Textile Review: The ethics and sustainability of wool

Wool is fiber that I recommend as a sustainable textile. It is biodegradable, breathable and highly versatile.  But the ethics and sustainability of this textile are complicated. I chose to wear wool for it’s warmth and its sustainable qualities, but others may be put off by some of the ethical considerations attached to this animal fiber. In this post I lay out all of the ethical considerations, along with the environmental impacts and benefits, so that you can come to your own conclusions on the matter.

I will start with the ethical considerations upfront. As you all will know, wool is an animal fiber. Primarily the fleece from sheep, but you can also get wool from many other animals goats (such as cashmere and mohair), alpacas, rabbits (Angora wool) and even camel. If you live a strict vegan lifestyle, then wool is usually off the table. But increasing numbers of people are choosing veganism for it’s sustainability benefits, and a way of opting out of the cruelty of industrial meat, poultry and dairy food system. Because wool usually doesn’t involve the killing of the animals, it is possible for the parts of the industry to be cruelty-free. Some vegans may be comfortable with choosing artisanal and indigenous sources of wool, where animals are well cared for and treated with respect, rather than as a resource to exploit.

Mulesing is one the of the most controversial cruelties associate with wool. It is a practice somewhat similar to circumcision- the unnecessary removal of pieces of skin, without any pain relief, to prevent infection that can be managed in other ways. In the case of mulseing, it is the removal of fleece growing skin around the anus to prevent flystrike. The practice is still routinely used in Australian merino wool. However is has been phased out in New Zealand. As far I could tell from my research, it has never been practiced outside Australia and New Zealand. (Please correct me if you know otherwise). Australia is world’s biggest producer of wool which is mostly merino, followed by New Zealand. So if you are unsure about the origin of your wool, the is a high possibility that it came from Australia (and was thus associated with mulesing).

Aside from this controversial practice, there have been many cases of cruelty to sheep by shearers. In Australia animal rights activists filmed sheep being kicked, punched and killed by shearers. China is also the third largest producer of wool, and cruelty in the Chinese wool industry has been of concern. Angora wool is actually the fur of the Angora rabbit (as opposed the Angora goat which makes mohair). China is the largest producer of Angora and the farming of Angora wool has been shown to be particularly cruel to the rabbits.

But is it possible to find wool that is cruelty free. Certified organic wool requires that environment, producers and the animals be treated with care. Along with organic certifications, you can also find certified cruelty-free wool. So looking for certifications is a good way to ensure that the wool you are buying is an ethical option. Small-scale artisanal wool could also be cruelty-free, as it is the big industrial farming systems that tend to be the most cruel. I stumbled across a hank of Fair-trade camel wool in a yarn store, and it was hand-spun by a nomadic community in north-western China, who travel with their camel herd, and brush the camels regularly to obtain the soft yarn. Obviously these types of wool are rare and difficult to find (and expensive), so they won’t do for the majority of your wardrobe. But there are many small-scale farmers across the world (and possibly even in your local region) who are farming heritage sheep and goats, or other wool animals such as alpacas, and treating their flock with care and respect. Transparency is key here. If you can get to know your local producers, and visit their farms, or if they are open about their farming practices in their web-presence, then you may feel comfortable with the ethics of the wool you are purchasing.

People Tree Cardigan maternity

(Fair-trade woolen cardigan by People Treeturmeric-dyed cowl by me)

Now I will turn to the environmental impacts and benefits of wool. Wool is one of my favourite fibers for my sustainable wardrobe. It is breathable and vesatile, suitable for both warm and cold weather garments (depending upon the thickness) and synthetic fibres cannot match the warming properties of this fibre. Brands such as Icebreaker* make thier hiking, travel and active wear out of (musling-free) merino for good reason. It breaths well- sweat less- and doesn’t hold smell when you do sweat. It is not uncommon for hikers to wear merino wool base layers for 10 days straight and to not be smelly. Compare that to the synthetic thermals which hold the smell of two days wear, and often still smell after they’ve been washed! I regularly wear my merino wool tanks 3-4 times before they need a wash, particulary if they are hung in my closet to air out between wears. This can greatly reduce the water and engegy associated with garment care.

The farming of wool with strong environmental pratices can also restore and enhance the land. The grazing of sheep and other wool animals can help improve the soil quality, sequester carbon from the atomosphere and ability of the land to absorb and retain water. Wool itself also respresents a form of carbon storage, 50% of the weight of wool is pure organic carbon. So managing wool farming sustainably means that the grazing of sheep can help restore the lands ability to store carbon from the atmosphere, and then some of this is converted into wool. What an amazing fiber! Overgrazing, however, is a problem in mainstream farming, which can lead to soil erosion and salinity and damage to the health productivity of the land over time. Overgrazing also reduces the ability of the land to sequester carbon. So it is important to try to source sustainably farmed wool for your wardrobe.

Wool is suited to being farmed on rangelands, where a lack of consistent rainfall makes these lands unsuitable for food crops. The farming of wool does not displace the planting of food crops. This makes wool far more sustainable than organic cotton, which uses land which could be used to grow food. Cotton is also water-intensive, whereas the farming of wool is farmed in arid and semi-arid zones and is only rainfed (not irrigated).

Non-organic farming of wool usually involves the use of a harmful chemical treatements to treate the animals for ticks and other pests. It also may involve use of fertilisers for crops. Organic wool does not use these chemical inputs.

How the wool fiber is processed can have a signficant impact on the overall impact of the finished textile. Wool is often processed using heat, water and chemicals, making it energy intesive. Are very large proportion of the wool available on the market is sent to China for processing. This means the the newly shawn wool is washed, processed and spun in China, where lax environmental regulations mean that water is unlikely to be treated before it is released into waterways. If you wish to minimise the impact of your wool, it is best to try to buy locally spun yarn, where environmental regualtions mean that water discharge will be treated so that it is safe before it is released. In Australia there is only one woolen mill that I am aware of, but it is an affordable option to buy locally-processed wool. If you are based in North America, Europe and the UK you should be able to find locally milled wool, which can reduce the environmental impact of your wool purchase. This is useful if you are a knitter, but it may be more difficult if you are looking for woven textiles or finished garments. A great deal of the woolen fabric on the global market has been woven in China or other countries where enviromental regulations are lax.

Materials sustainability index gives wool quite a low score- only slightly higher than nylon and lower than conventional cotton. But I take issue with some of the methodology that goes into the score. To begin with, the score represents a cradle-to-gate analysis, meaning that the analysis considers the impacts to create the fiber from raw material into finished garment, but it ignores the environmental impact once the garment leaves the store. This means that the consumer care (how and how often the garment is cleaned) doesn’t factor into the score. Similarly the biodegradability of wool and the role of syntheic clothing in microplastic pollution are ignored by the scoring system. Wool also scores low due to landuse, but this fails to differentiate between well managed farming on rangeland as opposed the growing of cotton on valuable land for food crops. Chemical impact on water ways and land also doesn’t factor into the analysis. In short, the nuances of this fiber (and those that is is compared to) are not adequatly captured by this sustainabiliy index and I strongly disagree with where it sits on the scale. It is extremely difficult to find an accurate way to quantitaively compare these textiles that would account for the nuances, but I think it is problematic to accept a ranking system that cannot do this. At best this ranking system is an interesting resource, but should never be your only guide.

The best way to avoid the evironmental impacts of wool is to shop for organic wool. But if you can’t find organic, the evironmental benefits of this fiber far outweigh the drawbacks. I always recommend wool as a fiber worth investing in. Woolen garments will far outlast organic cotton options, and have a far lower impact than synthetic options. I am always happy to wear wool. Depending upon your ethics, you may feel otherwise. The decision is completely down to your personal choices and what makes sense of you.

For more information on the environmental impacts of various textile options, I high recommend Sustainable Fashion & Textiles by Kate Fletcher or for a more affordable option you can pre-order my  Guide to Sustainable Textiles (see details below)

Guide to Sustainable Textiles

If you want to be better informed about the sustainability of your favourite garments, then you will find Guide to Sustainable Textiles helpful.

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  • Kari

    New Zealand processes their own wool rather than sending it to China like we do in Australia so in terms of the environmental impact of shipping mileage and processing waste management, it might be a more sustainable option for Australians to buy New Zealand wool.

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  • Jessi Menere

    The reason why wool gets a low score is because 1) when washing the fleece in factories all the lanolin is removed which makes the wool extremely itchy so they wash it in clorine to make it softer. 2) Then its spun into yarn and coated with a polymer (a plastic) which is a byproduct of petroleum to stop shrinkage/felting when washing, which is called machine washable/superwash wool. Trying to find a any wool fabric let alone organic wool fabric in Australia that isn’t machine washable/superwashed is almost impossible (I am on the hunt now). The reason I am against machine washable/superwashed wool is not just the chemicals involved but also when its coated in plastic it loses its ability to keep you truly warm and repel dirt, stains and water, think fishermen in England going out in their lanolin woollen jumpers and staying warm and dry.

    • The reason that the wool gets a low score is partly due to heat and chemical use during processing. The polymer coating doesn’t really have an impact on the score that wool receives. The scoring also takes into account land use and gives wool a low score due to it’s high land footprint. The scoring process does not allow for nuance in land use- there are many wools, such as alpaca, or wool yarn that has organic certification that are actually good for the land (sequesters carbon and improves soil quality). Not to mention that these types of wool are also not processed in the same way, so do not hold the same chemical and carbon impact as conventional wool processed in China.

      The scoring system is also problematic because it is cradle-to-gate, not cradle-to-grave. This means that the fact that wool needs to washed less often than synthetic fabrics, and the fact that is biodegradable is not taken into account. Synthetic fabrics are entirely made of petrochemicals, yet some still score more highly than conventional wool. But these scoring do not reflect the full lifecycle impact of the products. This is why they are problematic, and why I explain the all the nuances of wool and it’s production in this article. Natural wool (such as hand-knitted fisherman’s jumpers you speak of) are highly sustainable. I avoid conventional wool as much as possible. But I will always a conventional wool thermal over a polypropylene one. The scoring system will tell me that the poly is the better option. But a lifecycle approach would tell otherwise, not to mention that wool thermals last longer and are actually warm, unlike the poly option.