Can wool be sustainable and ethical?

As someone who eats a plant-based diet, I might be considered the type of person who would avoid wool and other natural animal-based fibres from an ethical standpoint. However, as with almost everything in life, I find reality refuses to conform to the categories we attempt to put it in; veganism isn’t always more sustainable than a non-vegan diet, plastic isn’t always worse than glass and organic isn’t always better than non-organic. As with everything, I try to make my decisions based on the evidence in front of me – and as always, the evidence is rarely black and white, and always content dependent. 

Wool is one of the oldest textiles in human history, with clothing made from wool dating back 10,000 years from across the world. As with all products produced today, wool should be placed under heavy scrutiny to call into question its ethical and sustainable credentials, but as with all products, the answer often depends on a myriad of factors. 

How sustainable is wool?

One of the major benefits of natural fibres such as wool is that they are made from renewable resources, biodegradable and require minimal amounts of chemicals for processing. These are all issues that plague the majority of synthetic materials production, alongside the issue of microfibre release – where tiny pieces of plastic are released into our oceans eat time synthetic fabrics are washed. 

However, the majority of wool’s impact comes from the keeping of livestock on land that could otherwise be left wild, or cleared to feed the ever growing human population, rather than livestock (a notoriously inefficient method of feeding humans). The sustainability issues of wool come from the sheer quantity in which we want it, as this leads to large amounts of land clearing and environmental degradation, as well as greenhouse gas emissions. When combined with the eutrophication caused by large amount of animal faeces damaging local waterways, wool is on average one of the least sustainable materials when assessed pre-consumer

However, as with many fabrics, the method of cultivation makes a huge difference to its environmental footprint. Unfortunately the majority of tools used to assess the environmental impact of textiles, such as Higg Index, end pre-consumer, giving only a limited picture of real-world environmental impact. The consequence of this is that short-lived, low quality items are equated with better-made, durable products, simply because of the fibres used. With many fabrics, the majority of the difference in environmental footprint is dictated by the length of life of the garment and the number of times it is worn. This indicates that the consumer has a huge amount of power in altering their own environmental footprint, not only by choosing more sustainable fibres, but also by choosing to buy less overall, and keep what they own for a long time. Buying quality clothing is key to this, and as wool products tend to have long lifespans, the environmental footprint is considerably reduced over its lifespan. 

When you look post-gate at consumer use and end of life options, wool’s sustainability credentials start to improve. During its life, wool tends to need washing much less frequently than synthetic fibres, especially in sportswear as it has natural odour-resistant and antibacterial properties. After its longer than average lifespan, wool is also easily recycled unlike mixed-fibre synthetic garments, providing options for a second or third life. Aside from this, it also biodegrades both on land and in water, meaning that provided it is disposed of properly, it has extremely low impacts after its useful life. 

In conclusion, there are many ways in which wool’s sustainability credentials could be improved, from raising sheep through regenerative farming to methane gas mitigation. However, provided woollen items are worn for a number of years, environmental impacts could be minimal, and reduced further by 50% simply by wearing items more. 

How ethical is wool?

PETA claims that there is no such thing as ethical wool, and there are certainly ethical implications of raising animals for human use. In Australia and some other places around the world, there is a common but inhumane practise called mulesing, the practise of cutting away areas of skin on the buttocks, in order to prevent flystrike. This is often done without anaesthetic and can lead to death, or at least immense pain for the animal. Not only is this cruel, it is often also unsuccessful. The US has also been highlighted to carry out this procedure, through footage released by PETA.

New Zealand, on the other hand, has some of the best animal welfare standards globally, and the country’s Animal Welfare Act strictly prohibits mulesing. Choosing free-range, hand-shorn animals reduces lifetime stress and anxiety to the sheep. Similarly, it is also banned in the UK.

Because of the variation in animal welfare standards globally, it is important for brands to have transparency throughout the supply chain, all the way back to the farms their wool comes from. Without this, it is impossible to know how they are treated in order to choose brands wisely. To help with this, there are a number of globally recognised certifications and accreditations that provide third-party verification of humane and ethical wool production through regular audits. Examples of these include Responsible Wool Standard (RWS)Certified Organic WoolCertified Animal Welfare ApprovedCertified Humane® Label, the ZQ Merino StandardSoil Association Organic Standards and Climate Beneficial by Fibershed. Some of these also look at the environmental impact of the wool too, ensuring minimal environmental degradation in the raising of flocks too. 

On a side note, it is extremely important to understand what type of wool you are buying. Merino wool comes from Merino sheep, which are bred to have wrinkly skin to increase wool production. In hotter conditions, this can cause heat exhaustion and extreme discomfort, so ensure you buy your merino from sources accredited by ZQ Merino Standard or the Responsible Wool Standard. 

Angora ‘wool’ comes from rabbits, and if often harvested by plucking the animal, which can cause distress. In addition, 90% of the world’s angora comes from China, which does not have the same ethical standards as some other parts of the world. In 2013, many brands ceased angora product releases, after footage was released exposing the extreme animal cruelty existing in farms in China. Similar footage has been released from farms in France. Needless to say, while it is possible to collect naturally-moulted fur from rabbits for wool, it is hard to guarantee the ethical nature of this type of wool.

Cashmere (including Pashmina and Cashgora), made from goat’s hair,  has been linked to environmental degradation in Mongolia. In an effort to improve its sustainability credentials, brands such as Patagonia and Stella McCartney opt for recycled cashmere instead of virgin options. Cashmere’s environmental impact is roughly 100x that of wool.

TL;DR

  • Wool can be both sustainable and ethical, or neither, depending on where you buy it from, though of course your personal ethics will dictate in part what is deemed ethical. The bar has to be set very high to ensure both ethical and sustainable production.
  • As with most elements of consumerism, the sustainability issues of wool are derived from the quantities in which we consume it, not necessarily the wool itself.
  • Choosing brands that are transparent about their sources and can trace their wool to particular farms is the best option if you want to buy it – there are many places that do not produce ethical wool, and the practise of mulesing is still commonplace. If a brand does not specify no mulesing, do not buy from there.
  • Opt for wool that has been accredited and audited by a third-party certification, such as Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) or ZQ Merino Standard, to ensure its ethical and sustainable production as much as possible. 
  • Alternatively, buy recycled wool or second hand – this is always preferential when it comes to buying clothes.
  • Wool’s environmental impact is dictated for the most part by how many times it is worn. The longer the lifespan of a garment, the smaller its environmental footprint, and this is especially true of wool. 
  • Due to wool’s internal properties, it is both highly durable and needs washing less frequently than other fibres, improving its sustainability credentials. 
  • Wool has better end of life options than synthetic fibres, due to ease of recycling and being biodegradable. 

As with all things, there is no simple answer or perfect solution when it comes to sustainability. We should all be buying less overall and wearing for longer. With knowledge we can call for brands to do better, and choose great quality products that will last a lifetime and beyond.

What are your thoughts on wool? Would you buy it, secondhand or otherwise? Many thanks to Hattie (@hattie_eco) for helping research this topic! Go and check out her Instagram for more sustainability info.