Let’s Check What You Know About Wool: Is Wool Vegan?

Wool comprises only 1% of the global textile production [1]. And while that may seem like a small amount, wool remains incredibly prevalent in fashion and apparel, mainly as a fabric of choice for cold weather.

But is wool vegan? Is it ethical? Is wool cruel? These are just some concerns you would ask for any fabric, and wool is no exception.

Here, we discuss in depth the ethical considerations of wool, the animals involved, the agricultural industry, and some vegan fabrics you can use as wool alternatives.

Many guides on veganism tend to take a narrow perspective on animal by-products such as wool. However, we tried to make this analysis as objective as possible as we want you to make an informed decision—we don’t want to make the choice for you.

That said, let’s jump right in!

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What Is Wool Anyway?

Wool is a hair-like fiber that comes from the fleece of some mammals like sheep, goats, rabbits, and even camels!

This substance is often used in winter clothing since they are great at keeping you warm during the colder months. Wool is also highly absorbent and can hold as much as 18% of its weight in moisture.

It also becomes warmer to the wearer the more it absorbs moisture from the air and doesn’t get damp while doing so—making it a perfect material for staying warm during winter or fall.

Wool can be made from different weights and shorn from various animals, with the end products having varying prices, quality, and applications for human use. Some examples of wool include merino, angora, cashmere, and mohair, among others.

Wool fibers are primarily composed of keratin, which is an animal protein found in their fleece. The material is coarser than other fabrics like cotton or linen, but there are still fine wools with shorter lengths.

Wool fibers can also stay strong against breakage even when stretched up to 25-30% of their original length, making it a pretty durable fabric indeed.

But knowing about the technical properties of wool is only part of the discourse surrounding wool production. Is wool vegan? Is it cruelty-free? Should you buy wool or cut it out from your closet?

These are just some of the more prevalent considerations you might be thinking about, especially as you are just launching into a vegan lifestyle.

Surprisingly, the discussion will turn out much more nuanced than you might think!

How Is Wool Sourced?

Let’s begin with how wool is sourced.

Wool sourcing and production, of course, begins with the animal. Grown fleece from sheep, alpaca, and other wool-bearing animals is shorn and processed into the wool fibers we use in apparel.

The processing begins with removing lanolin from the raw wool. Lanolin is a greasy substance that can be found in wool-bearing animals’ fleeces and is also frequently used in beauty products.

As an emollient, lanolin is commonly used in products like lotions and body butter. It can also be used as an ingredient in makeup like eyeshadow and concealer. However, do take note that having lanolin in a product renders it not vegan-friendly in the same way beeswax does.

Removing lanolin from the raw wool is a long process that may be sped up through the use of chemical additives.

Once the wool is free of lanolin, it can then be sorted into bales and then carded.

Carding involves separating the wool fibers and straightening them into longer strands for easier spinning later on. Carding can be done with the use of machines, and it can also be done by hand.

Once carded, the wool can be spun into yarn using either the Worsted or the Woolen spinning method. Using the Worsted technique yields wool that is dense and even while using the Woolen method results in wool that is more irregular and fluffy.

After this step, the wool yarn can then be woven into clothing! There are numerous techniques for weaving wool and these all depend on what the end result of the weaving is supposed to be.

How Did We Domesticate Sheep?

When talking about wool as a commodity, it’s important to understand human history and our transition from being hunters to settlers.

Sheep weren’t always as domesticated as they are today. Thousands of years ago, wild sheep were still being hunted instead of farmed and bred for human use.

As humans started to settle in communities, it became more logistically difficult to hunt sheep (and other animals) in the wild since settlers would have to travel quite a way just to hunt (although this point is merely a theory and there still isn’t enough data to prove it).

As a result of this difficulty, humans from thousands of years ago began bringing the sheep to their settlements and breeding them.

For example, let’s take a look at 9,500-year-old data from a settlement in Turkey called Aşıklı Höyük [2]. At that point in time, sheep comprised around 90% of all animals at the site, and only 11% of female sheep died before 6-7 months old, quite low in comparison to the 58% of male sheep.

This information reveals a pattern that coincides with the logic of farming today: that is to preserve females for breeding.

And while sheep were still pretty much morphologically wild at this point, they were already being kept in domestic conditions. So, this went on and on until we selectively bred sheep to the point where they needed their wool coats shorn to be healthy.

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A Word About The Wool Industry

Now that we know (roughly) how wool is processed and how we got to this point, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: the wool industry.

One of the most significant points of contention in wool discourse is that wool is technically cruelty-free.

Shearing off the wool from a sheep’s skin is actually pretty helpful and relieves them of the weight of the wool, which is an incredible burden once we get to the summer months.

Once again, humans, throughout history, have consistently bred sheep to the point of domestication. This means that a significant portion of sheep would not be able to survive in the wild, and their care and upkeep often require human assistance.

Although there are certainly still sheep in the wild, the domestic sheep we rear for their wool are not exactly the same as wild sheep. For one, domesticated sheep need human interventions to get rid of their fleece and they do not shed it periodically like animals in the wild.

In this regard, shearing the wool off a sheep is actually good for them. Of course, the fact that these breeds now need our help to thrive and live a healthy life is still pretty much our fault.

Human consumption has made it so that these animals would be dependent on us, which is not at all an act of kindness.

However, let us also consider that there is very little we can do about the past. Humans have done the damage and it would require more than just abstaining from wool to fix the systemic and genetic changes in sheep breeds our consumption has caused.

There are people who would argue that wool is one of the very rare animal-derived products that can actually be sourced ethically. After all, sourcing wool actually helps sheep and should not hurt them at all!

The shearing process should not be painful to sheep, and in fact, should actually give them relief. Routine sheep shearing is necessary for the animals to live happily fulfilled lives.

But, we also know that there are some instances when this isn’t what happens at all, which brings us to our next point: animal cruelty.

Does The Wool Industry Participate In Animal Cruelty?

While wool production is theoretically not cruel and doesn’t harm sheep, the reality of the wool industry is hardly that ideal. There are instances when sheep do not receive the degree of treatment they deserve and they may suffer under deplorable conditions.

You may have seen some online articles on how the sheep farming industry subjects sheep to terrible living conditions. These stories often involve graphic imagery of blood, and sheep being forced into certain positions using restraints.

And while these may certainly represent a fraction of the wool industry, especially in places where regulations are not well enforced, they are not necessarily representative of how the whole wool industry functions as a whole.

Most of the problems occurring within the wool industry have to do with shearing. Sheep farmers or shearers may use unethical practices in order to speed up production and increase profit margins.

For instance, they may hasten the shearing process by being brash with their shears, potentially causing injuries to the animal.

As prey animals, sheep may become frightened easily and resist shearing. Therefore, farmers may also use restraints on sheep that are more difficult to control, and these restraints could cause further injuries and problems to the sheep.

There are many other ways that the industry inflicts harm on sheep such as lack of proper food and healthcare for parasites. Farmers may also use pesticides to control sheep scabs and fight against parasites.

But at the end of the day, not all sheep farms do all that. Plenty of sheep are actually treated well and live fulfilled lives free of harm, much like our pets do.

The problem with this, however, is that there is limited information and transparency on how the industry operates. If you buy wool, there’s little to no guarantee that the wool was sourced ethically.

There are some certifying bodies like the ZQ Merino Standard and the Responsible Wool Standard that provide some measure of safeguarding sheep welfare. However, these certifications aren’t perfect and still allow room for inhumane practices to occur.

While the certifications do not allow the live export of sheep to foreign nations (where they are likely to experience an even more horrific life), they may still be sold to slaughterhouses.

Certifications also allow tail docking without requiring pain relief. Docking (along with mulesing) is a practice often utilized to reduce the risk of flystrike, which can be caused by urine and feces.

In summary, these certifications provide some protection, but they are not the most comprehensive and still require plenty of work to truly become ethical safeguards.

What Is Tail Docking And Mulesing?

Let’s take a moment here to talk more about these two practices prevalent within the wool industry.

Tail docking and mulesing are two practices used to prevent and reduce the risk of botfly strikes. Flystrike happens when flies lay eggs in fecal matter and the resulting maggots bury into the skin and flesh of the animals—gross, we know.

As you can imagine, this is a very stressful and painful ordeal, and preventing flystrike is also a measure done to protect sheep. However, the measures used to protect them in sheep farming aren’t that ethical as well.

Mulesing is a process that involves removing the skin off of a sheep’s buttocks. Again, this is quite a painful process and is not always done with pain relief.

Only about 75% of mulesed merino sheep are given pain relief [3], so around a quarter of them are not provided any relief during the mulesing process.

On the other hand, tail docking is a process that involves cutting a lamb’s tail to a certain length to avoid flyrstrike. This can also be done with or without pain relief.

According to the National Farmer’s Union of Scotland [4], docking should be done in a way that the tail still covers the vulva in the case of a female sheep, and the anus in the case of a male sheep.

Again, these standards are unfortunately not upheld very well and sheep may still be victims of cruelty even when these measures are meant to protect them from harm.

Many animal welfare groups are advocating for a ban on mulesing and many retailers are no longer buying mulesed wool from farmers. In fact, the certifications mentioned above also do not condone mulesing.

However, it gets more complicated on the farmer’s side of the conversation. Many farmers believe that mulesing is vital in sheep farming as it drastically reduces the risk of farmed sheep getting flystrike.

Currently, research is underway to look for more ethical alternatives to mulesing that protect sheep from flystrike without subjecting them to pain.

Can Wool Be Cruelty-free?

In theory, yes! Wool can certainly be cruelty-free. Provided that the sheep lives under excellent conditions and is treated with the respect and kindness it deserves, then yes, it is fully possible to obtain wool cruelty-free.

If you have your own farm and are responsible for some sheep, then it is most definitely possible to source raw wool without harming your sheep. So long as you take diligent care of them and don’t hurt them while shearing, you should be good to go.

But not all of us have sheep just ready to be shorn in our backyards. A large majority of us buy wool when it has already been transformed into clothing. And by that point, it can be very difficult to tell if the wool was sourced without animal suffering or not.

As previously mentioned, even ethical wool certifications lack the necessary, stringent safeguards to truly protect our sheep from abusive practices. Even if you do buy and wear wool from a brand that sources ‘ethical wool,’ it can still be risky to use certifications as your main source of information.

So, while wool can be made without animal cruelty, it rarely ever is, unless you can absolutely make sure that it was sourced in an ethical manner.

Cruelty-free wool can and does exist! However, it can be exceedingly difficult to get your hands on some as the vast majority of the market cannot guarantee this for you.

Can Wool Be Vegan?

Alright, we know that wool can be cruelty-free but the question remains: is wool vegan? Or is it another thing you should stop buying when following a vegan philosophy?

The answer is a resounding no. Wool is not vegan. Some might argue that it can be vegan, and to an extent, you can create your own definitions of what veganism means to you—within reasonable bounds, of course.

However, we are firm in stating that wool is not a vegan product. The very fact that wool is an animal by-product already renders it not vegan.

Generally speaking, veganism is a protest against the commodification of animals. This means not consuming any animal or animal by-products whether it be in your diet, clothing, and even skincare or makeup!

Under this definition, even beeswax and honey are not vegan-friendly. Veganism is not about cruelty alone—although that is a major part of the message.

Perpahs to a larger extent, a vegan lifestyle seeks to promote living without depending on animals and turning them into vessels of our consumption. To do this, vegans do not consume animal products or by-products.

Of course, there are some instances when vegans wear wool! For example, if you’re a vegan and you already have wool in your closet from before you went vegan, there’s hardly a reason for you to throw it away unless you truly no longer want to wear the piece.

Some vegans may give away or sell their old clothes, but those are not always the case. Even though the wearer is vegan, the wool itself is not.

In practice, veganism can be quite a complex thing. You will make mistakes here and there, and there really is no perfect vegan. We all operate within our personal boundaries and capabilities, and we simply do our best to reduce our impact where possible.

Wool And The Meat Industry

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The wool and the lamb meat industry are closely intertwined with each other. Much like with leather and cows, these two animal products and by-products are just part of a larger circle that profits off of animals.

Merino wool, and other types of woolen material, are generally considered less harmful than leather because sourcing wool does not require the death of the animal, or the merino sheep in this case.

But does this mean that sheep’s wool is completely separate from the meat industry? Unfortunately not.

Most of the sheep meat used for human consumption comes from lambs, which are sheep of young age, typically less than a year old. Meat from older sheep may be sold as mutton but this meat is generally less popular than lamb.

While sheep used for wool growth are not used as lamb, they may be used to breed lambs for meat. To make matters worse, many farmers use selective breeding to ensure their sheep give birth to twins or triplets, increasing industry productivity but reducing the sheep’s quality of life.

In addition, many sheep that are no longer of age (at around 5 to 6 years old) are sold for their meat to slaughterhouses or live exported to other nations. At around 5 years old, sheep no longer produce as much wool as they used to, and are generally treated as no longer profitable.

The unfortunate reality is that although wool in sheep farming does not necessitate the death of the sheep in the short term, it isn’t exactly all rainbows and butterflies.

Sheep, along with other animals that generate wool, are often still subject to deplorable conditions and exploitative practices. So while wool itself may not kill the sheep, there is also the advent of meat production.

What About Recycled Wool?

If you want to buy wool, we highly suggest going for its recycled versions. Recycled wool has a significantly lesser impact than virgin wool (and even organic wool).

This way, you are not only generating less impact, but you are also diverting old wool garments from the landfill and helping breathe a second life into them. Recycled wool fabrics also generate fewer carbon emissions and save water from processing.

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Vegan Wool Alternatives

Fortunately, while wool is most definitely a great fabric for cold months, it is not your only option! There are plenty of other medium to heavy-weight fibers that will protect you from the cold just the same. Here are some of our top alternatives to wool:

Organic Cotton

First on the list is, of course, organic cotton! Cotton is one of the most used fibers in the whole world, and its use spans various applications since it is a very versatile fabric that can be made in different weights and qualities.

Of course, regular cotton for t-shirts is not the best wool replacement. However, if you go for more medium-weight cotton knits like cotton fleece, then you might just get a great vegan alternative to wearing wool.

We do emphasize, however, that there is a massive difference between conventional cotton and organically-farmed cotton. Unlike conventionally produced cotton, the organic variant consumes much less water and harmful chemicals.

Unfortunately, cotton is not the best material when you are going out for intense activities out in the cold. As an absorbent fiber, cotton will simply absorb your sweat and cool you down, not warm you up.

Recycled polyester

Perhaps a better alternative to organic cotton if you’re working out in the cold is one of our most used synthetic fibers, polyester.

Here at Puratium, we normally would not recommend synthetic fibers except for cases when you need the garment for performance purposes. And in this case, polyester may be the way to go.

We do stress that recycled polyester (rPET) is still the best choice. Virgin polyester takes a copious amount of resources to produce and its environmental impact is terrible, and we wouldn’t recommend it in good conscience.

However, please note that polyester, even its recycled variants, still sheds microplastics. Microplastics are incredibly small pieces of plastic that are often the result of us washing our clothes.

These microplastics can end up in our water systems and cause undue harm to marine life. If you are planning on buying any synthetic fiber, make sure to use one of those microplastic filter baggies for your washing machine.

At least that way, you can properly dispose of the microplastics and they will not end up in our oceans and nearby environment.

Fleece

Another fabric that may be used as vegan-friendly wool is fleece! Although the name suggests otherwise, most of the fleece made today is actually made from synthetic fabrics.

In the past, fleece may have been made from wool products, but now, such is no longer the case.

Fleece will help you stay warm without the added ethical cost and risk of buying wool. These days, most fleece is manufactured from polyester. And although we’ve already mentioned polyester as a vegan-friendly wool alternative, it seemed fitting to pay special attention to fleece as a material.

There are numerous types of fleece including french terry fleece, polar fleece, as well as microfleece. If you want to know more about this fabric, take a look at our comprehensive guide here.

Final Thoughts

So, is wool vegan? Sadly not.

Although wool can be sourced and manufactured in an ethical manner, this is not always the case. Animal suffering and cruelty within the wool industry are not the default, but we cannot rule out their possibility either.

To add to that, even if wool was not made without any ethical mishaps, it is still not a vegan product. The mere fact that it takes animals to produce wool is already a big no in the world of veganism.

However, there are still vegan, cruelty-free options! Recycled and organic wool are far better options than just conventional wool. And if you’re set on not buying wool at all, then there are also plenty of vegan alternatives to wool available on the market.

Resources:

  1. https://academic.oup.com/af/article/11/2/15/6276818

  2. https://www.science.org/content/article/how-sheep-became-livestock

  3. https://www.csiro.au/en/research/animals/livestock/managing-flystrike-and-mulesing-in-sheep

  4. https://www.nfus.org.uk/news/news/tail-docking-reminder-sheep-producers

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