A woolly problem: is wool cruelty-free?

A woolly problem: is wool cruelty-free?

sheep being bred for wool cruelty free

Found in styles gracing modern day catwalks, to garments worn on the streets of ancient Rome, wool has been a valuable textile for thousands of years. With a growing spotlight on animal rights and exploitation in the fashion industry, we take a dive into the world of wool and ask the question, is wool cruelty-free?

In the fashion sector, wool may be most famous for its use in jumpers and other winter wear, however, it is a diverse material. Wool is used in everything from eveningwear to underwear.

The global wool trade in 2017 amounted to 4.72 billion USD. This popular fibre is used in sectors as varied as fashion to furnishings, with by-products from the sector even used in skincare products.

How is wool produced and where does it come from?

While animals such as alpacas and angoras are used for their wool, the most popular type of wool comes from sheep. An estimated 1.2 billion sheep produce the wool for the global wool industry, with 90% of sheep breeds being wool producers.

Australia, the USA, Iran, China, and New Zealand are the largest wool producers, with Australia alone accounting for 25% of the market.

The first step in the production of wool is rearing sheep which are then shorn. Once a sheep is shorn for its wool, the fibre normally undergoes one of two processes to be turned into a useable yarn, either woollen processing or worsted processing.

Woollen processing 

Wool fibres are combined from different bales and washed to removed dirt, burrs (seeds with hooks or teeth) and other unwanted materials from the wool in processes called blending and scouring. These fibres then undergo carbonising (using sulphuric acid to remove plant matter).

The fibres then go through a carding machine, where wire-covered rollers are used to remove tangles, clean and blend fibres to create a web that is separated into strips to be spun. The wool is then spun into a yarn where it can be knitted or woven into fabric.

wool for processing
Photo by Johnstons of Elgin on Unsplash

Worsted processing 

Much like the woollen processing practice, yarn is blended, cleaned and carded. However, at the end of the carding process fibres are formed into rope-like, untwisted strands (slivers).

Slivers are then straightened and stretched, and short fibres removed. This happens multiple times until the sliver forms a ‘top’. The top is then thinned to create a workable fibre than can be spun into yarn and then woven or knitted into fabric.

Is wool ethical and what are its issues?

Wool has become a controversial topic and there have been issues raised regarding the ethics of the industry. To investigate whether wool is cruelty-free, we’ll look at some of the issues the sector faces.

Mulesing

Mulesing is a widespread practice, particularly in the Australian sheep farming sector. It involves cutting a crescent-shaped flap of skin around the sheep’s buttocks and the intentional removal of part of the tail. This then heals to form a scar where wool can’t grow.

The procedure is completed to prevent fly strike, an affliction in which flies lay eggs that hatch on the skin of the sheep. These maggots then feed on the sheep’s tissue causing inflammation, tissue decay, toxaemia and potential death.

While flystrike can be avoided with careful surveillance and treatment, the sheer size and number of sheep on Australian sheep farms can make this level of surveillance impossible.

The ethical issues come as this is an incredibly painful process that is often performed without the use of adequate pain relief.

Many ethical fashion brands now specifically avoid sourcing Australian wool and will only use non-mulesed wool.

Shearing

The shearing process can also be a stressful event for sheep and if done incorrectly can cause nicks or cuts that can be painful for the animal.

However, due to generations of selective breeding, most sheep need to be shorn for their well-being. For many sheep breeds, not shearing can result in welfare issues including cases of overheating and parasitic infections.

sheep that produce wool
Photo by Sam Carter on Unsplash

Tail docking

While not all sheep farms practice tail docking, it is relatively widespread in the industry. The procedure is normally performed on lambs and, much like mulesing, is practised to reduce the risk of flystrike. However, it’s a stressful and painful process.

Pain relief

A core criticism of practices such as mulesing and tail docking is that they are usually performed without the use of anaesthesia or pain relief. In recent years, there has been increased pressure on legislators and sheep farmers to improve animal welfare by providing pain relief during these painful procedures.

Live transportation

Live transportation of sheep is another issue in the wool industry. Unethical and overcrowded transport conditions can lead to heat exhaustion, stress and death of sheep. Live transportation often occurs when sheep are no longer producing wool and are sold for meat.

Are sheep killed for wool?

While it does depend on the individual practices that a farm implements, many sheep are considered ‘dual purpose’. This means that once they can no longer produce quality wool they are sold to the meat industry.

This often occurs before the end of the natural life expectancy of a sheep when their wool starts to degrade. This practice does raise some issues when considering the ethics of wool.

Can wool be cruelty-free?

girl in wool jumper on beach
Photo by Tamara Bellis on Unsplash

Wool can obviously not be animal-free. However, this doesn’t mean that wool is always produced cruelly, or that wool is always cruelty-free either. It all depends on how farms are managed.

If farmers manage their farms well, they can potentially operate in a cruelty-free manner. This involves processes such as providing adequate pain relief, not engaging in unnecessary surgeries and avoiding unethical meat industry practices.

Wool from other animals

While sheep are by far the most popular animal when it comes to wool production, other wool producers in the industry include alpacas, llamas, angoras, goats and even camels.

Alpacas face many of the same exploitation risks as sheep. However, like sheep, if farms are managed well and animal welfare is put at the forefront of production, it can be a kinder process.

Wool from the angora rabbit is also used frequently in the fashion sector. Produced mainly in China, angora wool is widely criticised due to the fact that one method of harvesting it includes painfully pulling hair from the rabbit’s skin. On top of that, rabbits are often kept in cages and bred to create a better yield at the expense of their health.

In some cases, even angora wool can be harvested more ethically. For example gently combing shedding fur from animals kept in more humane conditions. However, these more ethical practices are unfortunately not always standard.

Is merino wool ethical?

Merino wool (from Merino sheep) is one of the most well-known types of wool. Due to its soft, breathable and temperature regulating nature, it is also a highly desirable wool for the fashion sector.

When considering if it is cruelty-free, just like other types of wool, it depends on farming practices.

If Merino sheep are farmed with ethical farming practices, including providing pain relief, safe and secure protection from the elements, sufficient nutrition and grazing conditions and avoiding stress when shearing, merino wool can be an ethical product.

New Zealand, a large producer of merino wool, often scores well on animal welfare. The Animal Welfare Act in New Zealand also prohibits mulesing practices.

Certifications to look out for

guy in cruelty free wool socks
Photo by The Happy Toe on Unsplash

So, if you want to make sure that you are buying cruelty-free wool, there are a few certifications to look out for. The most well-known include:

ZQ Merino Standard

This certification requires that sheep can graze in open pastures, have adequate protection from the weather, access to clean water and proper nutrition. It also makes sure that disease is treated and managed and that stress on sheep is limited.

Responsible Wool Standard (RWS)

Considering animal welfare, social welfare and land management, RWS is working to build a more ethical wool industry.

Operating around the world, the RWS carries out audits to ensure compliance from certified farms and suppliers. It requires practices such as providing adequate pain relief during practices such as tail docking.

Other issues with wool

Animal welfare isn’t the only issue that the wool industry has to contend with, its environmental impact is also of concern.

What about the environment, is wool eco-friendly?

Much like the question is wool cruelty-free, when it comes to overall environmental sustainability, wool is a mixed bag.

Biodegradable

Unlike the synthetics commonly used in the fashion sector, wool is a natural product and is completely biodegradable. This is good news in an industry that is struggling with the creation of intense levels of microplastic and landfill pollution.

Renewable resource

Wool is also technically a renewable resource given that the same sheep can produce wool for years. If cared for correctly, wool clothing can last a long time, reducing the need for overconsumption which plagues the fashion industry.

Mother and baby in cruelty free wool jumpers
Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels

High carbon footprint

Putting aside animal welfare issues, the main environmental issue with wool production is its carbon footprint. Raising animals for wool production takes a hefty environmental toll.

Just one sheep can produce 30 litres of methane each day. Furthermore, the Higg Index ranks wool’s global warming impact as four times that of cotton.

So, while wool does have some points in its favour and isn’t as bad as virgin synthetics and most leathers, it isn’t the most eco-friendly material either.

Do vegans use wool?

As wool is an animal product, it isn’t strictly vegan. While some vegans may use second-hand wool products, first-hand wool clothing wouldn’t be on their list. When it comes to the question of whether wool is vegetarian, the answer is a little murkier.

Depending on individual ethics, wool could be considered vegetarian as, though its origins are found in animals, it doesn’t require the death of an animal to be produced.

Vegan alternatives to wool

For vegans this winter, it isn’t all bad news because there are some great vegan alternatives to wool.

Biodegradable products are always an advantage in the sustainable fashion sector, yet unfortunately, synthetics have dominated the vegan wool market for many years. However, this doesn’t have to be the case. There are natural materials that offer a great alternative to animal wool.

Some materials to look out for that are animal-free and still natural include:

  • Organic cotton
  • Hemp
  • Tencel
  • Bamboo
  • Linen

Check out our brand roundups on linen, organic cotton and hemp clothing to find some great brands that create awesome styles from these fabrics.

Recycled wool

Recycled wool products, although not vegan, are also a good consideration when searching for ethical fashion. And as the material already exists, they don’t contribute further to pollution created by garment production. They also help to keep clothing out of landfill.

Guy in wool jumper with camera
Photo by Nsey Benajah on Unsplash

Is wool cruelty-free?

So, is wool cruelty-free? Really, it depends. While wool can never be a vegan product, it can be produced ethically and it can be produced without involving animal cruelty.

For this to occur farms need to manage their stock well, they need to ensure sheep are well cared for and remain as stress-free as possible. Painful practices, such as mulesing, need to be avoided or pain relief should be provided in cases where these practices are needed.

At present, wool is very often not produced in a cruelty-free manner. But as New Zealand is starting to prove, it can be. Generations of selective breeding sadly mean that sheep have to be shorn.

Creating an industry that adopts a kinder approach to this process benefits sheep, farmers, consumers and the overall fashion industry.

A re-imagined industry

Wool has been a core part of the fashion industry for thousands of years and while there are alternatives gaining traction in the market, wool remains a popular material. 

While the sector does have some undisputable problems and can never be an animal-free industry, the wool industry can become kinder. Through stricter government regulations, changing practices and championing second-hand and recycled products, wool can be a product that keeps us warm for years to come.

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