Does Sustainable Wool Actually Exist?

sustainable wool

As the beginning of fall is already amongst us, I can’t help but crave everything fall-esque: pumpkin spiced lattes, chilly air… and of course wool sweaters! 

As I was pulling out my transitional fall pieces, as part of my slow fashion closet, I started to consider the sustainability of my favourite fall sweaters.

All of them have been purchased secondhand, but I wondered what the environmental and ethical impacts of wool are if I were to invest in something new. 

Wool, which is a textile made from animal fleece, can actually come from a variety of animals, not just sheep such as: goats, alpacas, llamas, alpacas, rabbits, camels  and more.

What's Good About Wool?

Wool is biodegradable. 

One of the major benefits of wool is that it is biodegradable.

This means that at the end of your wool garment’s life, it will return to the earth with little to no harmful environmental impact.

Note: this is conditional on the fabric dyes used in the manufacturing process.

As long as those are made from natural materials, the wool will biodegrade; however, wool garments containing toxic dyes, will release those chemicals into the earth upon degradation.

I’ll explain more below about what certifications to look for to ensure the garment is not made with hazardous dyes.

Wool has natural sweat-wicking properties. 

Wool absorbs and traps your sweat, then releases it completely when washed.

This means that unlike your polyester workout gear which still smells even after it’s washed,  wool doesn’t retain any smell post-wash. 

Wool is an easily recyclable and reusable fibre.

Wool is durable and strong. 

Wool’s durability is a huge plus when searching for textile types to incorporate into a slow fashion closet, since this means your wool garments will last longer and will need to be washed less. 

The Ethical Issues of Wool

While the seemingly magic properties of wool are pretty incredible, the treatment of animals from which wool is garnered, raises serious concerns. 

One practice you may or may not be familiar with is mulesing. 

Mulesing is the painful process of cutting the rear skin of merino sheep, without anesthetization, to prevent flies from laying their larvae on the sheep which can lead to infections and even death. 

Additional ethical concerns are raised surrounding sheep shearing. 

Wild sheep naturally shed their coats; however, domestic sheep have been bred to produce more and more wool.

According to  Business Insider, sheep can produce between 10-40 pounds of wool yearly!

Without shearing, sheep can overheat and die. 

Additional Concerns About Wool

Apart from ethical issues, due to the rise in popularity of wool items, flock sizes have increased which leads to overgrazing and eventually, desertification of grasslands. 

Additionally, increased number of sheep in flocks means more methane gas being released into the environment.

Wool production also indirectly affects wildlife in surrounding areas since overgrazing and desertification can lead to displacement. 

Can Wool Be Sustainable?

While wool itself is a sustainable material, the practices surrounding obtaining wool are what can be unsustainable and unethical. 

Sheep raised with regenerative farming practices can actually be sustainable since its climate positive. 

But what about the ethical issues of wool? 

Thankfully, more countries are supporting mulesing bans, like New Zealand which leads the world in ethical wool production. 

Types of Wool

Like anything else, differing types of wool range as to how sustainable/ ethical they are. 

Here’s the lowdown of how sustainable common types of wool are and how they compare to each other: 

Merino Wool

Merino wool can be sourced sustainably and mulesing- free from New Zealand. 

It’s also easy to care for since it is naturally antibacterial which prevents odours and is stain resistant. 

Cashmere

Made from goat hair, cashmere is similar to merino wool in that it is biodegradable.

Unfortunately, also like merino wool, areas such as Central Asia and Mongolia, where a specific type of goat is raised for cashmere production, are increasingly turning into deserts.

This is due to the increasing accessibility of cashmere products (now sold by fast fashion retailers), which in turn, forces farmers to increase herd sizes, causing overgrazing, desertification, decreased quality and it puts farmers in a precarious position as prices drop.

Alpaca

Reigning from Peru, alpacas produce a fibre that’s softness is comparable to that of cashmere while being more durable. 

What’s great about alpaca wool is that alpacas require less water and are also more kinder to the their surrounding Andean highland environment compared to goats and sheep. 

In terms of longevity, alpaca shares similar properties to merino wool in that it is naturally odour resistant and durable. 

Angora 

Angora fur comes from a specific type of rabbit.  

Due to the small size of the rabbit, shearing is time-consuming and difficult which has lead large-scale commercial producers to pluck- yes, pluck- hairs from the rabbits. 

Small-scale producers often use a different approach which is to brush  or clip rabbit hair which is painless for the animal. 

While there are ethical producers of Angora fur,  verifying where the Angora is sourced from is an issue. 

What to Consider to Make a Sustainable Wool Purchase

Based on my sustainability criteria, here are three areas to consider when purchasing a wool product. 

Material

Regardless of which type of wool you opt for, choosing products made from recycled wool is the best option. 

If purchasing merino wool, ensure the product is made in New Zealand or the USA and has a ‘mulesing- free’ label

Certifications 

To verify that merino wool has been sustainably and ethically sourced, look for: ZQ Merino Standard, Soil Association Organic Standards.

To verify that cashmere wool has been sustainable and ethically sourced, look for: Good Cashmere Standard, Sustainable Fibre Alliance, Kering Standard on Cashmere

If the product is made with recycled wool, look for: Recycled Claim Standard (RCS), Global Recycled Standard (GRS). 

Regardless of the wool type, look out for these certifications: Responsible Wool Standard (RWS), Certified Organic Wool, Certified Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane Label, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS).

Packaging

Opt for brands that use recyclable/ compostable/ biodegradable packaging as well as carbon neutral shipping methods. 

If paper packaging is used, look for a Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) certification. 

Brands Using Sustainable Wool

Here are a few great brands that use sustainable wool to check out: 

sustainable wool
Filippa K, Juliana Sweater
sustainable wool
Untouched World, Ecopossum Coat Cardi
sustainable wool
Tempest & Bentley, Mt. Tam Croppy Crewneck

How to Sustainably Care For Your Wool Pieces

Below are general tips to sustainably care for your wool clothing; however, be sure to check the garment’s label for specific care instructions. 

  1. Gently spot treat when possible. 
  2. For a deep clean, hand wash with cool water and a mild soap, letting it soak for 30 minutes, rinsing and pressing water out of the item, then let dry on a towel to retain it’s shape. 
  3. To store, fold sweaters and malleable items to prevent stretching, hang solid wool pieces (ie. blazers) on a structured hanger. 
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The Main Takeaways

While there are plenty of unethical and unsustainable wool garments out there, with the increase in consumer demand for ethical pieces, the wool industry is slowly but surely making the shift to more sustainable practices. 

When opting for wool pieces, choose secondhand first and foremost and/or support brands that use recycled wool to make their garments. 

Keep your eye out for the ‘mulesing-free’ designation to ensure the wool was garnered ethically 

Prioritize garment care by washing less and following the washing/ drying care instructions noted above to ensure your investment in wool products stands the test of time. 

Until next time,

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