As trends toward animal-free products gain popularity, it’s clear that there must be one exception: wool.
I remember the first time I saw Peta’s anti-wool campaign. Images of bloody and battered lambs as the apparent result of the violence of sheep-shearing were shocking to me. Not because they opened my eyes to the evils of wool, but because I grew up in an agricultural community and had family members who raised sheep. I was shocked that so many people believed this to be true when I knew the reality to be different.
These ad campaigns may be very effective for people who live in urban environments because they are far removed from the reality of agriculture. Indeed, I have found strict veganism to be far less popular in communities where local agriculture is still practiced. And that’s for good reason. If you can get eggs from neighbors whose chickens you see roaming around feasting on lawn bugs, you know they are being raised as nature intended.
It’s industrial agriculture that has encouraged people to eat far too much meat and dairy. And it’s focus on animals as products to be churned out as quickly and cheaply as possible has caused inhumane treatment to run rampant. Wool farming, however, still exists in many places in more traditional forms.
Sheep have been domesticated since the dawn of civilization and bred to have fine wool coats. While it’s true that some wild breeds of sheep don’t need shearing, these domesticated sheep breeds must be shorn to avoid many health problems. They don’t naturally shed and if their wool becomes overgrown, it can get packed in dung around their hindquarters, making a breeding ground for parasites that can burrow into their skin causing severe infections. It can also cause them to overheat in summer, get twigs and branches stuck to them, and if their wool becomes too dense, they may be unable to get up if they fall over.
Many people remember the story of Shrek the sheep, who avoided shearing for 6 years after running away to live in a cave in the wilderness. When he was discovered, the wool had grown up around his face, obscuring his vision, and the wool removed from him weighed about 60 pounds. The sad fact is, that if all farms liberated their sheep tomorrow, very few would survive and most breeds would soon go extinct due to their domestic traits.
Industrialized agriculture has caused a good deal of harm to the environment and has caused animal neglect and abuse. Many wool farms in New Zealand and the UK, however, are smallholdings and the skillset is often passed down. Sheep need to graze, so it’s not usually a profitable use of space for commercial farms trying to squeeze every drop of profit out of their available land. Smallholdings, where people keep traditional forms of agriculture alive, are much more ethical. Each animal’s well-being is of importance to the farmer whose survival is tied to their animals’ health.
Of course, these smaller farms with more personalized care produce a more expensive product. Consumer attitudes have shifted toward wanting a lot of lower quality items, instead of a few high-quality things. We don’t want to pay $150 for a sweater that will last a decade or more. We want to pay $20 for a sweater that we will replace in a year or so. Cheap synthetics have lowered the cost of clothing significantly.
The use of synthetic, plastic-based materials where wool was once king has been hurting the wool industry for decades. Most of us wear sweaters made of acrylic, a type of plastic fiber. Soft home textiles are stuffed with foam that can be dangerous if they catch on fire, and the flame-retardant chemicals they’re treated with might be worse. We are surrounded by plastics that don’t biodegrade and cause harmful microplastic particles to pollute our environment, harming humans and animals.
Now, small wool farms are being put out of business due to these cheap plastic alternatives. Covid has been the final nail in the coffin for many farmers since the international wool market closed due to the pandemic. Wool is being thrown on compost bins because farmers can’t afford to sell it at a loss.
Wool is vastly superior to synthetic fibers. Of course, it is biodegradable, making it more environmentally friendly. It’s also a versatile fiber that can be woven into thin, almost silky materials to make high-end suits, or made into rough, water-resistant tweed for winter coats. Wool is breathable and moisture-wicking, so it can be used in various forms year-round. The best hiking socks are made of wool because they keep your feet dry and even reduce odor. It is a true performance material.
Wool may cost more than acrylic, but it also lasts longer and wears better with less pilling. High-quality wool is much more comfortable than plastic material as well, and most importantly, it’s a sustainable option that takes less water to produce than cotton and doesn’t require toxic pesticides to grow.
While it’s true that industrial animal agriculture is often inhumane and extremely taxing on the environment, wool can be the exception. By keeping smallholding sheep farms in business in countries like the UK, ethical agriculture that maintains a symbiotic relationship between man and beast can be achieved.
Once this industry dies out, there will be very few non-plastic options for all the textiles in our daily life. Some industrial wool may still exist in lower-quality, cheaper forms that don’t guarantee the welfare of the animal.
Ultimately, people need to adjust the way they think about and consume fashion items and home textiles to save this industry. The demand for more and more cheap clothing produces more non-biodegradable materials that wreak havoc on the environment. It also asks for more natural fibers to be created in greater amounts more quickly, increasing the use of pesticides. Sometimes paying less for something now results in us all paying more later. We’re paying for our fast fashion habits at the cost of environmental welfare.
Being an ethical consumer is hard. But choosing to use synthetic fibers solely because they’re vegan may not be the best choice. There is more to consider, more research to be done.
Historically, the relationship between a shepherd and their flock benefitted the animal by keeping them safe from predators and protecting them from the dangers of their wool becoming overgrown. This can still be the case if we support smaller farms engaging in these practices. Importantly, we’ll also be investing in a versatile sustainable material that is much less taxing on the environment.