Wool – the fiber with sustainability built in by nature

It’s been a few millennia since mankind started using wool to protect themselves from the elements by making it into clothing and house decor like rugs and blankets. For all that time it’s been loved by everyone for its soft and cozy feel and for its wonderful natural properties:

  • Wool offers all weather practically: not only will it keep you warm on a cold day, it will also keep you cool on a summer day. This is because it is a super breathable natural insulator.
  • Wool is very durable and can last for decades if not centuries like some antique rugs
  • Wool’s exterior is hydrophobic – meaning it repels water – so it’s basically stain resistant and very easy to clean
  • Wool has natural anti-microbial properties
  • Wool is naturally flame retardant and self-extinguishing

One can also say that wool has a natural built-in sustainability

  • Wool is renewable and can be collected multiple times from the same animal for as long as its hair grows
  • Wool is biodegradable and decomposes in a matter of a few years
  • Wool is quite easy to recycle and this practice has existed for quite a long time

There are several types of wool depending on which animal the hair comes from. The most used and popular wool comes from Merino sheep and represents around 95% of all animal fibers. Other wools include cashmere and mohair (both from goats), alpaca, yak and vicuna wools, as well as camel hair, and angora (from rabbits).

Cashmere Goat
Merino Sheep
Mohair Goat

Wool is certainly a much better alternative to synthetic fabrics like acrylic (which, by the way, was created to imitate wool properties) and polyester or even to natural fabric like cotton. However, as synthetic fibers took over the textile market in the 1990’s, wool now represents only a tiny fraction of all fibers and accounts for just 1% – 2% of global textile consumption.

Even as wool might be considered a great natural and renewable fiber, it still has a set of challenges and environmental concerns:

  • Extensive land use and overgrazing caused by animal farming have resulted in soil degradation and loss of biodiversity in certain regions of the world. The biggest such damage was done by the increased popularity of cashmere during the 1990s. To satisfy the ever-growing demand for cheaper cashmere, herders were breading more goats and the intensive grazing that resulted led to desertification of many native grasslands in Central Asia – particularly in Mongolia. In the process, even the animals themselves became less resilient and grew weaker hair. That’s why today some cashmere – especially that classified as “affordable” – is far less soft and luxurious than it used to be.
  • Wool production uses significant quantities of water. It can also cause water contamination by heavy use of pesticides when raising the sheep and by release of toxic effluents when making wool. This occurs in the process of scouring the sheep fleece – basically cleaning the fleece of its grease (lanolin). In addition, harsh chemicals and bleach are often used to whiten the wool fibers.
  • Animal welfare has often been questioned when it comes to sheep farming because of its complex supply chain. Issues like inhumane shearing and slaughtering of animals have shaken even the most responsible brands like Patagonia, for example, when they discovered that one of their trusted suppliers failed to ensure animal welfare on their farms.
  • The practice of sheep mulesing is the biggest animal welfare issue in wool production. This process involves cutting off strips of a sheep’s skin around its tail and buttock area in order to prevent infections caused by a condition called flystrike. The infection itself can be agonizing and even lethal to sheep and it decreases the quality of the wool. But the biggest issue is that it is done without anesthesia and the animal can be in pain for as long as several weeks. This practice is still present and accepted in Australia – the biggest wool producer in the world – but New Zealand has successfully ceased and banned the practice as of 2018.

How to identify wool coming from a more responsible supply chain

It’s true that full traceability and assurance of a regenerative farming and animal welfare are still not easy to achieve. However, today we do have more and more independent organizations and certifications available to help brands and producers identify those farms that are committed to taking care of both our lands and animals. Here are a few certifications and standards that you should know:

  • Responsible Wool Standard by Textile Exchange – verifies and certifies responsible processes from farm to final product. It respects the Five Freedoms of animal welfare and prohibits mulesing. It also assures responsible land management and social welfare.
  • ZQ merino standard by The New Zealand Merino Company – provides sustainable, ethical and traceable wool. This standard respects the Five Freedoms of animal welfare and free range grazing. It also prohibits mulesing and assures social welfare of the farmers.
  • Soil Association Organic Standard (UK) and USDA Organic Standard (USA) – both follow organic farming practices and land management. Mulesing is already prohibited in the UK and US. For more standards and certifications visit my resources section.

The other fantastic, more sustainable and ethical alternative to virgin wool is recycled wool! Did you know that recycling wool has existed for more than 200 year already? And it doesn’t even require the newest technologies or innovations to do it. Believed to have originated in West Yorkshire, the process of shredding used clothing and remaking it into new yarn represents the oldest example of post-consumer recycling.  In the early 20th century the Italian town of Prato became the center of recovered wool industry and today it processes 15% of all recycled clothes in the world! Here is a great short video by BBC News explaining this fascinating process:

How to buy or source sustainable and ethical wool

So there you have it! Now that you have more knowledge about wool sustainability criteria, you can be more confident that you are making the right purchase or finding the right supplier for your wool products:

  • Look for brands that use wool certified by standards like RWS and GOTS. Read about the brand’s commitment to the environment and animal welfare or ask them questions about the provenance of their wool.
  • Look for products made from recycled wool – the most sustainable and circular type of fabric. These products are normally certified by GRS or RCS
  • And don’t forget about good old vintage! Wool fabrics last for quite a long time without losing their properties, so help those pre-loved pieces get a second life in your wardrobe 🙂
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