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Knit one, purl two, but ethics first: a close look at wool

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

When it comes to fashion, an easy way to shop sustainable is to choose natural fabrics.

Plant-based fabrics, made with materials such as cotton, linen, hemp, bamboo and wood are easy to call eco-friendly, if they’re grown organically or managed responsibly.

But animal-based fabrics, although biodegradable, luxurious, long-lasting and arguably better than synthetics, open a whole new obstacle: ethics and animal rights. Today, let’s focus on wool: what to avoid, and what to look out for.

See this post for the benefits of wool – in short, it’s been used for this long by humans for a reason. It’s warming, moisture-wicking, long-lasting, resilient, and fully biodegradable when the garment reaches its end life.

Photo by Jørgen Håland on Unsplash

The problems

Sheep-rearing can be just as polluting as cattle farming, if not managed responsibly – sheep produce methane too!

And while shearing (the process of cutting off the wool) is not painful for a sheep, cruel practices involve mulesing – an unpleasant procedure that removes skin from the sheep’s rear end, to keep the wool cleaner.

Photo by Les Triconautes on Unsplash

Better welfare, better planet

Look out for signs of good animal welfare and land management with certification bodies such as the Responsible Wool Standard.

Sheep that are reared for wool are not usually destined to be slaughtered – in most cases, they’re sheared and then continue with their daily sheep bah-siness (sorry). If managed smartly, their daily business can be good for the soil.

Sheep pastures are often rotated with crop planting, as sheep will happily eat all sorts of plants grown in poor soil. Their manure then fertilises the soil, ultimately benefiting the ecosystem.

Productive farming can also help to take carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in the land. Some farms, for example in Australia, have achieved carbon-neutral sheep rearing farms by managing their land well.

Photo by olha yarova on Unsplash

The takeaway

Just as I don’t want to buy a dress that will inevitably end up in landfill or ocean once the trend has passed, I also don’t want to place my pennies into a practice that is cruel to animals.

The good thing is that cruelty-free animal fabric alternatives are perfectly available. With awareness rising about the environment, health issues and animal cruelty, more people are taking on a vegan diet, with relative ease.

And just as the market is opening up to this new consumer – see the success of the Impossible burger – the fashion industry is creating more organic, ethical clothing options.

A few choices: high street & high-end

Wool is generally best treated as an investment. It might cost more than a synthetic jumper, but it will feel and last better in the long-run. But plenty of high street options, like H&M’s Conscious line or M&S, offer good quality wool. Just take the extra few seconds to check the label and make sure it’s 100% wool (H&M like to sneak in those polyester blends).

Everlane offer a mid-range collection and are completely transparent about their supply chain.

Theory launched their Good Wool collection in 2018 – premium merino wool, constructed into garments with energy-saving technology.

Patagonia advocate for animal welfare and use recycled wool in their outdoor-focused products, giving animal products an extended life.

Stella McCartney is one of the best-known high-end options for sustainable wool.

Shop secondhand. Vintage stores or charity stores give another life to wool, and even if the brand hasn’t made good choices in who they source from, you can rest assured knowing that your pennies have gone to an independent business while making the most of the garment.