Wool is a “rich” material, for most of us, there is nothing more comfortable than a knitted wool pullover. And sometimes it feels that wearing cosy wool is the only good thing about the temperatures dropping. Most brands who are selling wool pullovers have some amazing marketing with green fields and happy furry sheep. But are the sheep really happy? What is the process behind a wool pullover? And how is the impact on the environment?
So let’s start with, what is wool actually?
Traditional wool is from sheep, you could kind of say it is their fur that is shaved and woven into the fabric. The fur is made from a protein called keratin which is also found in human hair. Wool is an organic fibre that is fully biodegradable and because sheep grow a new fleece each year it is accounted for as 100% renewable.
What makes wool so popular?
As it is a natural protection of the animal body, it has various benefits also for its wearer which makes wool items such as pullovers but also activewear a very attractive option.
It balances the hot and cold of body temperature and is even “stain-resistant”, the wool-fibres have a natural protective outer layer that helps prevent stains from being absorbed. It also is less static and attracts less dust and lint.
And one of the best things about wool is that it naturally works to hide odours, and it has a natural antibacterial function so it is not required to wash it too often.
Which countries are farming wool sheep?
The biggest wool producers are China, Australia and New Zealand. Furthermore, the UK, Iran, Russia and South Africa are having a quite big production of wool.
How big is the wool industry?
A lot of “wool pullovers” on the market have been replaced in the past years by cheaper synthetic fibres, faking the look of wool. Now only 1% of all fibres used in the garment production are wool.
The global production is valued at around 7.6 billion USD per year. Currently, the wool industry produces around 1.160 million kg of wool per year from a heard of around 1.16 billion sheep. This sounds still a lot, but if on average one sheep makes wool for approx. 6 sweaters, it would be just under one sweater per person per year for the entire global population.
How is the wool produced?
Sheep are sheared once per year in spring (unlike other animals, most sheep are unable to shed themselves), and the wool sheep as we know them are dependent for this on their farmer. We have added you a video that describes the whole process from the sheep to the knitwear:
So wool products are nice to wear for us, but what about the animal rights of the sheep?
Even if wool is a natural sourced and fully renewable material the aspect of being an animal-based product plays a big role in evaluating if wool is an ethical product.
One practice that is very common for sheep is the so-called mulesing. It is a practice where the skin from the sheep’s breech (buttocks) is removed to reduce the incidence of flystrike. A flystrike is a condition where flies lay eggs in the folds of skin. This can also be controlled by regular “crutching” (= regular removing of wool from that area), but this requires more work and is a non-attractive option for the mass farming. This mulesing practice is still legal in many places.
But besides this mulesing practice, the animal rights in the wool industry should be questioned, PETA has released video exposes that recorded at nearly 100 facilities on four continents where sheep are mutilated, abused, and skinned alive.
Furthermore, sheep are very sensitive animals that tend to panic when being held down. This means that the shearing process can be for many a terrifying and painful experience if not done in the right way. Shearers are usually paid by volume and not by the hour, which increases the problem as they try to shear as many sheep as they can in the shortest time possible.
What is the environmental impact of wool?
Overall wool has a quite good environmental impact because it has a quite high lifetime value, and people tend to wear their woollen garments for many years. And at the end of its life cycle, it can either be recycled or it can also fully biodegrade.
If herded properly sheep can actually help to improve soils, impacting the soil’s ability to absorb water and maintain its original nutrient balance. But sheep release, like cows, enormous amounts of methane gas into the atmosphere, that impacts global warming.
Furthermore one of the biggest problems of conventional wool is the so-called “sheep dip”. It is a chemical formulation of insecticides and fungicides that are used to protect the sheep from infestation by external parasites. (Sheep either walk through it like a bath or it can also be sprayed on them.) Proper disposal of the dip wash is required as it can be very harmful in case it gets into the water circle.
But let’s not forget these chemical liquids are also harmful to the sheep, and to the people handling the sheep, and these chemicals go deep down into the wool and can still be inside the final product such as our new wool sweater.
But what makes wool organic?
When it comes to organic wool the well-being of the sheep is in the centre: cruel practices like the mulesing prohibited, the workers minimise the stress of the sheep especially during shedding. And the organic farmers take a preventive approach to disease and with this the “sheep dip” (and pesticides and wormers in general) are prohibited. There are also different certificates like the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and Eco Wool that classifies organic wool.