Ethical Wool? Pulling at the Thread of an Unethical Industry

ethical wool

Updated 15 June 2016

Wool. It’s the perfect antidote to the freezing weather that’s been blasted across much of Australia this winter. But with complex supply chains, it’s hard to know how the sheep that provided the wool were treated.

Benefits of wearing wool

Wool is a great renewable resource with plenty of benefits:

  1. Wool is biodegradable – unlike synthetic materials, wool will decompose. Once a woollen garment has been worn out, you can literally just bury it in the ground and it’ll release its natural nutrients back into the ground.  Though really this would be your last resort for clothing you no longer wear–best to upcycle, sell second hand, give to a friend or swap through a clothing swap!
  2. Wool is a breathable and a natural insulator
  3. Wool has a unique ability to react to changes in the body’s temperature, meaning it keeps you cool in summer and warm in winter.
  4. Wool is easy to care for, and is pretty much resistant to staining!

But like all mass-produced natural fabrics, there’s ethical considerations to take into account before you rid your wardrobe of everything bar quality merino.


In Australia the wool industry has a high standard of animal welfare, with sheep that produce quality wool oily with lanolin. Lanolin is a grease produced by sheep to help maintain and protect its fleece. Lanolin is harvested for its own properties and is a great moisturiser.

Unfortunately, despite high industry standards for merino sheep, there is controversy over the practice of mulesing the sheep. Mulesing is done to reduce flystrike.  Flystrike happens when blowfly eggs laid on the skin hatch, and the larvae feed on the sheep’s tissue. It can cause inflammation, toxaemia and even death. It also decreases the quality of the wool produced. Mulesing involves cutting skin from the buttock region, and this is generally done without anaesthetic.

Flystrike can be avoided without mulesing with regular surveillance and increased use of insecticides.  However, the sheer size of Australian farms and low labour levels mean that it is difficult to ensure that all sheep receive this level of care and attention.

Many clothing companies have pledged not to use wool from sheep that have undergone this procedure.

The Good On You ratings reward brands that endeavour to avoid wool from mulesed sheep in the animal protection part of our ratings. Here are a few examples.


Discover new ethical brands with the Good On You app!


Gorman GoY-Ratings_3 is an Australian brand committed to using non-mulesed wool in their Merino knitwear.

gorman wool dress

Uniqlo GoY-Ratings_4 and has also pledged to phase out buying wool from mulesed sheep.


Even fast fashion heavyweight H&M GoY-Ratings_3has committed to ensuring that its wool is sourced from farmers who do not practice mulesing.



Wool is a naturally produced, biodegradable and renewable fibre. It’s a great alternative to synthetic fabrics like nylon and polyester, which are of a similar compound make up to plastic.  This means that like plastic, these fabrics often end up in landfill and take years to break down.

Synthetic fabrics are also energy intensive to produce. Many common synthetic fabrics are by-products of petroleum.  Manufacturing involves large amounts of crude oil, and releases emissions into the atmosphere that contribute to global warming and affect human health.

On the other hand, intensive sheep farming uses methods that harm the environment.

Industrial size livestock grazing can also increase land clearing and degradation. There are holistic land management methods of grazing like animals being grazed in smaller paddocks for shorter periods of time, allowing the paddock to be in recovery for most of the time.  Unfortunately these practices are not widespread in Australia but they are gaining popularity and support.


In recent days both Patagonia and Stella McCartney have discovered animal cruelty practices in what they believed to have been ethical farms. The controversy has shocked both companies who stand firm on their ethical supply chains, and they are taking action to respond.  While it’s not an excuse, it’s a reminder of just how complex supply chains are.


imogen headshot

Imogen is a full time Social Research and Policy Student at UNSW. She likes brown paper packages tied up with string and wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings. She hopes to one day work in public policy surrounding climate change and sustainability.


Images sourced from:

Feature Image: Flickr

Dress: Gorman

Wool cardigan: H&M

Merino wool cardigan: Uniqlo


Imogen Williams

Author Imogen Williams

Imogen is a full time Social Research and Policy Student at UNSW. She likes brown paper packages tied up with string and wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings. She hopes to one day work in public policy surrounding climate change and sustainability.

More posts by Imogen Williams

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • GG says:

    This is greatly appreciated. I had no idea about mulesed. I wonder if you know of any wool producers in Australia who do not use this method? I have a hand knitting business and its imperative that we use the most ethically sourced wool possible.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.