If you’re someone who cares about animals, you’ve probably wondered if ethical wool exists. What is ethical wool? It’s wool that’s been humanely removed from sheep (and other animals). It’s cruelty-free wool. It’s also wool that’s been sourced from fair trade sources (where not just the animals, but humans are also treated fairly). Does ethical wool exist? Yes! Read on.
- Can Wool Be Ethical?
- What is Ethically Sourced Wool?
- Ethical Wool Certifications
- Types of Ethical Wool
- Ethical Wool Brands for Clothing
- Ethical Alternatives to Wool
- The Most Cost-Effective Option for Ethical Woollen Sweaters
- Where to Buy Ethical Wool Yarn for Knitting?
Can Wool Be Ethical?
Wool is eco-friendly and has been worn by humans for at least 10,000 years, just like biodegradable leather. It’s a very versatile fabric, providing warmth and comfort much before we invented alternate types of fabrics. But is it ethical to wear wool? To continue to wear wool when there are alternatives?
We know that wool is sustainable, because it is natural. It is biodegradable, renewable and very eco-friendly in its pure form. The material checks all the boxes in terms of environmental friendliness. Sheep raised sustainably can even improve the health of the soil while increasing biodiversity.
Shearing can also be done gently and comfortably. Check out how Farm Sanctuary shears their rescued sheep (although they do not use the wool for clothing; they instead “return it back to nature” as compost!).
The problem comes when unsustainable practices, coupled with animal cruelty, enter the picture. Large-scale grazing results in large-scale deforestation and environmental degradation, making the process unsustainable even if the end product is eco-friendly. Similarly, large, for-profit businesses often do not consider the health or wellbeing of the animals, leading to cruelty, torture and pain for the animals. So, for sheep, yaks, goats, bison, it can become quite a horror story.
In Australia, mulesing is a common shearing practice. Mulesing is an extremely painful procedure where sheep are forced down on their backs and chunks of skin are carved off their rear flank. The procedure is done to prevent flies from laying eggs in the back areas of the sheep and subsequent infection, but in reality, the sheep are left scarred, frightened and in pain. In these situations, animals are often kicked, beaten, and have their limbs broken. They go on to die painful deaths after repeatedly undergoing this procedure.
And, the thing is, Australia supplies about half of the world’s wool.
Given all this information, is it ethical to wear wool? Well, no. And here’s where ethically sourced wool comes in.
What is Ethically Sourced Wool?
Believe it or not, sheep can be shorn with complete care for their health and wellbeing. Small-scale sheep farmers have been doing it for centuries. It’s mostly the large-scale animal farming industry that resulted in demand for fast, cheap work, with the animals suffering the most as a result.
Here’s a question that many of us have: do sheep have to be shorn? Well, domestic sheep have been specifically bred by us to produce excess wool, and these sheep have to be shorn regularly because otherwise they would face safety and health issues due to an overgrown coat. Wild sheep, on the other hand, will grow their coarse coats for winter and then naturally shed them when they no longer need the warmth.
So, if a farmer is rearing domestic sheep for wool, then he will need to shear it regularly. Now, how he shears it is the next question.
Commercial Shearing and Ethical Wool Production
Commercial shearing is, as you can imagine, a for-profit exercise, where shearers are paid by the sheep. So, in the interest of speed, the sheep go through a frightening and traumatic experience that often gets violent and cruel. Ruthless practices include mutilations, tail docking and mulesing (which is the slicing of skin from the sheep’s backside), and are extremely painful to the sheep. This goes on for several years for the sheep, and once they grow old and stop producing “good” wool, they are slaughtered and used for meat.
Fortunately, with growing awareness of the animal cruelty, there are several ethically sourced wool options. New Zealand leads the world in ethical wool production. Their Animal Welfare Act prohibits mulesing and their free range, grass-fed sheep are raised and treated with great care.
Does this mean you have to source your wool from New Zealand? No! Look out for local artisanal wool-processing facilities near your place – you’re sure to find one. At such facilities, sheep are sheared only when their thick coats get too heavy, and shearing is done by hand, gently and as slowly as the animal is comfortable with.
You can buy fair trade rugs made of ethical wool, ethical socks, fair trade sweaters, and cruelty-free blankets and throws – all without any harm caused to the sheep.
Thanks to this aforementioned growing awareness, several brands have also changed their sourcing strategy by raising their own sheep or buying from sources that have been third-party certified. This way, they can control how well the sheep are treated, and also provide that guarantee to their discerning customers. But what certifications exist for wool?
Ethical Wool Certifications
These third parties certify that a specific source of wool is from sheep raised well, in a way that’s optimal for their well-being and that of the environment. It’s ideal to buy wool that’s been certified by any one of these parties:
Certified Organic Wool
Climate Beneficial by Fibershed
Certified Animal Welfare Approved
Responsible Wool Standard (RWS)
Certified Humane® Label
Soil Association Organic Standards
ZQ Merino Standard
Types of Ethical Wool
Make sure the wool is harvested through gentle hand-combing (no machines!), and sourced from herders who follow stringent animal welfare policy guidelines, including adhering to the Farm Animal Welfare Committee’s Five Freedoms, among others.
Most merino wool is sourced from New Zealand, which makes it quite safe to consider as ethical. Look for certifications such as the ZQ Merino Standard, and the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS).
Angora is plucked from rabbits. Plucked. Also, the majority of the world’s angora comes from China, which, thanks to its nebulous animal rights laws, are not advisable to buy. Ethical angora wool involves waiting for the rabbit’s fur to naturally fall off (which happens every four months or so), so there’s no harm caused to the animal. However, there is no angora-specific certification, so, aside from taking the brand’s word for it, you have no way to determine if the angora has been ethically derived.
Cashmere has been tied to environmental degradation in Mongolia, along with news about underpaid and exploited workers. Ethical cashmere requires some research and due diligence before buying, and the best certifications to look for are the Good Cashmere Standard ® (GCS), Sustainable Fibre Alliance (SFA), Kering Standard on Cashmere, and Cashmere Standard.
Recycled cashmere is also a good option, but to separate the wheat from the chaff, look for Recycled Claim Standard; The Global Recycled Standard, Re.VerSo certifications.
Ethical Wool Brands for Clothing
Fjallraven uses recycled Italian wool, apart from raising sheep of their own, in order to guarantee the ethical sourcing of their wool.
Patagonia, Seasalt and prAna use wool only from sheep that have not undergone mulesing.
Brands such as Everlane only use alpaca wool that has been harvested through cruelty-free and eco-friendly processes.
Brands such as Stella McCartney and ADAY only use recycled cashmere.
This post on fair trade sweaters list many more brands that use ethical wool in their clothing items.
Ethical Alternatives to Wool
Many of you reading this may still be uncomfortable with using wool. So what if it can be done sustainably, the animal is still being used for its body parts. While that is true, the good news is that you can consider several other materials that do not use animal products. Lyocell (aka Tencel) is one option. Organic hemp, cotton and bamboo are also great choices.
Woolyester, a knitted polyester made by Patagonia, is something you can look into, along with the PETA-approved Woocoa (a biofabricated wool made from hemp and coconut fibre and oyster mushroom).
But you know what the best (and cheapest) option may be?
The Most Cost-Effective Option for Ethical Woollen Sweaters
Buy second-hand. You can browse through numerous online and brick-and-mortar stores for used woollen outfits, pay a fraction of the cost for them, and keep them from ending up in the landfill. All this, and you get a sweet knitted item for yourself. How is this ethical, you ask? Well, regardless of what type of wool this secondhand sweater was made with, preventing it from going to waste is a pretty ethical thing to do! You’re reducing waste and extending the lifetime of an existing clothing item. Circular fashion FTW!
If you’re a knitter on a tight budget, buy secondhand knitted items and unravel them for fresh wool yarn! How smart is that (at a fraction of the price!).
Where to Buy Ethical Wool Yarn for Knitting?
If you’re a knitter, you’re in quite a dilemma about using popular wool yarn (was it ethically made? How are the sheep treated? Etc etc). Don’t worry – there are many high-quality, ethical wool yarn companies out there. The next time you want to purchase some gorgeous wool yarn, check out these brands:
1 // Ethical Wool Yarn on Etsy (Support small businesses)
2 // Darn Good Yarn
3 // Echoview Fiber Mill
4 // Loopy Mango
5 // Malabrigo
6 // Manos del Uruguay
7 // Purl Soho
8 // We Are Knitters
9 // Wool and the Gang
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NOTE: All brand photographs belong to the respective brands/businesses.
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