Last Updated on May 30, 2022
As temperatures drop we want to stay comfy and cozy, so many of us reach for warm woolen sweaters and cardigans. Wool offers great insulating and breathable properties and is wonderful in winter. However it comes from animals, so questions about animal welfare and animal cruelty are very important.
Can Wool be an Ethical Material?
Unlike many other animals products, fibre animals do not need to be killed to obtain wool and many fibre animals actually need to shed to their fleece or be shorn yearly to stay healthy and comfortable. Wool falls into more of a grey area regarding ethical considerations and many people, including vegans, have different thoughts on if wool can actually be cruelty-free.
Wool has been used and farmed for centuries and still plays an important role in many cultures. When fibre animals are not over-bred and farmed on mass-scale, it can also play a very important role within carbon farming and a regenerative agriculture system.
In my opinion wool can be cruelty-free, but very much depending on the circumstances. If sheep, alpacas, and goats are farmed, shorn, bred, and cared for in a healthy, respectful, and humane way then I believe wool can be a responsible purchase.
I’ve have been fortunate to visit and speak with many farmers/ranchers. I’ve seen how fibre animals can be raised in a way where there is a respectful, symbiotic relationship between animals, humans, and the ecosystem. However it’s very important to note that the average wool sweater found in stores unfortunately doesn’t represent these values, likely has zero traceability, and can definitely come from very cruel and inhumane practices.
Factory Farming vs Regenerative and Indigenous Wool Farming
Like other things in the fashion industry, many of the ethical issues stem from a high demand for cheaper clothing which has created the factory farming of fibre animals. Wool that comes from intensive farming focused on maximizing profits is harmful to animals and the environment, and the animals are seen and treated solely as commodities instead of living beings.
Factory farming also seeks to maximize wool output by shearing animals multiple times a year, outside of their natural cycle (getting rid of their winter coats for spring and summer), and keeping as many animals as possible in small spaces.
Whereas Indigenous and regenerative farming takes a more holistic approach. It supports the long-term health of our environment, understanding the synergistic role animals play in agriculture and the respect and well-being they deserve.
Fibre farms can also be a big contributor towards soil erosion and desertification, however sustainable livestock and land management can actually reverse the issues and restore grassland ecosystems.
So is wool ethical? It’s complicated. And like with most things in the fashion industry, we need to know where our clothing comes from and look for brands that are transparent about their wool and fibre sourcing and animal welfare standards.
Why not avoid all wool to be safe?
Sadly anywhere animals are involved there is the possibility of animal abuse and cruelty. If you want to try your best to ensure no animals were harmed then avoiding all animal products can be a good solution.
Unfortunately though the alternatives aren’t great and many have their own issues as well. Wool is a natural, highly functional, biodegradable, and durable clothing material that can’t be replicated with synthetic alternatives, and fibre farming can have many benefits as part of a climate positive clothing production cycle.
I see a lot of value in wool as a material and in supporting brands who prioritize the treatment and care of animals and improving the environment, but this decision will be different for each person based on your values.
Recycled wool can be a “best of both worlds” compromise for some – you get the benefits of natural wool fibres but sourced as a reclaimed waste product. If you’re interested in recycled wool, here are some brands that use it.
Types of Wool and Animal Fibres and What to Look Out For
Wool comes from sheep and has been used since the Stone Age to clothe and protect humans. As a fiber it contains many wonderful properties:
- Wool is very durable and has natural elasticity – wool garments can last more than a lifetime.
- It is antimicrobial and antibacterial. Meaning it does not need to be washed as often as other materials and doesn’t easily get smelly.
- Wool has great thermoregulating properties. The unique structure can keep you both warm or also help with cooling. Wool can draw up to a third of it’s weight in moisture from the skin before feeling wet so you’ll be toasty warm without overheating or feeling sweaty or clammy.
- Wool is also naturally stain and fire resistant.
There are a variety of types of wool from different breeds of sheep and some are more suited to certain types of clothing because of things like texture and itchiness. Depending on the garment, for example hiking clothing vs outerwear vs an everyday sweater, certain wool qualities (such as softness) will be more or less important.
Ethical Considerations: There devastatingly is no shortage of accounts of animal abuse in the wool industry. So when shopping for any wool product traceability and transparency is vitally important.
Look for: Brands that have comprehensive animal welfare and sustainable farming standards and policies. Ideally brands work directly with small-scale family farms, have visited/audited the farms, and know exactly where their materials come from and can answer questions you have.
You can also keep an eye out for Climate Beneficial™ wool meaning the wool was farmed within a regenerative agriculture system. It’s still a small certification, but hopefully will keep growing!
I want to single out merino wool because this is a very common type of wool in apparel. It is a crimpy softer fiber and in high demand for it’s light weight and wicking properties as well as for comfort.
Ethical Considerations: Merino wool in particular has certain ethical issues to be aware of. Because it is in such high demand, merino wool can be over-bred and factory farmed, resulting in both environmental and animal cruelty issues. There is also a horrible practice called mulesing done to merino sheep which involves cutting away chunks of skin.
Look for: Brands that make it clear their wool is non-mulesed, have comprehensive animal welfare standards, and sustainable farming practices. Brands should be able to answer questions you have.
ZQ certified wool – This is a certification that includes animal welfare, environmental, and social components and is also working to help farmer implement more regenerative practices.
Alpaca is a wonderful material for sweaters and knitwear worn against the skin. It is fine, light, wonderfully soft and doesn’t contain lanolin – the oil most people who have wool allergies react to, so it’s naturally hypoallergenic and not irritating.
Ethical Considerations: Alpaca wool mainly comes from South America and the Peruvian highlands where animals live in their natural habitats and are farmed using indigenous and traditional methods. Alpacas can also live in rocky areas which are unsuitable for crops or other animals. Of all the animal fibres available, alpacas are most likely to be raised in a traditional and sustainable way. However there are also alpaca ranchers around the world with different practices.
It’s also important to note that “baby alpaca” does not mean it’s from the babies but rather refers to the finest grading of alpaca fibres.
Look for: Brands that are transparent and can trace their alpaca sourcing. Ideally brands that work directly with small, sustainable family farms and can answer questions you have.
Cashmere is the soft undercoat of the Kashmir goat. It is lighter and softer than wool and great for thinner, luxurious knits.
Ethical Considerations: Unlike sheep and alpaca, cashmere fibre is not shorn from the animals but combed out during their seasonal molting, many view this as a better option as it reduces the chance of cutting the animals (although a well-trained shearer should never cut the animals). However due to the high demand for cashmere some goat herds are intensively farmed and shorn instead of combed to cut costs (which also results in a poorer quality fibre).
Look for: Cashmere from the goats’ natural habitats in Asia and brands which sourced from farms with traditional and sustainable practices. Cashmere has also been a big contributor towards desertification so brands that care about responsible and restorative land management is also important. Brands should be able to answer questions you have.
Wool is a fascinating fibre and I feel like there is still so much to learn about it and regenerative fiber farming. If you are interested in learning more I recommend checking out Fibershed.
I’d love to know your thoughts on wool and the ethical dilemmas that come along with it.
Also check out our roundup of sustainable sweaters and knitwear brands or these brands who use recycled wool.
I have also heard that wool farms pretty much invariably “produce” lamb meat as well, and that in most case this is the most profitable option. There are way too many chances for abuse for me to realistically see me buying new wool products in the near future.
Thank you, Verena, for your article on the ethical considerations surrounding wool production and purchase. It is disheartening to think that with the rise of fast fashion, fast fashion brands that produce woollen garments are supporting farming practices that treat livestock as commodities instead of living beings. Shearing animals outside of their natural wool production cycle. Thanks to your article, I’ll be researching the origins of woollen garments before I purchase any in the future. I think it is so important to understand where clothing is coming from these days and not taking everything for face value with greenwashing being a prominent problem in the fashion industry. Another point you brought up which interested me was regenerative fibre farming. It led me on a journey to find out more about the topic. I came across this article “Regenerative Wool: restoring Patagonia’s Grasslands with sheep” written in Lampoon magazine (online) which addresses wool production, climate and environmental impacts and may be of interest to you. It caught my eye as it states that Patagonia’s grasslands are some of the most damaged in the world yet they support multiple industries and livelihoods.
Link to article below: https://lampoonmagazine.com/regenerative-wool-patagonia-eileen-fisher/