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AREQUIPA – More than one third of all alpaca fibre exports from Peru could be Responsible Alpaca Fibre (RAS) certified within five years according to Juan Pepper, International Alpaca Association president. After a challenging couple of years in which it has come under-fire from Peta as well as being in disagreement with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition over the latter’s contentious Higg MSI tool, the alpaca industry is bouncing back.

Sales of greasy alpaca fibre in 2021 are up 90 per cent up on 2020, and 30 per cent on 2019, with key markets being China, the USA, Italy, Norway and Germany.

We spoke to Pepper in the wake of the recent virtual edition of Peru Moda Deco and Alpaca Fiesta 2021, an event organised by Promperu-Mincetur and the International Alpaca Association (IAA) with support from the Commission for the Promotion of Peru for Exports and Tourism (PROMPERU).

These events provide a showcase for the Peruvian alpaca industry, and include a range of exhibitions, forums and shows as well as offering the chance to share research and information. The pandemic has prevented these events running live for the past two years – a huge shame given the hands-on, interactive nature of these shows – but this year’s virtual summit still achieved excellent audience figures and high levels of engagement.

The alpaca is a south American domestic camelid that lives mostly in the Peruvian Andes, a region which accounts for around 80 per cent of global population. There are around 4.5 million alpaca in Peru, according to government figures, and this remarkable animal supports the livelihoods of tens of thousands of families and micro businesses in the Peruvian Andes,

The relationship between ancient Peruvians and South American camelids dates back to 10,000 years ago. They were not only an important source of protein, but also fundamental as protection against the harsh climate in the region.

There are two alpaca races, these being Huacaya, the predominant type, making up 85 per cent of the total population and Suri which makes up the remainder of the population. The former is known for its bulky, dense fibres, the latter for its longer, silky, more elastic fibre.

Last year, Apparel Insider reported on a Peta exposé, whereby the animal rights group circulated a video showing alpacas being roughly handled by workers.

The video footage was taken at the Mallkini farm in Peru and, in response, Peta claimed Esprit was phasing out alpaca wool while the likes of Gap Inc. and H&M Group cut ties with Mallkini’s parent company, the Michell Group, which is the leading exporter of alpaca fibre from Peru.

Michell Group firmly rejected claims that the video’s content constituted established practices. It argued that “annual shearing is necessary not only to obtain the fibre but also to prevent the animal from suffering diseases that excess hair would cause.”

For the record, we firmly believe Peta is wrong on this issue. It blotches its copybook considerably by repeatedly citing the Higg MSI to support its case against natural fibres, as well as Global Fashion Agenda’s Pulse of the Fashion Industry report. Serious question marks have been made about both and the data they cite. Apparel Insider has debated these issues privately with the rights group but it is not for budging – all animal fibres are inherently cruel, is its stated position, which seems short-sighted and dogmatic to say the least.

Has Peta ever considered the number of livelihoods natural fibres sectors support? What about the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly number one (no poverty) and number eight (decent work)? Perhaps it’s time Peta – and fashion brands for that matter! – broadened its remit to account for such issues.

All of this said, there is no question that fashion retailers are more than ever seeking reassurances around animal welfare when it comes to animal fibres. Peta and its allies are not going away, and in an era of consumer-facing labels, transparency and the like, accreditation seems a pragmatic way forward for animal fibres industries.

Image courtesy of International Alpaca Association

Juan Pepper, who as well as being IAA president is also commercial director with Michell Group, told us the Responsible Alpaca Standard (RAS) is similar to the Responsible Wool and Responsible Mohair Standards.

Pepper said market expectations for the RAS are high and he has seen huge interest from buyers around RAS-accredited alpaca. “There is lots of expectations around this standard … it gives brands a passport to using alpaca in their collections,” Pepper told us.

He added: “We now have the standard in our group and are already certified for industrial production in all our facilities. We passed an audit certifying our produce according to RAS starting from the classification of fibres all the way through to the production of final garments.”

Apparel Insider understands that traceable alpaca is also on the horizon, and we hope to report on this in 2022. We expect the alpaca industry to follow a similar trajectory to cashmere which, after a period of criticism due to accusations of ‘over-grazing’ by cashmere goats causing desertification in Mongolia, appears to have turned a corner this past couple of years. Traceable cashmere initiatives and a willingness by some brands to work more closely with suppliers on sustainability projects, have certainly played their part.

So what next for alpaca? Pepper told us the RAS will be implemented in Peru by the Business Services Center of Arequipa – CESEM – the technical arm of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Arequipa. CESEM, a non-profit, has already launched its implementation programme for RAS and has a five-year goal of accrediting 3,000 alpaca production units in Peru, representing 35 per cent of the country’s total alpaca output.

Why not more? Pepper told us that this figure could potentially be higher, but the “rugged terrain in the Peruvian Andes and structure of the diverse universe of breeders is very unique.”

Image courtesy of International Alpaca Association

Some farms have no access by roads, while language barriers are also a challenge. While around 84 per cent of Peruvians speak Spanish – the official national language – more than 26 per cent of the population speaks a first language other than Spanish. Quechua is the second most spoken language (13 per cent), followed by Aymara (2 per cent), and both have official status.

All of this said, for the first year of accreditation roll-out, the goal is to have 80-100 tonnes of greasy alpaca fibre RAS certified.

It’s an ambitious target with a short timeframe. We will be keeping a close eye on progress.

About the RAS

The Responsible Alpaca Standard is a voluntary standard that addresses the welfare of alpaca and the land they graze on. The goals of the RAS are to provide the industry with a tool to recognise the best practices of farmers; ensuring alpaca fibre comes from farms that have a progressive approach to managing their land, practice holistic respect for animal welfare of the alpaca and respect the Five Freedoms of animal welfare.

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