Sustainable & Ethical Wool: A More Conscious Bet Or Still Baa-Baa-Bad?
We’re getting cozy with ethical wool that promises to be a better deal for animals and the planet.
But is wool ethical, really?
Or is someone trying to pull the wool over our eyes with some greenwashing tactics?
People have been wearing wool since 10,000 BCE. It’s one of the oldest textiles in human history.
While the ethical nature of wool probably wasn’t questioned back then, today, there are multiple concerns regarding the wool industry and plenty of questions we should be asking, such as “Is wool cruelty-free?”, and “Is wool sustainable”?
Most fabrics that make up the world of sustainable and ethical fashion deserve scrutiny. As an animal-derived fabric, wool calls into question not only its impact on the environment and workers in the supply chain, but also its impact on wool-producing animals.
So, how baa baa bad is wool? Can we still wear it?
Unfortunately, determining if wool is cruel is not as straightforward as we’d like. To avoid any wooly thinking, we’re taking a deep dive into the wool industry to unravel the ethical considerations.
1. Is Buying Wool Ethical?
Before we dive in, we’d like to start with a disclaimer.
While we’ve rounded up the facts and figures concerning the creation of ethical wool yarn, we’re not the arbiters of each individual’s ethical compass.
When it comes down to it, determining whether wool is ethical or not will ultimately be a personal opinion.
It’s a similar situation to sustainable beauty and the beeswax debate. While some people don’t see harvesting beeswax or honey as harming the bees, many do, and it also boils down to the particular beekeeping practices used—and your own particular ethical views.
On the one hand, wool is a renewable resource. Since it’s a natural animal-derived fiber, it’s also biodegradable to the point of being considered compostable (provided it’s not blended with other fabrics).
Sustainable sweater shoppers, rejoice!
On the other hand, wool production involves animals and different standards of animal care and animal farming practices dictate both the sustainability and ethical issues involved.
Is wool vegan?
As an animal product, wool is, by definition, not vegan.
While they can be considered a “renewable resource”, many would rather look at animals not as a source of raw wool material, but as gentle, sentient beings deserving of love and fairness—a sentiment we can absolutely relate to.
So, do vegans wear wool?
Generally speaking, vegans don’t wear wool products. Some people may make exceptions for second-hand wool garments or those made from recycled wool, but, as with beeswax, it is very much a personal choice and there is no one right answer.
2. Ethical Issues With Wool
Each type of wool (determined by the particular breed of sheep or other wooly animal it’s harvested from) is associated with different issues when it comes to ethics. We’ll get into specifics on these below.
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.
Is Wool Humane?
First, are sheep killed for wool?
No, sheep are not killed for their wool. In fact, because wool keeps growing back and can continually be harvested for profit, it would be a bad investment for anyone involved in wool farming to kill their wool source.
But just because an animal isn’t outright killed—as often occurs in the leather industry—doesn’t automatically mean the animals are treated like living beings.
Many of us have read taglines like PETA’s “there is no such thing as humane wool”.
Across the wool industry, sheep welfare is a concern. Disturbing footage of wool-shearing operations in Australia and the United States has been released on several occasions.
In these clips, sheep are commonly seen being abused and maltreated.
So, for those asking, “Is wool cruel?”, the answer, sadly, is that the wool industry can involve some extremely cruel and inhumane practices.
The practice entails young lambs restrained on their backs while flaps of skin are carved off the buttocks—generally without anesthetic or adequate pain relief.
This renders the rear flank scarred and smooth to prevent flies from laying eggs in the folds of the wool. While the intention is to reduce the risk of fly-borne disease (a serious disease affecting sheep), it’s utterly cruel and often unsuccessful.
The RSPCA’s position is that “it is unacceptable to continue to breed sheep that are susceptible to flystrike and therefore require an ongoing need for mulesing or other painful procedures to manage flystrike risk”.
They call for breeding solutions and encourage retailers to only buy non-mulesed or mulesing-free wool.
Mulesing is, however, just one practice that raises serious animal welfare issues. Others include tail docking and shearing.
3. Ethical Wool Production
Does cruelty-free wool exist? And if so, what does ethically-sourced wool mean?
It’s important to paint both sides of the picture. Not all wool operations are inhumane.
Due to selective breeding, a sheep’s coat will keep growing until it becomes difficult for the animal to move and risks overheating in warmer weather. Shearing, therefore, becomes a necessity.
However, we do need to pay close attention to individual farms that produce wool, namely how sheep are shorn and looked after in between.
Which Wool Is Ethical?
New Zealand (where sheep far outnumber people) is the global leader of the ethical wool industry. The country’s Animal Welfare Act strictly prohibits mulesing.
There are also artisanal-scale wool processing facilities around the globe that demonstrate higher standards of animal care. In these places, sheep are kept in low-density flocks, raised free-range, and can enjoy all-round better conditions.
Shearers respond to thick winter coats 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.
These sheep farms steer clear of mulesing and use hand shearing practices that minimize accidental cuts and avoid undue fright and stress to the animals caused by machines.
How Do You Know If Wool Is Ethically-Sourced?
Many ethical wool clothing brands now source wool that has been certified by a third party.
- Responsible Wool Standard (RWS)
- Certified Organic Wool
- Certified Animal Welfare
- Certified Humane®
- ZQ Merino
- Soil Association Organic
- Climate Beneficial™ Wool by Fibershed
These labels provide assurance that the sheep were raised in a way that’s better for their well-being and (usually) the environment.
To avoid inhumane practices, some brands have even taken matters into their own hands. Fjallraven, for example, decided to improve their sourcing and transparency to such an extent that they decided to raise sheep of their own.
While some people believe wool can never be ethical, we think it can be, but it’s a really high bar.
We recommend looking for relevant sustainability certifications at the bare minimum if you do decide to buy wool.
4. Is Wool Sustainable?
One of the reasons that wool is subject to so much recent debate in eco-minded circles is because it is one of the more sustainable fabrics out there.
While vegan wool alternatives exist, they often take the form of synthetic fabrics, especially in insulating or active garments, as these provide the closest substitutes for some of wool’s most valued performance properties.
It’s an unideal trade-off of something that might have ethical issues for something that definitely has environmental ones.
While definitely an improvement over microplastic-shedding, petrochemical-derived synthetic, is wool environmentally friendly in the grand scheme of things?
Some common questions regarding wool sustainability include the following:
- Is wool renewable?
- Is wool biodegradable?
- Is wool compostable?
- Is wool durable?
- Is wool a renewable resource?
The answer to all of these is yes!
Wool is a natural, renewable resource. It is inherently biodegradable and (when not blended with other fabrics) can be composted at home.
It’s also easily repairable and super durable—the number of wool clothing items you can find in vintage and thrift stores is a testament to this.
It can also be processed organically without the use of harsh chemicals.
Wool’s naturally antimicrobial and anti-odor properties mean it can be washed less frequently than other fabrics. When it is washed, pure wool won’t release microplastics 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 biodegrade in a reasonably short amount of time.
All of the above points knit together a pretty sustainable picture.
However, just as there are two wool sustainable socks to every pair, there are two sides to wool’s sustainability story that leave some people a little wary about wool.
Is Wool Eco-Friendly Really?
While wool fabric can be sustainable, most of its ecological impact comes from the raw material sourcing stage.
Industrial livestock grazing typically means land clearing and environmental degradation, not to mention the amount of methane gas released from any large quantity of livestock.
Conventional sheep farming also often involves the use of fungicides and insecticides.
However, the environmental impact of sheep can be greatly reduced, and even wholly negated with proper practices.
Sheep raised through regenerative farming techniques can actually be climate positive by improving soil health and increasing biodiversity. Sustainable wool is certainly possible.
Fully intent on actioning the belief that “our clothing can be a carbon sink”, the organization Fibreshed supports producers who use regenerative agriculture and sheep grazing practices that draw down a quantifiable amount of carbon.
They help connect designers and brands with these sheep farmers to grow regional supply chains. The membership network started out in California and is now spreading to other countries around the world, including the UK and Europe.
Regarding wool processing and manufacturing, it’s important to note that, similar to conventional cotton production, conventional wool production involves multiple chemicals, including bleaches, scouring agents, moth-proofing chemicals, and dyes.
Just as we would opt for organic cotton over conventional cotton, we recommend buying certified organic wool.
5. 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—from alpacas and goats to llamas and yaks… even rabbits!
We’ll look at some of the ethical considerations for some of these different animals.
Is Merino Wool Ethical?
When comparing virgin wool vs merino wool, the latter is certainly the wool of the modern era.
Undoubtedly one of the most popular types of wool (and used by many sustainable outdoor clothing brands), Merino wool is softer and lighter than other types of yarn, making it one of the most comfortable wool types to wear.
Merino sheep have been selectively bred for their wrinkly skin ( more surface area means more wool). In the summer, this becomes problematic as heat exhaustion is more likely, and hotter conditions increase the number of flies and the risk of fly-strike disease.
In Australia (responsible for 25% of the world’s wool), this commonly leads to the inhumane practice of mulesing.
Ethical merino wool does exist—but you’ll have to do your research to ensure that you only buy from mulesing-free brands that treat animal well-being as a priority.
Check for labels like the Soil Association Organic, ZQ Merino Standard, and Responsible Wool Standard (RWS).
Is There Ethical Angora Wool?
Angora is produced using the silky fiber from an Angora rabbit. This fur is soft and strong. It’s often combined with other types of wool to make warm and winter-ready items.
Large-scale angora production typically involves plucking (yes, you read that right), causing pain and distress to the rabbits.
Over 90% of the world’s angora is produced in China, a country with some of the world’s most limited animal welfare standards. The rabbits are killed after they stop producing adequate fur.
It’s debatable whether Angora wool can ever be produced ethically. On a very small, non-commercial scale, it’s possible. Angora rabbits molt every four months, and their hair can be collected after it falls.
However, several seemingly insurmountable ethical issues with keeping rabbits on a commercial scale include their inability to free-range.
That’s why, for now, we recommend avoiding Angora wool unless you are keeping Angora rabbits yourself and processing their wool on a micro-scale—the only way to ensure you’re getting ethical Angora wool.
How Ethical Is Cashmere Wool?
Ahh, the cashmere sweater.
Many classic closets will have at least one, but how does this timeless and coveted luxury quality wool 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 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. Brands may stretch the truth regarding their claims about sustainable and ethical cashmere wool.
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 the most ethical cashmere.
For recycled cashmere, look for the following certifications or standards:
Otherwise, look for virgin cashmere with the following certifications or standards:
- Good Cashmere Standard ® (GCS)
- Sustainable Fibre Alliance (SFA) Cashmere Standard
- Kering Standard on Cashmere
- Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
Better still, go thrifting! You’re likely to score a bargain cashmere cardigan on your next thrifting adventure or from one of the many online thrift stores.
Is Alpaca Wool Ethical?
As with sheep farming, the farming practices and animal welfare standards for alpacas vary.
A shocking PETA exposé of a large alpaca farm in Peru led several fashion brands to eliminate alpaca wool from their supply chain.
However, as with sheep, alpacas’ can be raised in a way that prioritizes their health and well-being. When raised in small, free-roaming herds and gently shorn using traditional hand methods, ethical alpaca wool is possible, but again due diligence is needed.
Alpacas also yield some of the most eco-friendly wool, especially when compared to cashmere sheep, whose fur they most resemble.
While cashmere goats have a high impact on the fragile alpine environments in which they live and graze—so much so that countries like Mongolia known for their cashmere farming are experiencing desertification—alpacas are gentle grazers.
Instead of ripping up entire plants by the roots as they graze like the cashmere sheep, alpacas target the top greenery and leave the root systems intact, allowing the plants to regrow.
6. Ethical Alternatives To Wool
While many wool and merino alternatives take the form of synthetic fibers, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Some of our favorite eco-friendly fabrics serve as suitable fabrics to replace wool—at least for some of its uses.
If you’re looking for an animal cruelty-free fabric, you could look into lyocell fabric (also known as TENCEL™ lyocell).
Like wool, hemp is also antimicrobial and breathable, making it great for a light, next-to-skin layer.
However, while these natural fibers can replace some qualities of wool, they cannot replicate its most valuable one: the ability to insulate and regulate temperature even when wet.
There’s a reason why backcountry and mountain enthusiasts live by the phrase “cotton kills”.
This is why wool is so valued in the outdoor clothing industry, and why one of the most common vegan wool alternatives is polyester.
While virgin polyester, like other petroleum-based synthetic fibers, should definitely be avoided, recycled polyester, made from post-consumer plastic waste, provides a more sustainable option.
Recycled wool is another ethical and sustainable option for those who aren’t opposed to wearing the fabric.
7. Brands That Use Ethical Wool
Wool in fashion is experiencing a revival, especially in the world of sustainable activewear.
Wool’s temperature regulation, moisture absorbing, and antimicrobial properties make it the ideal fabric for getting sweaty in either hot or cold environments.
But so many of these merino clothing brands produce wool items in a way that doesn’t make us feel sheepish to wear their goods? For example, is Smartwool ethical?
Fortunately, yes. Perhaps well-known of all mulesing-free brands, Smartwool uses only Gold standard ZQ Merino wool that’s been sourced exclusively from New Zealand wool farmers.
And they’re not the only place to go for sustainable wool clothing.
Beyond those like Fjallraven raising non-mulesed sheep of their own to ensure complete control of animal treatment, many brands have made traceability and ethical pledges about the type of wool fabrics they source.
Patagonia guarantees to source only RWS-certified wool, and they also make sure that the wool is produced with low environmental impact. The Patagonia Wool Standard goes beyond the RWS to ensure the highest animal welfare standards.
Naadam, on the other hand, blends recycled and virgin organic cashmere together.
Their virgin premium cashmere is RWS certified, harvested through gentle hand combing, and sourced from herders that abide by their stringent animal treatment policy. This policy is based on the Farm Animal Welfare Committee’s Five Freedoms and American Veterinary Care Association Standards, among others.
Sustainable hat or sustainable scarf brands like these do exist—you’ll just have to do a little extra research (or read our articles for our top recommendations) to make sure that brands are using ethically sourced wool.
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Final Thoughts On Ethical & Eco-Friendly Wool
Before you button up that sustainable coat, 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 winter.
Unfortunately, unethically sourced wool makes up most of the widely available comfy turtlenecks and warm pairs of socks.
However, many eco-friendly clothing brands are stepping up to baaa-t and sourcing sustainable and ethical wool with the highest animal welfare standards.
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.
We’re not sheepish when it comes to asking for a share. If you know anyone who likes their cardigans consciously cozy, share this article and help spread the word about ethically sourced wool that’s better for the animals and the planet.