From the Stone Age to the Bronze Age, our ancestors' ancestors have taken advantage of this warm, fluffy, and seemingly harmless resource.
However, with the advent of regenerative agriculture and ethical fashion, the wool industry has come under scrutiny, with organizations like PETA showing heartbreaking videos of how sheep are mistreated in the name of human comfort. Yet, many people still wonder whether wool really is that bad. "After all, sheep aren't killed for it, so where's the harm?".
In this post, I'll answer this question and many others related to the wool industry and address once and for all the million-dollar question: is there such a thing as ethical wool? Let's get into it!
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Where does wool come from?
You may be thinking, “wool comes from sheep, duh,” but the answer to the question "where does wool come from?" is not as simple as it seems.
Usually, the wool we wear comes from a few sheep breeds, with the Merino sheep being the most common. But these sheep aren't gathered in a natural way, just as they are. Nope, these sheep are raised through selective breeding or genetic selection.
This means that the sheep that produce the most and best quality wool have been selected for perpetuating the species for generations, in the same way as egg-laying chickens, for example. This in itself is one of the many ethical problems of the wool industry, so while we're at it, let's talk a bit more about it.
Ethical Issues with The Wool Industry
Like the leather industry, the commercial wool industry is riddled with horror stories in which sheep are raised in unnatural conditions and subjected to constant mistreatment by farmers, but how truthful are these stories?
Well, I'm sorry to tell you that in most cases, they are indeed very true.
Picking up on the previous point, selective breeding has been around for centuries as human consumption of wool increases over the years, causing sheep to produce more wool than they can handle. Sheep that are exploited for wool production have an abnormal amount of fur, which can double their own weight and cause long-term injuries or, worse, death by suffocation in the hottest months. But bear with me, because this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Other ethical issues in the wool industry include exploitation for meat or milk, castration of male sheep without painkillers, and the cruellest practice yet documented: mulesing, which is one of the most common tactics used to remove wool from the breach of sheep.
How is wool gathered from sheep?
Basically, wool is obtained from sheep by shearing with scissors or shears. The main issue here is that these furry little animals are not usually sheared in a calm and gentle way, rather the opposite.
The wool industry is a business where maximum profit is sought in the shortest time possible in order to make as much profit as possible. Shearers are paid per sheep sheared and not per hour of work, so the job is done extremely fast, shaving very close to the sheep's skin. This can cause multiple wounds and cuts all over the sheep's body.
In Australia, where most of the world's wool is produced, once sheep on industrial farms need a haircut, they are subjected to mulesing in addition to shearing. The thing is that mulesing is way different from a simple haircut.
Mulesing is a tactic that involves cutting pieces of skin and flesh from the sheep's breach with clippers and without the use of painkillers. Shearers cut off long strips of sheep's skin, leaving them with bloody, raw, gaping wounds. Supposedly, this is done to prevent infection by fly larvae, but personally, I see no justification for it.
There are farms where sheep are sheared as if it wasn't a marathon, but unfortunately, on most industrial farms it is done, and mulesing is also performed.
Do sheep need to be shorn?
Wool is the sheep's natural coat. It provides them with warmth in winter and allows them to keep cool in summer. Under normal circumstances, sheep wouldn't need to be sheared, as they naturally adapt the amount of wool depending on the season they are in. But guess what? This is not the case with sheep that are used to produce wool nowadays.
As I mentioned before, the sheep exploited for wool production have an abnormal and unnatural amount of fur, up to twice their own weight, and therefore must be sheared. If farmers don't shear them, they are at risk of suffering multiple injuries or suffocating to death.
Is Wool Considered Vegan?
If we stick to the strict definition of what it means to be vegan, we can say that wool is not vegan. Why? Because vegans don't participate nor support any form of exploitation of animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose.
However, like everything in life, there are grayscales and exceptions. Ethics are relative.
Not all wool is obtained in inhumane ways, in fact, there are farms where you can obtain humane wool —meaning that they raise and shear their sheep in a sustainable, humane way — but honestly, these are very few.
The places where you can actually check for good wool practices are mainly artisanal-scale wool processing facilities where sheep are shorn carefully and aren't exploited for breeding, milk or meat, or on New Zealand farms. In this wonderful country surrounded by nature mulesing is strictly banned, which makes them the world leader in ethical wool production. Some vegans consider that these are the only circumstances in which wool can be considered vegan, but there are others who still don't consider it as such.
So, is there such a thing as ethical wool? Yes, but it depends on where you draw the line for your own ethics. Is wool considered vegan? Not by definition, but the answer also depends on the person to whom you ask.
How to Find ethical wool clothing & products
One way to find ethical wool products is to keep scrolling down this post! Why? Because below, I listed some brands that only use ethical wool for their products!
But on a more serious note, the easiest way to find ethical wool clothing and products is to check third-party certifications. Any brand that truly uses ethical wool will have at least one or two certifications, such as:
- Climate Beneficial™
- ZQ Merino Standard
- Responsible Wool Standard (RWS)
- Certified Animal Welfare Approved
- Certified Organic Wool
- Soil Association Organic Standards
- Certified Humane® Label
Also, another way to find products that respect animal welfare is to consider those made from recycled wool. prAna is one of the leading brands when it comes to clothing made from recycled wool, so keep an eye on them!
Brands that use Ethical Wool in their products
Unfortunately, there aren't many brands on the market yet that have jumped on the ethical wool bandwagon, but there are a few that have — and in a big way. These brands are a breath of fresh air in the midst of the cruel, non-sustainable textile industry:
The best thing about this brand is not just that they manufacture cozy sweaters, soft winter coats, and cuddly cardigans, but that they make them from alpaca wool! Everlane sources their alpaca fibers from small farms across Peru and to ensure that their vendors follow ethical practices, they require them to sign their Humane Treatment & Animal Welfare statement.
Furthermore, on their website, they state that "alpacas are soft-hooved and gentle grazers, which makes them easier on pastures than other herd animals", which means that the mistreatment that some sheep farmers give to sheep is completely left out of the equation.
And if that wasn't enough, it's worth noting that Everlane is part of the Textile Exchange (a global nonprofit organization that helps companies adopt sustainable textile practices), through which they joined forces with the Responsible Alpaca Standard International Working Group (RAS IWG) to set an example to the entire textile industry on ethical standards in relation to the alpaca wool supply chain. It was already known that they were a 100% transparent brand, but with all this, it's now crystal clear.
What more can we say about this amazing sustainable outdoor brand that we haven't already said? They make everything from sustainable jeans to eco-friendly t-shirts. Patagonia earned the honour of being one of the earliest advocates for environmental ethics in the sportswear industry. More recently, it helped establish the Regenerative Organic Certification during its pilot program back in 2017. But what is their stance on wool?
Well, as expected, Patagonia uses virgin wool sourced under the guidelines of the RWS (Responsible Wool Standard), which ensures (strictly) that all wool production meets the highest standards of animal welfare and land management. Plus, they even developed their own standard called PWS (Patagonia Wool Standard). How cool is that?
prAna is another brand that we've mentioned numerous times in other posts, and for good reason. They are completely transparent when it comes to the sustainability of their products, including those made from wool. They also use ethical wool sourced under the strict guidelines of the RWS, guaranteeing the respect and protection of animals throughout the manufacturing process of their products. That way, when you buy a hoodie or a beanie from them, you'll be 100% sure that the soft wool that makes it comes from only RWS-certified, non-mulesed sheep.
This New Zealand-American sustainable sneaker brand has a lot to offer to their industry in the area of sustainability and ethics, as they recently developed a wool fabric for their Wool Running shoes that is not only extremely soft, breathable and insulating, but also ethical. In order to manufacture it, All Birds teamed up with ZQ Merino, an organization that ensures that the wool used by their allies meets the highest standards of farming, land management, and animal welfare.
They are an excellent example for all sneaker brands out there, and I hope they all start taking notes!
Ethical Alternatives to Wool
Welcome to the 101 of ethical alternatives to (sheep) wool! If, after all, you've read, you want to get rid of your wool cardigan and swear for life that you will never buy sheep wool again (hey, we don't judge your eco choices here!), here are some ethical alternatives to sheep wool:
- Ethical alpaca wool: this is a noble, soft and eco-friendly fiber that comes from a species that has inhabited the Peruvian lands for over 40 million years. Alpacas need to be sheared (using animal-safe sheers) once a year in the summertime so that they don’t overheat, but this haircut doesn’t hurt them. Quite the opposite, it benefits them! Furthermore, alpacas aren't mistreated during this process and are never killed solely for their fur.
- Lyocell: Lyocell is a breathable and lightweight fabric produced from the wood pulp of eucalyptus trees, which has a major advantage over any type of wool: it doesn't involve animals! This fiber is sustainable, ethical, absorbent, and soft (perfect for sensitive skin), plus it's collected only from sustainably managed forests. This one will surely make you forget wool in no time!
- Organic Hemp: as you may already know, this fiber is the sober cousin of marijuana, and we love it! Hemp is a renewable resource that can be replenished rather quickly, it can grow in the same soil up to 14 times without damaging it and it doesn’t even require much water to grow. Yes, hemp isn’t as soft as wool, but it’s a good alternative since it’s strong, antimicrobial and highly breathable. What more could you ask for from this natural alternative?
Ethical Wool is out there. While It May Be Hard To Find It’s Worth The Hunt!
I know this post may be hard to read, but we can't turn a blind eye to the mistreatment of sheep in the wool industry. Something must be done about it, and the first step to change is to be well educated! As well as opting for ethical alternatives, of course.
The good news is that although the traceability of wool fabrics has a long way to go, we now know that ethically sourced wool is available. Is it hard to find? Yup, but the future seems to wear ethical materials.
The road to sustainable, ethical, and regenerative may be a long one, but I have zero doubt that —at least— a percentage of the wool industry will change for the better sooner rather than later. So let's not only help but revolutionize the industry with ethical wool!
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