Who doesn’t love a cozy, warm sweater with a hot cup of vegan chocolate or tea in the winter? Or a snazzy hat on a cold day?
Feeling warm and looking stylish is something we all crave, and wool is a product that keeps us happy and warm. We love wool coats and sweaters and, of course, to be in fashion.
But as vegans, should we wear wool?
Read also: Vegan Wool Alternatives
What Is Wool?
Wool is a natural fiber derived from the hairs of sheep, alpacas, goats, and rabbits. Wool is used for creating clothing, accessories, and a variety of home goods such as furniture, a bedspread, and carpeting. Wool is also found in cosmetics and construction.
Wool has been used by humans since the agricultural revolution when sheep were domesticated. Now, over ten thousand years later, wool is still being produced.
Durability, fire and odor resistance, breathability, and moisture absorbance are great advantages to wool products. In addition, wool biodegrades easily, is recyclable, and when wet, keeps us warm in brutal winters and cool in hot summers.
Is Wool Vegan?
The short answer is no. Wool is not vegan. Vegans do not wear wool since the material involves animal exploitation and often abuse. At best, wool can be considered a vegetarian material since obtaining wool does not cause the animal to be killed – at least not directly.
As vegans, our goal is to reduce or eliminate animal exploitation and abuse. We want to buy products, whether fashion or food, that were ethically sourced and manufactured. Our vegan values influence our purchasing dollars. This means we need to explore the practices involved with the manufacturing of wool to make informed decisions as consumers.
Is Wool Ethical?
While the sheep are not killed for wool, the wool industry is hardly ethical. Global wool production is valued at 7.6 billion dollars per year, and unfortunately, it involves the exploitation and abuse of animals. There are several problems with the industry’s practices that make wool not vegan.
Large factory sheep farming is the norm in the wool industry. Since these large systematic operations exist to make a profit, they must keep production high, so the more sheep they process, the more money they make. Sheep live in crowded conditions and many die from starvation, infection, illness, or injury. Millions of sheep are abused each year.
Over 1.7 million sheep per year are exported in shipping containers from Australia to other countries. The conditions inside these shipping vessels are nothing less than barbaric. Sheep are transported in crowded and dirty spaces with all kinds of weather extremes for days or weeks without reprieve. Some become ill or die on route. All suffer.
Mulesing is a common practice that occurs on sheep farms. A portion of the sheep’s skin is removed near their rear ends with a knife or sharp sheers to prevent infectious insects from burrowing deep into the sheep’s wool and causing infections. During this process, especially on large farms, sheep are restrained and skin strips are removed without anesthesia, causing extreme pain.
Another practice that causes severe pain to sheep is tail docking. This involves the removal of portions of the tail within weeks after birth without anesthesia. This is very painful for the animal since their tails are composed of nerves, blood vessels, and bone. This is standard practice in factory farming of animals exploited for wool, cashmere, or alpaca.
Sounds horrible, right?
In addition to the above, it is common for ewes to develop mastitis from overbreeding and stress on their udders. Mastitis is the inflammation of the mammary gland or the udder caused by stress or physical injury to the area. The constant breeding and milking of sheep cause this disease, and the sheep live in constant pain.
Small Vs Large Sheep Farms
All of these practices are part of large-scale farming methods, but you might be wondering if small farms where sheep frolic in the meadow in bliss exist, and if these farms are ethical. Yes, small farms exist, but are animals on these farms treated better? Painful practices like mulesing and tail docking still occur. Similar to large factory farms, sheep and their byproducts are also sold for mutton, lamb, milk products, and lanolin oil.
Large and small farms exist in several countries. China, the country with the largest number of sheep, and Australia, the largest producer, and exporter of wool rely on both large and small farming operations. Other countries like the United States import cheese from sheep and goats such as Feta, Ricotta, Manchego, and Roquefort from European countries. Supporting small or large farms contributes to animal exploitation.
These practices are not vegan. Living a vegan lifestyle involves doing the least amount of harm possible to animals. It means not using them as commodities or food products, enslaving them, or harming them. Indeed, based on how sheep are treated, wool is not vegan.
Is Wool Environmentally Friendly?
Similar to other industries where animals are raised for profit, wool production has a negative environmental impact. The farming of animals and the processing of wool produces greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Wastewater from these farms pollutes rivers, streams, and land.
The wool industry also wreaks havoc on ecosystems and contributes to land erosion with some regions already experiencing desertification, when land becomes like a desert because of drought, deforestation, or damaging agriculture. Other animals such as coyotes are threats to sheep, and millions are killed yearly by farmers trying to keep their sheep from attacks.
Wool production also requires the use of our most precious commodity: water. It takes over 10 thousand liters of water to produce 1 kg of sheep meat and 500,000 liters of water to manufacture a metric ton of wool. These practices are unsustainable.
What About Ethical Or Vegan-Friendly Wool?
Vegan-friendly wool is another caveat to consider.
Many companies claim to follow ethical manufacturing techniques, sustainability, low environmental impact, and animal welfare, but their practices are questionable. For example, ZQ Merino, a company that claims to produce the world’s leading ethical wool, according to their website, has a goal of “improving farming systems and product manufacturing to a level that’s sustainable for animals and the planet.”
In addition, companies claim to source from farms that comply with RWS (Responsible Wool Standard). This standard protects animal welfare, helps to preserve land health, and protects social welfare. It also makes sure farms are more “progressive” in their practices, meaning their sheep or goats are not abused like the cruelty found on large factory farms. The RWS certification ensures farms comply with high standards, however, it still allows for the continuous slaughter of sheep and other animals for profit, even in “free-range” farms.
An investigation by PETA found that Patagonia, a popular clothing company following the guidelines of RWS, sourced wool from a farm that abused animals with mulesing and tail docking practices. Patagonia broke ties with this farm in response. The abuse continues to occur frequently on farms, even if they claim industry-standard compliance or are certified by overseeing bodies for animal welfare.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to find trustworthy suppliers in the entire production chain, so animal welfare practices for companies claiming to manufacture or sell “ethical wool” are to be taken with a grain of salt. Toad&Co, according to their website, sells “vegan” clothing. However, they source Merino wool, whose goal is to improve (not eliminate) the farming of sheep. This goal, although more sustainable, is not vegan.
The bottom line is that ethical wool continues the exploitation of animals, and it is not vegan by any means.
Can Vegans Wear Recycled Wool?
So you might be asking, “What about recycled wool? Is that vegan?”
According to the IWTO, the International Wool Textile Organization, there are three main processes used today to recycle wool:
- Closed-Loop System. A mechanical process that returns garments to their raw fiber state and turns that fiber into yarn again.
- Open Loop System. Wool from a previous product, like a sweater, becomes the basis for a new industrial product such as insulation or mattress padding.
- Re-engineering. The recycling of old or unsold items into new products, such as making a bag from an old wool jacket or using production waste such as trimmings to make other items.
All of these practices are sustainable because they reduce waste in landfills, do not use harmful chemicals or dyes, reduce toxic wastewater, reduce land use, and avoid new wool production and exploitation of animals. But, are they vegan?
Surely buying recycled wool is a more environmentally friendly choice than buying wool manufactured from sheep. However, where did the original wool come from?
Even though recycled wool is better for the environment, it is not vegan. As explained earlier, the wool industry abuses sheep, alpacas, goats, and rabbits not only for their wool, cashmere, or angora, but also for their milk, meat, and oil. Animals were originally made into commodities. If sheep and other animals were not exploited for their wool in the first place, the need for the recycling of wool would not exist.
Many companies manufacture and sell recycled wool and claim the highest ethics. For example, Organic Basics, a company that prides itself on its ethically made and sustainable textiles, sells recycled wool. Again, these practices absolutely have a low environmental impact, but because they are recycling wool, and in this case, cashmere too, they are not vegan.
Surely going with a vegan wool alternative company that does not use recycled wool or unethical practices in any part of their production is best for sheep and other animals.
Vegan Wool Alternatives
If you want to avoid wool, know that there are many vegan wool fabrics available (and more coming) to keep you warm in the fall or winter. Some of the more sustainable and ethical alternatives to wool include cotton and hemp.
Due to the exploitation of animals in wool production, wool is not vegan. It is also damaging to our planet and unsustainable.
Most ethical companies surely reduce environmental damage, but they don’t always increase welfare for animals, nor are they vegan. It is easy to find vegan-friendly clothing options, but it’s best to examine a company’s practices before you replenish your closet. Find out where and how they source their ingredients or from whom they buy their products.
The animals will thank you!