The Weekly Journal | Environment

Gary Parkinson - March 7, 2022

YOU ARE WHAT YOU WEAR: 

DECODING THE ETHICS AND SUSTAINABILITY OF WOOL

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

How sustainable are your clothes? Your answer will likely depend on the materials they’re made of. 

Wool is one of the oldest textiles in human history dating back 10,000 years ago and used by various civilizations from Ancient Peru to Siberia. Essentially, sheep covered three basic human necessities: clothing, food, and shelter. But while it’s true that the domestication of sheep and the use of their fur wouldn't have been questioned back in 1000 BC, today there are several concerns regarding its use as a fabric and animal welfare. 

Wool not only calls into question its impact on the environment but also its impact on animals. 

Despite the high number of synthetic, vegan alternatives going into production every day, wool has proven to be one of the most sustainable and environmentally friendly materials thanks to its natural, technical and circular properties.

Let’s take a look at the benefits and the issues concerning wool so you can make the best fashion choices that align with your values.

THE GOOD

By definition, wool is the soft, thick protective coating of furry animals, made up of a mix of protein and lipids. The most used wools grow on different sheep breeds that graze on agricultural lands. Once sheared, the fleece of sheep is processed and spun into yarn, ready to be woven, knit, or compressed into different types of finished goods. 

Unlike cotton, wool doesn’t require large areas for crops. Farmers can get a large natural mass of material when removing it from sheep and repeat the process when it regrows. In fact, it’s healthy for sheep to be shorn, otherwise, their coats will keep growing until it’s difficult for them to see or even move. 

If we were to dispose of a wool blanket, it wouldn't end up in landfills, nor would it release micro plastics into waterways. Similar to human hair, wool is a keratin fibre and breaks down in a short amount of time. Wool might not be vegan, but it’s naturally produced and a great alternative to non-degradable synthetics like nylon and polyester. 

Wool is long-lasting, breathable and a natural insulator. It’s the perfect material for clothes such as sweaters for cold climates or knit tops for warmer weather. Thanks to its odour-resistant properties, wool stays cleaner and fresher for longer, reducing our need for regular washing, which subsequently, minimises our use of water.

THE BAD

Animal welfare may not immediately come to mind when thinking about fashion. While it's no secret that most clothes come from animals, this fact can be lost in clever marketing tactics. When we think of wool, our minds picture a herd of happy sheep roaming on a hill. We imagine that farmers gather them together when it’s time for a haircut and then use their fur to make woollen products they can sell: clothes, accessories, or shoes, just to name a few entrepreneurial ventures. 

Unfortunately, wool isn’t always produced under the most ethical conditions. There are many concerns regarding animal welfare in the wool industry such as pain, discomfort, bad handling practices, and poor living conditions. PETA released video footage of wool-shearing operations in Australia and the United States where sheep can be seen being kicked, thrown, cut, and having their limbs broken. These undercover exposés revealed the painful, and often unsuccessful, mulesing and tail docking of sheep: two “surgical” practices that are performed to prevent fly-borne diseases and infections by removing flesh off sheep’s buttocks. As you may have guessed, these procedures are made without any pain relief.

Domesticated sheep also risk death from heat exhaustion if not shorn. Long ago, sheep could naturally shed their winter coats on their own, but today they only continue to exist because we cyclically breed them for our own consumption (wool, meat, sheepskins). Animal farming is also the world’s largest user of land resources. Arable land used to feed farmed animals represents almost 80% of total agricultural land in the world. Clearing land for industrial scale agriculture causes a loss of biodiversity.

THE GOOD NEWS

Despite all that, there’s still some light at the end of the woollen tunnel. Not all wool operations are inhumane, we just need to pay close attention to how sheep are shorn and raised. 

The focus on sustainable fashion has shifted the way we think about clothing. This new mindset has forced the industry to consider their production and labour practices towards environmental integrity and social justice. Thankfully, artisanal-scale wool facilities have opened around the world where sheep are kept in low density flocks, raised free range, and enjoy better living conditions. When shopping for wool products, look for certified non-mulesed, free-range sheep wool. 

Wool is the ultimate renewable fibre source: as long as there is grass to graze on, sheep will produce a new fleece every year. As conscious fashion consumers, we know that the fibres that make up our clothes determine their wearability, traceability, and biodegradability. Wool uses 18% less energy than polyester and nearly 70% less water in producing 100 sweaters, compared to other natural fibres.  

Among other uses besides clothing, Merino wool, for example, has been found to be beneficial to the skin reducing the need for traditional medicines, especially in people who suffer from eczema. Thanks to its high water and nitrogen content, wool is naturally flame-retardant; it will not melt and stick to the skin, nor will it produce toxic fumes in fire situations. Also, wool provides a natural high level of UV protection – much higher than cotton and most synthetic fabrics.

In short, staying informed about our impact on the world is a great way to further our journey towards a more ethical fashion consumption.