The Ugly Truth Behind Your Wooly Jumper
Is wool the sustainable, guilt-free material we think of it as?
Wool refers to a textile made from a sheep’s shorn fleece (or goats, in some cases). The fleece is cleaned, spun, and woven — at which point patterns or dyes can also be added. Sheep ‘require’ (read on to find out why that’s in inverted commas) shearing once a year in the spring, so wool is often seen as a natural, renewable source of fiber, and therefore one of the most sustainable clothing materials. But is that really accurate? Let’s take a closer look.
Is wool really a sustainable material?
Wool is largely seen as sustainable because it’s a natural and biodegradable material, coming directly from an animal.
This can be true, but a large number of woollen clothes sold commercially have been treated with chemical dyes for colouring or finishing the material. These chemicals are then released into the environment when the item is washed, or at its end of life as it biodegrades. The process of commercial dyeing also produces toxic waste, often ending up in rivers in developing countries where there is minimal regulation.
Plus, sheep may be seen as a part of our natural world, but that isn’t strictly true. As soon as animals are commercialised, be that for their flesh, skin, fur, or fleece, they cease to be part of the natural order. We have more sheep on our land than would naturally exist without human intervention, and that’s because we’ve learnt to profit from them. Having an excessive amount of sheep is a problem. We tend to associate methane with cows, and though cows are the worst offender, sheep also emit methane. Methane, of course, is a greenhouse gas which is directly contributing to climate change.
What about how the sheep are treated?
The commercialisation of sheep that’s causing excess methane to be released into our atmosphere also comes at the detriment of the sheep themselves. We have more sheep on the planet than would naturally arise without humans, and these sheep have also been bred in such a way as to benefit us.
Naturally sheep don’t need shearing. They are able to maintain their fleeces themselves as much of the rest of the animal kingdom do, growing extra during the winter and shedding this as the weather grows warmer in the springtime. But we humans decided this simply wasn’t good enough.
Once we realised that we could take their fleece and turn it into wool which we could use to make clothes for ourselves and to sell to others, we wanted more. So we bred sheep that would just keep growing their fleece, meaning that without it being shorn regularly it would become thick and heavy. Not only is this uncomfortable for the sheep, but it can also result in death by heat exhaustion during the summer months.
Let’s take Merino wool, for example. Merino wool is commonly used in the fashion industry, producing a fine and soft wool. Merino sheep were domesticated in New Zealand and Australia, and have been specifically bred not to shed their fleece themselves. You can see from the photograph below how quickly and thickly their fleece grows. Still think wool is natural?
As if that wasn’t enough, most commercial sheep farmers also use incredibly invasive procedures to gather wool. If done correctly, shearing a sheep should not cause any pain or issues for the sheep, and there will be farmers out there who uphold this but they’re firmly in the minority, and if you’re buying cheap woollen items from high street fashion shops you can be pretty sure it’s been invasively sourced.
Shearers are usually low-paid workers, paid by the volume of wool that they create rather than by the hour. This encourages workers to work quickly and carelessly, with little regard for the welfare of the animal.
Shearing often leaves sheep with large, bloody wounds. It’s not rare for sheeps to need stitches after shearing — which is done with needle and thread with no pain relief. Even if they aren’t physically harmed, they’re forcibly held down whilst loud clippers are put to their skin. It’s an incredibly stressful experience. Some sheep even die during shearing, thought to be from the sheer shock.
It’s a numbers game. If a few sheep die along the way it doesn’t matter, as long as the majority continue growing wool and it can be collected quickly.
And it’s not just the shearing. Other invasive procedures that take place in the wool industry include:
- Ear tagging, notching, or tattooing for identification.
- Removing horns for ‘human safety’— done either by using a caustic paste or hot iron to literally burn the horn/bud of the horn and stop it growing (often done when the animal is very young).
- Tail docking (i.e. shortening the tail) to reduce the risk of fly strike (wool maggots) — done by tying a band around the tail to cut blood supply until it falls off, or by using a docking iron to cut the tail.
- Castration (i.e. chopping off testicles) to prevent breeding.
- Mulesing to reduce the risk of fly strike (wool maggots). This is where wool-bearing skin is removed from the sheep’s rear, so that when the skin grows back as scar tissue it cannot grow wool.
- High stocking densities — just like with factory farms, when profit is an incentive we see animals packed into small living quarters, causing restricted movement and health issues, and that’s true for wool-bearing sheep too.
In many countries, including Australia where much wool comes from, painkillers or anaesthesia are not required during any of these procedures.
The industry claims that the procedures to prevent fly strike (tail docking and mulesing) are necessary to prevent bad health in the sheep. Yet, fly strike is only an issue because we have bred sheep to have excess wool which grows rapidly. We caused the issue, and now we inflict incredibly cruel ‘treatment’ to prevent additional problems stemming from the issue we caused.
I’m not including photos of any of these procedures because they’re simply shocking and sickening — all you need to do is head to google and you’ll find them yourself. PETA has even released video exposés recorded at nearly 100 facilities on four continents showing what truly happens on so-called ‘responsibly-sourced’ wool farms.
What can we do?
If you’re buying woollen items and you care about sustainability and animal welfare, you need to be sure that the farmers who produced the wool were doing so ethically, and not in an intensive and mass-produced manner.
Make sure you do the research on the brand you’re buying from before you commit. A couple of recommendations are:
- Finisterre, who use Merino wool from non-mulesed sheep in New Zealand, guaranteed the freedom from thirst, hunger, cold, illness, and manhandling.
- People Tree, who source wool from New Zealand from animal-welfare farms and merino from non-mulesed animals.
By far the most sustainable way to buy wool (and clothes generally) is to buy second hand. The damage is already done, plus you’re keeping the product in circulation — meaning one less jumper’s worth of wool needs to be produced, and that jumper is kept out of landfill.
You could also look into materials which are thought to be more sustainable, such as Tencel, organic and/or recycled cotton, organic hemp, organic linen, and more.