable.” A quick survey of the Shein website reveals that a majority of their fashion pieces are under $10.00.

Green washing is becoming increasingly under attack by fashion industry analysts, global warming advocates and ecologists. Banks are requiring carbon footprint disclosures on loan applications and in the USA the Security and Exchange Commission is requiring climate risk disclosures on public companies 10K filings. The European Union is ready to enact even harsher disclosure requirements and are contemplating making it an actionable offense to greenwash their products or misstate their carbon footprint. 

Brands know that the consumer values the word sustainable but the industry values low prices and high profit margins, as noted in the January 2022 issue of Vogue: “Last year a lot of planning was done around fashion sustainability—but less action. The biggest theme as we head into 2022 is the interconnection between carbon emissions, equity, and supply chain…, Muhannad Malas [senior climate campaigner for advocacy group Stand. Earth] sees a contradiction in how brands use, and talk about, recycled polyester in particular, which is fashion’s most popular “sustainable” material, but is made from plastic, releases microfibers into the environment and perpetuates a dependence on fossil fuels…,  

The Cotlook A (Raw cotton price index) said in January of 2022 the price of cotton was $1.36/lb. Polyester on the other hand cost $0.54/lb. and Viscose was $0.91/lb. 

26-micron white alpaca was around the same time was about $11.00/lb. the highest grade of alpaca at 18 microns was almost $20/lb. FOB Peru. 

Put in simple terms a large swath of today’s Fashion Industry promotes cheap plastic fibers while greenwashing them with the aid of certification schemes such as SAC’s, Higgs index, who in true self-serving fashion (no pun intended) claims that, based on little or no data, alpaca is the second least sustainable fiber on earth. The index is of course owned and financed by 250 of the largest oil-based manmade commercial fashion producers on earth, polyester clothing companies like Walmart, Patagonia, Nike, H&M etc. 

Use of the Higgs sustainability index by H&M to rate and market each of their fast fashion polyester products was recently banned in Norway for lack of credible date backing up their product ratings. H&M discontinued using the consumer facing index and Higgs has suspended publishing the rating system. They are reevaluating their data which has been widely criticized as unreliable and without third party review of the data points.  

The entire alpaca supply chain, beginning with the indigenous producers, was recently done great harm recently by Higgs demonstrably unproven use of misleading data. 

The irony of these greenwashing schemes and their willing co-conspirators is that some of the world’s wealthiest companies promote, in the name of “sustainability”, the substitution of the cheapest materials on earth to enhance their bottom lines. This is even more shameful when you consider their “greenwashing” strategy is at the expense of the worlds most impoverished people on the planet like the alpaca pastoralists of Peru.  

There can be no argument that these corporations are literally starving people to feed their profits. The highland alpaca breeders suffer from one of the highest rates of Anemia in the world. I know this firsthand because, Quechua Benefit which works exclusively with highland alpaca communities has treated 20,000 Quechua children for anemia. Malnourishment and iron deficiency are the primary causes of anemia. 

I apologize for my long-winded answer to your rather succinct question, “what do you think should be the commercial approach and through what channels to achieve the goal of positioning these magnificent fibers in the world market?” Here is a shorter version. 

The world’s consumers, 66%, according to their annual consumer surveys want to make purchases that fight global warming, promote biodiversity, support indigenous peoples, and preserve their culture. They are becoming aware of green washing’s false fashion claims and are ready to support an authentic brand.  

The alpaca story needs to be told on social media with Insta Gram photos of alpacas and kids, on websites, through social influencers, and with books and documentaries that humanize the alpaca and its shepherds to the world.  

Also please see my answer to question three above. Thank you for the incisive questions on a subjects that I am passionate about and please forgive my long answers

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