Material Guide: How Ethical Is Wool?

When it’s cold outside, wool provides warmth and comfort. But with complex supply chains, how can we know that the animals that provide us with wool are treated well.  We ask, how ethical is wool?

A few years ago, ethical outdoor clothing company Patagonia  discovered animal cruelty practices in what they had believed were ethical farms. The controversy shocked the company which stands firm on its ethical supply chain, and has been taking action to respond by launching its own wool sourcing standards. While it’s not an excuse, it’s a reminder of just how complex supply chains are.

Why do we wear wool?

Wool is a great renewable resource with plenty of benefits:

  • 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 will eventually compost.
  • Wool is a breathable and a natural insulator
  • 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.
  • 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.


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Impact on animals

In Australia for example, the wool industry has a high standard of animal welfare, with sheep that produce quality wool, high in lanolin. Lanolin is a grease produced by sheep to help maintain and protect its fleece. It 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 infection 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, such Finisterre .

Impact on the planet

Wool is a naturally produced, biodegradable and renewable fibre. It’s a great alternative to synthetic fabrics like nylon and polyester, which are forms of 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 but they are gaining popularity and support.

How to buy ethical wool

When buying wool, look for standards and certifications that ensure the fair treatment of animals and the respect of the environment, such as the Responsible Wool Standard, ZQ Merino Standard and the Soil Association Organic Standards.

You can look out for clothing made from recycled wool, and of course buying pre-loved or vintage wool items ensures the garment gets a longer useful life.  The Good On You ratings reward brands that endeavour to avoid wool from mulesed sheep and use recycled wool, like Hopaal  or no animal products at all, like Vege Threads .


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Editor’s note: this article was updated in August 2018. Featured image by Sean Thoman on Unsplash. All other images via brands mentioned.

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.

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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.

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