Wool is one of the oldest textiles in human history. Wool clothing dates back to 10,000 years ago and its use spanned across the ancient world—from Ancient Peru to Egypt to Siberia.
In ancient history, the use of wool obviously made a lot of sense. Human civilizations didn’t have access to the machinery and chemicals needed to make other types of fabric. Not only that, but sheep were used to cover three of humanity’s basic needs: clothing, food, and shelter.
While the ethical nature of wool in 1000 BC wouldn’t have been questioned, today there are several concerns surrounding its use as a fabric and questions we should be asking.
While most fabrics that make up the world of sustainable fashion deserve a bit of scrutiny, wool not only calls into question its impact on the environment and laborers, but its impact on wool-producing animals.
So, how baa baa bad is wool? Can we still wear it? If so, what wool is ethical?
HOW ETHICAL IS WOOL?
When it comes down to it, determining whether wool is ethical or not will be a personal opinion. It’s kind of like sustainable beauty and the beeswax debate. While some vegans don’t see harvesting beeswax or honey as harming the bees, many still do. Wool is much the same way.
On one hand, sure, wool is a renewable resource and since it’s a natural animal-derived fiber (sometimes called a proteinous fiber) made from natural materials, it’s also biodegradable to the point of being considered compostable. Sustainable sweater shoppers, rejoice!
On the other hand, the production of wool does involve animals and while they can be considered a “renewable resource” many would rather look at the animals, not as a source of raw material, but as gentle, sentient beings that are deserving of love and fairness — just like any other living being on this planet, a sentiment we can absolutely relate to.
ETHICAL ISSUES WITH WOOL
Each type of wool (i.e. each type of animal) is associated with different issues when it comes to ethics. As with any money-making venture that involves animals, maximizing profits more often than not means cutting corners and sacrificing the well-being of animals.
Many of us have read taglines like this one from PETA: “there is no such thing as humane wool.”
Across the board, sheep welfare is a concern. Unsavory footage has been released on several occasions of wool-shearing operations in Australia and the United States. In these short clips, sheep are commonly seen being kicked, thrown, cut, and even having their limbs broken.
Australia is responsible for 50% of the world’s wool, which is unfortunate because there it’s common practice to sheer using a procedure called “mulesing”. This entails sheep being forced to lie on their backs while huge chunks of skin are carved off the buttocks (generally without anesthetic).
This renders the rear flank scarred and smooth, so as to prevent flies from laying eggs in the folds of the wool. While the intention is to reduce risk of fly-borne disease and infection, it’s utterly cruel and often unsuccessful. As could be expected, many of these sheep end up suffering slow, but extremely painful deaths as a result of this procedure.
ETHICAL WOOL PRODUCTION
It’s important to paint both sides of the picture and not all wool operations are completely inhumane. In fact, it’s healthy for sheep to be shorn; otherwise, their coats will keep growing and growing until it becomes difficult to move. We just need to pay close attention to how the sheep are shorn and raised.
New Zealand, for instance, is the world leader in ethical wool production. Not only do sheep far outnumber the people there, but the country’s Animal Welfare Act strictly prohibits mulesing.
Outside New Zealand, artisanal-scale wool processing facilities have opened up around the world. In such places, sheep are kept in low density flocks, raised free range, and are able to enjoy all around better conditions. Shearers respond to thick winter coats on the sheep by shearing them when they get heavy or when the weather warms, so they’re not depriving the animals of necessary insulation in colder seasons
Unlike with some operations, such places not only steer clear of mulesing, but use proper hand shearing practices to minimize any accidental cuts. Plus, machines can cause undue fright and stress to the animals.
The traditional problematic and inhumane practices have even encouraged some brands to take matters into their own hands. Fjallraven, for one, decided to improve their sourcing and transparency—so much so that they’ve decided to raise sheep of their own.
Many brands also now source wool that’s been certified from a third party. These include: Responsible Wool Standard (RWS), Certified Organic Wool, Certified Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane® Label, the ZQ Merino Standard, Soil Association Organic Standards and Climate Beneficial by Fibershed
These labels provide extra assurance that the sheep were raised in a way that’s better for their well-being and the environment. While some believe wool can never be ethical, we believe it can be, but it’s a really high bar. If you are buying wool, we recommend looking for relevant certifications at the bare minimum.
SUSTAINABILITY OF WOOL
One of the reasons that wool is subject to so much recent debate in eco minded circles is because it also happens to be one of the more sustainable fabrics out there. It’s naturally produced and, as such, is a great alternative to synthetics like polyester and nylon (ahem, plastic).
The production of wool doesn’t involve large amounts of crude oil and generally isn’t processed with chemicals either. Wool is a long-lasting fabric that has natural antimicrobial and anti-odor abilities, so it can be washed less frequently than other fabrics. Pure wool won’t release micro plastics into waterways and ultimately oceans.
At end-of-life, wool fabrics don’t have to end up in landfills (provided we as consumers properly recycle or compost them) as they can fully biodegrade in a short amount of time.
However, just as there are two wool socks to every pair, there’s two sides to wool’s sustainability story that leave some people a little wary about wool.
While wool as a fiber is pretty sustainable, most of its damage comes from the raw material sourcing state. Industrial livestock grazing typically means land clearing and environmental degradation, not to mention the great amounts of methane gas released from any large quantity of livestock.
Conventional sheep farming also sometimes means use of fungicides and insecticides.
However, the environmental impact of sheep can be greatly reduced, and even completely negated with proper practices. In fact, sheep raised through regenerative farming techniques can actually be climate positive by improving soil health and increasing biodiversity!
DIFFERENT TYPES OF ETHICAL WOOL
If you thought that wool was only made from sheep, think again. Wool can be obtained from several different animals (sometimes with differing degrees of ethics)—from goats and qiviut to yaks and bison… even rabbits!. In fact, the alpha-keratin that is made into wool can be found in all mammalian hair, horns, and claws.
How Ethical is Merino Wool?
Merino wool is softer and lighter than other types of wool, making it one of the most comfortable wools out there. Merino sheep have wrinkly skin which means more surface area—which means more wool. In the summer, this can get problematic as heat exhaustion is more likely, and hotter conditions increase the number of flies and subsequent mulesing.
Fortunately, merino wool typically comes from New Zealand, which, as we’ve already established, have much higher standards for animal welfare. This makes it one of the more ethical types of wool.
How Ethical is Angora Wool?
Angora is produced using the silky fiber from an angora rabbit. This fur is soft and strong. It’s used in combination with other types of wools in practically anything warm and wintery.
Large scale angora production typically involves plucking—yes, you read that right. As you can imagine, plucking means pain and distress for the rabbits. Over 90% of the world’s angora is produced in China. There are limited animal welfare standards and the rabbits are killed after they stop producing adequate fur.
This all sounds really bad, but ethical angora wool is possible (and even PETA thinks so!). Angora rabbits moult every four months and their hair can be collected after it falls.
Some brands are taking advantage of this natural phenomenon. If you’re sold on a pair of angora gloves, double check that you’re getting them from a corporation that chooses ethical angora wool. Unfortunately, these brands are still in the vast minority, ethical angora wool is few and far between and there are no ethical certifications we can rely on.
That’s why, for now, we don’t really consider it to be a sustainable fabric, unless we can be strongly convinced of a brand’s ethical practices.
How Ethical is Cashmere Wool?
Ahh, the cashmere sweater. Many classic closets will have at least one. So, how does this timeless fabric compare to other types of wool?
Cashmere dates back to before the 13th century—the infamous Marco Polo allegedly stumbled upon the goats used to make the fabric while exploring in Mongolia. Cashmere has since been used all around the world for providing optimal warmth and high-end comfort.
If the high price tag of that cashmere scarf isn’t enough to deter you—maybe the greenwashing will be as brands may stretch the truth when it comes to their claims about ethical and sustainable cashmere wool.
Unfortunately, cashmere has been linked to environmental degradation in Mongolia. It is typically subjected to a range of chemicals during its processing. It’s also been associated with underpaid workers.
If you’re really sold on cashmere for the winter, try to source it from a brand that uses recycled cashmere fibers. For recycled cashmere, look for the following certifications or standards: Recycled Claim Standard (RCS); The Global Recycled Standard (GRS), Re.VerSo
Otherwise, look for cashmere with the follo; wing certifications or standards: Sustainable Fibre Alliance (SFA) Sustainable Cashmere Standard, Kering Standard on Cashmere, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
If you’d like to read more on cashmere, this guide from CFDA is the best we found.
ETHICAL ALTERNATIVES TO WOOL
Some of our favorite eco-friendly fabrics serve as good fabrics to replace wool.
If you’re looking for a cruelty free fabric, you could look into Lyocell (sometimes referred to as Tencel). If you need something breathable, yet warm, hemp could be a good choice, especially if you’re looking to replace wool in a baselayer fabric. Like wool, hemp is also antimicrobial and breathable, making it great for a light, next-to-skin layer.
One of the most common wool substitutes these days, is polyester, specifically “woolyester” which is just a type of polyester that’s spun into a sometimes fuzzy knitted weave. While basic virgin polyester fleece isn’t very sustainable, recycled woolyester is. Check into Patagonia for lots of recycled polyester wool-alternative sweaters.
Also, stay tuned for Woocoa. It’s a hemp and coconut “wool” fiber that’s produced with the oyster mushroom!
BRANDS THAT USE ETHICAL WOOL
Beyond those like Fjallraven raising sheep of their own, many brands have made traceability and ethical pledges about the type of wool they source.
Brands like prAna, People Tree, and Seasalt have chosen not to use wool from sheep that have undergone mulesing. Patagonia is another brand that has guaranteed to source only RWS-certified, non-mulesed sheep, and they also ensure that the wool is produced with low environmental impact. In fact, Patagonia was a key player in spearheading the movement to create a brand new certification for regenerative farming!
Everlane is a brand that makes a frequent appearance on our sustainable and ethical fashion guides. They use alpaca wool, which is harvested through cruelty free methods and have a lot less of impact on the environment. This is because, in Everlane’s words, “alpacas are soft-hooved and gentle grazers, which makes them easier on pastures than other herd animals”.
Naadam, on the other hand, blends recycled and virgin organic cashmere together. The virgin premium cashmere, however, is RWS certified, harvested through gentle hand combing, and sourced from herders that abide by their stringent animal treatment policy based on the Farm Animal Welfare Committee’s Five Freedoms, American Veterinary Care Association Standards, among others.
Ethical sweater brands like these are everywhere—you’ll just have to do a little extra research (or read our article since we’ve done the bulk of it for you!)
FINAL THOUGHTS ON ETHICAL WOOL
Before you button up that cardigan, let’s recap.
Ethical wool does exist—well, depending on who you ask. Your personal ethics are obviously going to play a huge role in the fabrics you choose to help you stay warm in all winter.
Unfortunately, unethically sourced wool makes up most of the comfy turtlenecks and warm pairs of socks widely available. However, many eco-friendly clothing brands are stepping up to baaa-t and not only sourcing sustainable wool, but also doing so in an ethical and cruelty free way.
Thanks to media attention, customers and brands alike are increasingly becoming aware of the animal cruelty in the wool industry. In response, eco-fashion is starting to become ethical-fashion, too.