Material Monday EP. 2: How Ethical & Sustainable is Wool?

If you’re interested in sustainable fashion, you might have asked yourself before: how sustainable is wool? If you’re vegan or care about animals, you might have asked yourself how ethical wool is.

There are ongoing discussions about how sustainable and animal-friendly this material is. In this article I’ve summed up everything you need to know about wool. 

How sustainable is wool?

Wool is natural, renewable, recyclable and biodegradable. It is also extremely durable, so in general, it is worn longer than other materials. Wool products also tend to be washed less often at lower temperatures which is better for the environment. If you care for it correctly, a timeless garment made from wool will last a lifetime. But the production of wool also has some negative impacts on the environment. For example, the washing and dyeing process often includes toxic chemicals and uses a lot of energy and water. 

And then there is also the aspect of animal agriculture. Raising sheep for wool means that trees need to be cut down to make room for grazing. This leads to problems like soil salinity, erosion and a decrease in biodiversity.

Additionally, sheep release enormous amounts of methane gas into the atmosphere.

In general, any mass production isn’t really sustainable. It simply uses up too many resources. If you are looking to buy wool that’s as sustainable as possible, make sure you only buy from transparent brands. What does ‘transparent brands’ mean? Brands that clearly state where their wool comes from and how it is processed. Read more about new wool traceability standards below. 

How ethical is wool?

When we ask “How ethical is wool?”, we should also ask: Do sheep even need to be sheared?

PETA and other animal welfare groups argue that sheep don’t need to be sheared. Others say that it’s actually the other way around. In fact, domestic sheep don’t shed during winter, so their wool just keeps adding up each year. This can result in sheep overheating and not being able to move. You can read more about these issues here.

But apart from this, there are other ethical issues around wool. Most of the world’s wool comes from Australia and the US. Both countries have fairly high standards of production. However, mulesing is still a common procedure. Mulesing involves cutting the sheep’s skin at the hind legs to prevent flies laying eggs – and often the sheep’s tail is also cut. Obviously, this causes the animals a lot of pain. In addition, the sheep are handled roughly and most of the time end up being slaughtered before the end of their natural lives. Read more about the ethical issues of wool here

If you are after truly ethical wool, the best thing you can do is make sure it’s not mass-produced. Unfortunately, there is still a need for more transparency in the wool industry. A “British wool” label, for example, does not mean the wool is definitely 100% British. In fact, only 50% have to be, while the rest can be imported (source). Often, tracing wool back to its origin isn’t easy or even possible.

When we talk about how ethical wool is, we should also mention the people who depend on wool production. The label We Are Knitters, for example, supports hard-working Peruvian families. Their survival depends on wool and they take good care of their flocks. 

Buying Wool & Woollen Garments

So, which wool should you buy?

When buying wool, look out for certifications. The ZQ certification, for example, has established a new standard for wool. Only growers who meet strict standards of animal welfare, environmental sustainability, fibre quality, traceability, and social responsibility are awarded the ZQ certification. The number 1 rule is: No Mulesing. 

Other certifications to look out for are the Responsible Wool Standard and the Soil Association Organic Standards.

Recycled wool is also an amazing alternative for you, if you don’t want to add to the demand for new wool.

When you buy recycled wool, you get a quality garment that performs just as well as new wool. You also remove the impact on animals and minimise the amount of waste, resources, and energy that is needed to produce new wool. In addition, you save post-consumer wool from ending up in landfill!

And the most sustainable option is thrifting pre-loved woollen garments. 

To sum everything up, wool scores very highly when it comes to sustainability – as long as it is not mass-produced.

Unfortunately, wool comes with some ethical issues that not many people know about, such as mulesing and slaughter. It is hard to know exactly where your wool comes from, but there are a few certifications to look out for.

If you want to buy new wool, support brands that use certified ethical wool. If you are okay with wearing wool but don’t want to add to the demand in animal hair, second hand or recycled wool would be a great option for you. Alternatively, you can opt for other sustainable, vegan materials such as organic cotton, hemp or bamboo.

I am currently working on a post about brands that use certified ethical wool. Keep an eye out for that! If you have any questions, please comment below or message me on Instagram.


Thanks for reading!

Pauline xx

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