As a vegan, wool is one of the materials I have been avoiding, as it comes from an animal. But, if I’m being honest I had never really looked into the ethical issues with wool. I just thought it was something I was meant to avoid. However, since I got involved with the ethical fashion community, I see it promoted as a sustainable alternative to synthetic materials. So, I wanted to do a little research into whether it actually is an ethical material.
What I’ve found is that there is no simple answer. It is true that wool is a much more sustainable and environmentally friendly material than synthetic alternatives such as polyester. Wool is biodegradable. But I did wonder how likely it is that it will biodegrade when in landfill. As I highlighted in this post, even perfectly biodegradable foods don’t decompose in landfill sometimes. Intensive farming of animals, sheep in this case, also uses up a lot of land and resources. Nevertheless, wool is still a more sustainable material than its non-animal sourced alternatives, which are usually made of crude oil.
So wool is better for the environment, but what about in terms of animal ethics? Well, it really depends on the source. Sheep have been genetically modified so much that at this point most need shearing. Otherwise the wool just keeps growing and growing, which is uncomfortable for the sheep. See this article about a sheep whose wool was seriously overgrown. And shearing the wool is not an inherently painful experience for the sheep either. Because of those reasons I would argue that wool can be obtained ethically.
However just because it can be obtained ethically, doesn’t mean it always is. The truth is that most wool farms exist to make profit. When profit is involved often it means that ethics are not of a high importance. The practice of mulesing sheep is one of the biggest ethical issues for wool. Mulesing is when a patch of skin from the sheep’s ‘buttock area’ is removed (without anaesthetic) in order to stop flystrike, which is when fly’s lay eggs on the sheep and feed on their tissue. It is extremely common and undoubtedly cruel to the sheep. As this article from Good on You notes, flystrike can be avoided without mulesing, however it requires careful surveillance which is just not possible on large industrial farms.
Sadly, wool often involves cruelty. But not all of it does. There are some certifications that you can look out for if you would like to buy wool. As highlighted by Good on You, there are the certifications to look out for:
And of course, second hand wool is a great option as you can be absolutely sure that your purchase won’t cause any harm. All in all, I don’t think wool is always bad, but it often is. If you are interested in buying wool I would recommend being very careful about where it came from and checking for the certifications I listed above. But of course, just be mindful of whether you need to make the purchase or not before you go ahead and buy!