A Guide to Sustainable Wool

Now is the time to be getting all wrapped up in winter woollies. From cashmere sweaters to alpaca socks; lambswool cable-knit jumpers to mohair beanie hats the season for all things cosy is upon us.


While many ask whether wool is ethical, fewer ask whether this longstanding material is sustainable. In this post, I will attempt to answer this question - is wool sustainable?


Focusing on the sustainability aspect, is not, however, to say that animal-cruelty concerns should go adrift. A particular area of controversy in the realm of animal welfare is mulesing sheep - a highly painful and cruel practice that is at once unnecessary.


These abhorrent practices which will be explained in more detail further on need to be fought. However, I genuinely believe that wool can be cruelty-free and also a sustainable way of keeping warm in the winter seasons if created in the right conditions.

An Overview of Wools Environmental Credentials:


As with other forms of animal farming, raising sheep for wool inevitably uses planetary resources. The land is cleared, and trees are cut down to make room for grazing land, which can lead to a decrease in biodiversity. According to Common Objectivethe wool industry produces around 1,160 million kilograms (kg) of clean wool per year from a global herd of approximately 1.16 billion sheep. However, the calculations concerning land use required for wool have also been disputed. These 1.16 billion sheep are also part of the food industry and are often raised on land that cannot be used for food crops.

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Materials Sustainability Index ranks wool’s environmental impact at 82 out of 100, compared to 98 out of 100 for cotton, but much higher than polyester at 39. However, the High Index only measures the production impact of fabrics and yarns and does not take materials full lifecycle into consideration.

Some of the environmental benefits of wool include that it has a long lifespan, meaning that it is used or worn longer than other textile fibre products; Wool textile products tend to be washed less frequently and also tend to be washed at lower temperatures; Wool is easy to recycle (According to the International Wool Textile Organisation wool makes up 1.3% of all textile fibres but claims 5% within the recycled fibres market share); and wool biodegrades readily on land and in water and as it is a protein-based fibre, meaning that it does not contribute to micro-plastic pollution. Therefore, while wool is not the most sustainable to produce its longevity and ease of disposal increase its environmental credibility.


Types of Wool:


Alpaca Wool | Alpaca wool unsurprisingly comes from the funny-looking animal which goes by the same name. The alpaca is renowned for its lush high-quality and durable fleece. Alpaca wool is highly resistant to pilling when treated with care, and it also possesses hypo-allergenic and water-resistant properties. The wool that comes from alpacas is often softer and lighter than many of its counterparts. In addition to these desirable properties, by purchasing alpaca wool, you are also helping contribute to social sustainability. Alpaca wool farming is rooted in Peruvian history and by buying an alpaca wool product, you are supporting the livelihoods of those who trade this magnificent fibre. 

Angora Wool | In comarison to the fluffy wool of Alpacas, Angora is a silky fibre obtained from the angora rabbit. Their fur of this bunny is highly valued for its delicateness and warmth. However, the production of angora has experienced much criticism since PETA showcased footage about the shocking conditions in which the fur was being produced. Footage shows workers ripping chunks of fur from the live animals. However, the question remains - can there be an approach to producing angora wool without hurting the rabbits in question? As most angora comes from China which is renowned animal rights abuses I would be skeptical of anyone claiming that they sell angora wool that has been produced ethically. Despite the potential for angora wool being ethical, particular caution should be taken when purchasing an item made from this wool. 

Cashmere | As the name suggests, cashmere production is said to have originated in the Kashmir region around the thirteenth century. Unknown to many, cashmere yarn comes from goats rather than sheep. Cashmere is a natural and unprocessed fibre, which means that it is biodegradable. However, this doesn't mean that cashmere does not induce environmental costs. During the previous century, the production of cashmere has rocketed to the degree that it is now difficult to call it a sustainable option. What were once grasslands are now turning into deserts for cashmere manufacturing. This is currently making an overwhelming impact on the ecological balance of the planet. The effect of cashmere overproduction is most apparent in Mongolia. The nation produces 90% of the worlds cashmere. However, the expansion of cashmere production is negatively affecting the country's climate.

Lambs Wool | Lambswool is wool that comes from lambs rather than fully-grown sheep. While sheep's wool is renowned for its itchiness, lambswool is generally softer and less likely to cause skin irritation. Like other types of wool, being a natural-fibre lambswool is biodegradable. However, if sheep are farmed intensively, the production of lambswool can cause harm to the environment. Like many of the other options on this list, the sustainability of lambswool often has more to do with the scale on which lambs are being farmed than the yarn itself.

Merino Wool | Merino wool is a light-weight yarn which keeps your body at a comfortable temperature in diverse weather conditions. The fabric absorbs humidity and it particularly great at retaining heat when temperatures are cold. In addition, the lanolin present in merino wool makes It naturally anti-odour, antibacterial and non-allergenic. Similarly to other yarns, merino wool can easily biodegrade and add nutrients to the environment in the process. Furthermore, there is even a standard designed explicitly for merino wool - the ZQ Merino Standard, which is intended to prioritise the welfare of merino sheep. If you are interested in purchasing merino wool following this standard should help guide your decision making process.


Mohair Wool | So this is where things get a bit complicated. Mohair wool comes from the angora goat. Meanwhile, angora wool as perviously discussed comes from the angora rabbit. Similarly to alpaca wool and cashmere, mohair is considered to be luxury yarn. Mohair is light-weight, resilient and it maintains a high-sheen. However, the properties of the fibres also depend on the age of the goat in question with the youngest goats producing the softest fleece. There is much controversy around the animal cruelty of mohair wool after PETA released videos of mohair goats being dragged along on the floor. The problem as is often the case with many animals which are sheered is that workers are paid on a per animal basis as opposed to an hourly-rate, which increases the chance of animals being mistreated. Mohair, like many other types of wool, is biodegradable. However, particular caution with regards to animal cruelty should be taken when purchasing mohair wool. 


Non-Mulessed Wool | A large portion of the world's wool originates from Australia where most of the sheep are merinos who are reproduced to have wrinkly skin which means more wool per sheep. This over-burden of wool makes numerous sheep pass out or even die from heat exhaustion. In addition, the wrinkles of the sheep gather urine and dampness and attracted to this moisture flies lay eggs in the folds of the sheep's skin. According to PETA, the hatched maggots can eat the sheep alive. To prevent this "flystrike," farmers perform a practice called "mulesing," in which they cut large portions of skin away from the animals' rears or connect tight clamp-like clasps to their tissue until their flesh dies off. Mulesing is an attempt to create skin that won't collect moisture, but the exposed, bloody wounds often become infected. Many sheep who have undergone the mulesing suffer slow and agonising deaths. Non-mulesed wool as you have probably guessed refers to wool that derives from sheep which have not experienced this horrific treatment. There is little to say about the sustainability of this approach, but I believed that it was necessary to mention the importance of purchasing non-mulesed wool if you are buying first hand. 


Organic Wool | Organic wool refers to a wool wherein the production of the fibre has met specific standards to obtain the organic certification. The most common accreditation used is GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), which ensures that textiles meet specific environmental requirements. If you want to learn more about what qualifies a fabric as organic, you can head over to my post on defining ethical fashion terms. If you are looking to purchase first-hand wool organic wool is a good way to go.

Recycled Wool | Wool has been widely recycled for hundreds of years, and it is, in fact, one of the most suitable fibres for reuse. Recycled wool for garment production goes through a closed-loop system. A closed-loop system refers to a mechanical process that returns garments into their raw fibre state to be made into yarn again. Recycled wool is perhaps the most environmentally sustainable option on this list as it takes an already existing fibre and prevents it from going to waste. Alternatively, you could consider purchasing pre-loved knitwear.

Sheep's Wool | Sheep's wool is the most common type of yarn on the market. It is not considered to be as luxurious as the likes of cashmere, merino and alpaca wool, however, like many other types of yarn, it will keep you warm and can look super cute! Unfortunately, sheep, like cows, release large amounts of methane gas into the atmosphere and also require land to graze on. For these reasons, wool when produced on mass will inevitably be unsustainable. However, the fleece of sheep as we have established is durable, recyclable and biodegradable. If taken care of properly (for instance, by being stored in conditions that will prevent moths from getting access to the fibre), wool can last a very long time.

I hope this post has helped you better understand which types of wool are the most sustainable. All kinds of yarn have their downsides as ultimately animals consume land which may contribute to deforestation and release the greenhouse gas - methane. However, the durability recyclability and biodegradability of wool should not be overlooked. If you are looking for a new knitwear item I recommend first looking into purchase pre-loved. If not, recycled wool followed by organic wool also presents excellent sustainability options. 

If you want to learn more about other sustainable fabrics, head over to my guide on sustainable silk and sustainable plant-based fibres. Leather and synthetics are yet to come!

Resources:


Common Objective - Fibre Briefing: Wool


Fibre2Fashion - Cashmere: the Best Sustainable Renewable Fibre


Good on You - Material Guide: Is Angora Ethical and Sustainable?


Good on You - Material Guide: How Ethical is Wool?


International Wool Textile Association - Sustainability


Make Fashion Better - Is Merino Wool Sustainable?


Masterclass - What is Lambswool?


Mochni - 3 Reasons Why Alpaca is the Greenest Fibre on Earth


PETA - The Mohair Industry


PETA - Mulesing by the Wool Industry


Sewrendipity - How Sustainable are Cashmere, Angora and Mohair?


The Soil Association - Organic Wool


The Sustainable Fashion Collective - Series on Wool: What is Mohair?


ZQ Natural Fibre - Certified



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