Wool is one of the common fibres used in fabrics and different products.
In this short guide, we look at how wool rates amongst different measures to see how sustainable, eco friendly and cruelty free it really is.
Summary – Is Wool Sustainable, Eco Friendly & Cruelty Free To Animals For Fibre, Fabrics & Products?
Wool is usually not a good option if you do not support cruelty to animals, or animals being used to make products/fibres.
In terms of eco impact, wool probably comes out just in front or equal with a fibre like cotton which uses a lot of pesticides, fertilizers, processing chemicals, bleaches and dyes. But, some question that because of the sheer amount of methane that sheep emit (that contributes to global warming).
Organic options like organic cotton, organic bamboo, and hemp, jute, TENCEL seem like better environmental, sustainable and cruelty free options than the both of them.
It’s important to note that both wool and cotton are making some changes to improve their industries.
Wool farmers are experimenting with gut vaccines that inhibit gut organisms, and can thus reduce the animals’ methane emissions by up to 20 percent. And some wool producers are using new dying procedures that might allow for the fabric to be treated at lower temperatures—a small measure, perhaps, but one that reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent.
Some sources indicate that for overall sustainability, it might be worth looking at GOTS certified cotton, recycled cotton, 100% natural linen, and companies that are very transparent with their supply and production processes, or have a range of recognized sustainability certifications across various stages of their supply/production process (growing, production, dying, bleaching, finishing, weaving, and so on), with TENCEL’s lyocell and modal fibres being one potential example of this. But, there’s also the consumer usage, maintenance and waste/recycling stages to consider as well. Some bamboos and hemps could be reasonably sustainable when sustainably/responsibly grown, and combining that with closed loop processes, naturally derived production chemicals, and similarly more natural/organic and eco friendly post-growing processes and chemicals used.
Some other dot points from the above summary and the information in this guide on wool are:
- In terms of animal cruelty, there can be invasive procedures that sheep and goats are subjected to on some farms, and some people are concerned with high stocking densities on some of the bigger farms. Live export can also be an animal cruelty issue in some parts of the world
- Water is used for wool to grow animal feed, for drinking water, for cleaning and servicing farms, and for the processing stage to clean and manufacture wool products – It takes approximately 500,000 liters of water to manufacture a metric ton of wool
- Sheep are not great from a carbon footprint perspective – the amount of methane they emit is significant, and there is also nitrogen in sheep dung. However, sheep do eat plants and store carbon in their wool – up to 50% of the weight of wool is pure organic carbon
- Chemicals are used in wool production for both the animal feed crops, and for chemicals sprays on sheep for pest control
- Unless sheep and goats are rotated in their grazing area, their farming can lead to land degradation, erosion and desertification of soil and land
- One advantage of animal grazing though if they are purely grass fed is that animals may be able to make use of land that other crops can’t
- The yield of wool depends on many factors, with the breed of sheep being one factor
- Apart from the potential land degradation issues of sheep, and the air pollution and air emission issues from burping, farting, and manure, there’s also run off to consider from manure, as well as from chemicals used
- One advantage of wool is it’s biodegradability and recyclability – With a market share of 1.3% of all textile fibres, wool claims 5% within the recycled fibres market share
The above summary and the information found in this guide is a generalisation only.
* Note that wool farming and manufacturing may differ by country
* Different farming technology and methods, and other factors can impact how wool is produced
These factors and others can impact the final sustainability, eco friendliness, and level of cruelty or ethics of any particular product.
There’s also the social impact, economics and practicality to consider. Just because something is eco friendly and sustainable to produce – it doesn’t mean that it is good for employment, profitable or even practical to produce (for businesses and workers) or use (for consumers). So, there can be a weighing up of product priorities, preferences (for buyers, sellers, and society) and conflicts of interest to consider (political and corporate agendas can sometimes play a part too for example).
Cruelty To Animals (Sheep, Goats etc.) In The Wool Industry
Obviously animals like sheep and goat are used to make wool.
This raises the issues of using animals for products and by products, and animal cruelty issues.
Invasive procedures that can take place in the wool industry on animals like sheep and goats are:
- Ear tagging
- Ear notching
- Tail Docking
- Teeth Grinding
There can also be concerns with high stocking densities of animals and restricted movement on animals during activities like live export
You can read more about the wool industry and animal cruelty issues at:
- The Cruelty Of Wool (Peta.org.au)
- What’s Wrong With Wool? (Peta.org.au)
- What’s The Most Eco Friendly Form Of Wool? (mnn.com) (Merino wool in particular can have animal cruelty issues)
- Forget Wool – Eco Friendly Vegan Fabrics Are The Future (peta.org.uk) (potential animal cruelty issues in the UK wool industry)
How Much Water Does Wool Use For Farming & Processing/Manufacturing?
- Water is used from raising the sheep to cleaning the fiber
- It takes approximately 500,000 liters of water to manufacture a metric ton of wool, and this figure is even higher when the sheep in question are fed in confined quarters, where extra water is required to manage the manure.
- Though cotton requires 2,500 liters of water for just one t-shirt, and that’s just for its growth
– treehugger.com, and slate.com
- Water can also be heavily used in the processing stage to wash and clean the wool before spinning it into a yarn
Carbon Footprint Of Wool, & Energy Use
- Sheep belch 20 to 30 liters of climate-changing methane per day
- In New Zealand, home to 45 million sheep (to under 5 million people), more than half of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions come from their livestock (like sheep)
- In addition to the methane sheep emit from burping, there is also nitrogen in sheep dung (which can emit nitrous oxide)
- Sheep are part of the natural carbon cycle, consuming the organic carbon stored in plants and converting it to wool.
- Fifty per cent of the weight of wool is pure organic carbon.
- Wool is a short-term store of natural, renewable carbon.
- Pure organic carbon makes up 50% of the weight of wool, higher than cotton (40%) or wood pulp-derived regenerated cellulosic such as viscose (24%).
- While the carbon is stored in wool and thus isolated, there is less carbon in the atmosphere. This mitigates climate change. By how much? Converted into CO2 equivalents (CO2-e), 1 kg of clean wool = 1.8 kg of CO2-e .
- In 2014, the global wool clip represented approx. 1.05 millions tons of clean wool which equals 1.9 million tons of CO2-e.
How Much Pesticide & Fertilizer Does Wool Use
There’s two potential ways for pesticides & fertilizers to be used in wool farming:
- if the sheep are sprayed with any type of insect or pest chemical spray (like they are in some countries)
- if the sheep are fed on a feed crop in addition to, or, instead of eating grass on pasture land – the crops need to be fertilized and sprayed with a pesticide
- Some farmers use a ‘sheep dip’ to keep pests and diseases away from the sheep – the sheep are sprayed or ‘dipped’ with anti pest chemical
Wool, & Soil Health & Land Degradation
It depends how the sheep are farmed.
The more they are pasture farmed and rotated to different pastures, the less damage they do, and they can actually have a positive effect on the soil because their manure can organically drop nutrients back into the soil.
However, if the sheep are intensively farmed to a smaller area, there can certainly be soil and land degradation, erosion and desertification.
Something to keep in mind, is that in terms of land use, wool might only need grazing land or pasture land, compared to other fibres which might need more fertile soil – so sheep might be able to make use of land that some plant grown fibres can’t.
The Yield Of Wool, Efficiency To Process Wool, & How Effective Wool Farming Is
Yield of wool depends on many factors, especially the breed of sheep used. Read more about yield of wool here:
How Many Chemicals Does Wool Use In The Processing Stage?
You can read more about the wool to yarn process, and wool bleaching and dying here:
- Steps in processing wool into yarn (blackberry-ridge.com)
- How wool is made – dying and bleaching (woolmark.com)
Wool probably doesn’t use as many chemicals as some other fibres like cotton or bamboo in the processing stage. But, wool still can use some.
Pollution Of Land, Air & Water By Wool During Farming & Processing
There can be several negative side effects from wool farming that pollutes the land, air and water:
Land & Soil – there can be land degradation, erosion and desertification from intense or densely concentrated farming of sheep.
Water – run off from sheep manure can contaminate water supplies. Also, any sheep dip used, and pesticides for animal feed, can also run off and get into water supplies. If wool is processed with synthetic chemicals, these chemicals can also contaminate water, and be discharged into the environment.
Air – emission of methane from sheep burping, and nitrous oxide from manure. These can cause climate change and air pollution.
Impact Of Wool On Humans & Human Health
Some farms may use insecticide type sprays on their sheep to prevent fly and insect diseases and health issues with the sheep. Farm workers may be at risk if they come into contact with these chemicals.
It’s also worth considering, humans could come into contact with pesticides on farms where feed is grown if sheep and goats are fed additional feed to the grass on the pasture land.
Impact Of Wool On Wildlife & Animals
There’s two main issues to consider:
- Using animals to make wool – can be an issue for vegans
- Animal cruelty issues such as live export, mulesing, and more
Biodegradability & Recyclability Of Wool
Wool is a natural, renewable and recyclable and biodegradable fibre.
This is assuming though that is hasn’t been treated with any synthetic chemicals or combined with other fibres which may be synthetic.
- Wool is one of the most recycled fibres.
- With a market share of 1.3% of all textile fibres, wool claims 5% within the recycled fibres market share
Option For Organic Wool
Yes, there is organic wool available on the market which doesn’t make use of any synthetic chemicals.
Some Other Benefits To Wool
- Wool can be combined with other eco friendly fibres like jute (earthtimes.org)
- Other benefits of wool in terms of features for clothing -(sustainablelivingfabrics.com.au)
Some Alternatives To Wool
- There are eco friendly fibre alternatives to wool, which makes some question why wool needs to be used
- These alternatives might include lyocell, organic cotton, rPet, linen, SeaCell, modal, hemp, and soya fabric (according to peta.org.uk)