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Why Don't Vegans Wear Wool?

Celeste Celeste 10 Jan 2020 Why Don't Vegans Wear Wool?

Fair warning: this article isn't any fun to read and you'd probably have a nicer time not reading it. Our Celeste dived into the world of wool and was shook to the core. Only for those who give a damn: the hard truth behind the production of wool.

As soft and fluffy wool can be, the wool industry is everything but. Sadly, not many people know about this. Want to find out why vegans are against using animal materials like wool? Hold on to your hat and keep on reading.

Also read: What is vegan clothing? And what would make a garment not vegan?

The highlights of this article:


Organizations such as PETA and Bont For Animals have been doing their best for years to make people aware of the suffering behind the wool industry. Have you seen my favorite campaign of theirs?

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Animal rights organization PETA (“Animals are not ours to wear”) has an impressive list of celebrities (including Elisabetta Canalis, Penelope Cruz, Jenna Dewan, Taraji P. Henson, Eva Mendes, Olivia Munn and P!nk) that agreed to pose nude for their campaigns for animal-friendly clothing choices.

At the end of 2018, Alicia Silverstone also posed nude for PETA billboard campaign: “Keep 2019 kind, leave wool behind.” The actress would rather go naked than wear wool.  In a behind-the-scenes video Silverstone talks about her motives and the animal abuse in the wool industry.

‘So what is wrong with the wool industry?’

PETA regularly goes undercover in countless slaughterhouses throughout Australia and the United States, to be able to record the state of affairs on farms and to bare witness. Something that has become a powerful tool within the vegan community (Toronto Pig Save is a great example of this practice.)

The reality is that the industry pays per kilo of wool, not per hour.1

Sheep shearers have to work as quickly as possible and often shaving is done at a top pace, and in a rough way. The harsh manner in which this happens can lead to injury to the sheep. It is done mechanically, disregarding the animal. The sheep experience considerable stress during the shearing process, they often resist and must be restrained.

Sheep mulesing is still a reality.

Merino sheep are specially bred with wrinkled skin with many folds, which means more wool per animal and therefore more profit. However within the folds, moisture and urine can build up. Also flies are attracted to these moist spots to lay their eggs in the skin folds, the larvae of which will eventually eat the sheep alive. The sheep dies a painful death in the end.

In Australia, mulesing is applied to prevent such "flystrike". In this process, the breeders preventively cut pieces of skin and meat away from the sheep's tail and hind legs, in order to prevent faeces from remaining in the sheep's hair. Because of the mulesing, scar tissue is created and less urine and faeces are stuck to the removed skin, so the flies will be less attracted to these spots. However, this process is also very painful for the sheep and is done without anesthesia.

Ban on mulesing?

In 2004 Australian farmers promised to stop or reduce mulesing in 2010, but this has still not happened. Alternative ways of prevention or alternative treatments, for example through medication, are a lot more expensive. This is therefore financially unfavorable for farmers.

Fortunately, mulesing in New Zealand (also a large wool producer) is legally prohibited from October 2018. There are now heavy fines for breaking the ban. This gives the country a big lead over its Australian neighbors.

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Schapenwol milieu en dierenleed

Isn’t there any animal-friendly wool?

As long as you buy animal products, you can never be sure that you aren’t contributing to abuse or exploitation. The industry is based on mass production and the animals are viewed as a commodity and property. And not only sheep, other animal species can also suffer considerably from wool production. For example, animals that pose a danger to the sheep are being hunted, to protect the investment of the farmers, like foxes and coyotes. You don’t have to be vegan to not want to contribute to all this misery.

Certainly in a time when there are sufficient plant-based alternatives that don’t unnecessarily burden the environment and for which animals don’t need to suffer, we see no reason to still opt for sheep wool.

As a protest against the practices described above, there are already a few chain stores that say they will no longer sell wool from sheep that have been mulesed. There is also the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certification. A large part of the garments in the Shop Like You Give a Damn range (from cotton or hemp for example) bear this certification, but in our opinion this isn’t sufficient enough when it comes to wool.

To produce GOTS certified wool, the farmer needs to refrain from mulesing, the animals must be cared for better, they shouldn’t receive preventive antibiotics, and the land on which they graze shouldn’t be treated with insecticides or pesticides. Shaving should also be more peaceful and friendly in order to gain the certification.

All steps in the right direction – but not good enough for us. Wool, by definition will always need animals to be exploited for it: there is no other way. Ultimately the sheep will be killed prematurely when they lose their economic value, since it costs money to keep them alive. 

No videos or descriptions of animal abuse

We refrain from mentioning or showing the graphic details of the horrifying condition that these animals live in and what they have to endure everyday of their too short and profoundly miserable lives. If you still want to see it happen with your own eyes, there is plenty of footage to be found online.

'But all that stuff only happens on the other side of the world right, what's that got do with my woolen sweater collection, right?’, we hear you think.

False... For instance, 80% of all merino wool (the most popular kind of wool) used in the products here comes from Australia. The sheep that are bred in the Netherlands are of a different race of sheep and are mainly kept for meat production. 
With globalisation hitting its peak in our time, the world becomes smaller and smaller. Nothing is too far away to worry about.

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imports from Australia to the Netherlands

© Coralie Boon - @thula_art

But sheep surely don’t shave themselves…

True, but the lack of opposable thumbs is not the only reason. Sheep don’t need to be shaved naturally because they produce exactly enough wool to protect themselves against the local weather conditions. Both against heat and against the cold. As with many other animals, moulting is gradual and accompanied by the changing of the seasons.

Australian merino sheep have been bred in such a way that they produce an unnaturally heavy coat. That means they have to be shaved every year. This heavy coat can cause overheating and exhaustion in the sheep. Without being shaved, the animal would now – because of human interference and without human intervention – collapse under the weight of its hair and die.

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human interference breeding merino sheep

© Coralie Boon - @thula_art

The life of a sheep in the wool industry

From birth to death, the life of these sheep is an endless barrage of misery and suffering. The ears of lambs are pierced to hang labels in it, tails are sometimes docked, and the males are quickly castrated. Without anesthesia. Not all lambs survive this with a clean bill of health. From that moment on it's their lot to be shaved for life as cruelly as previously described.

As the sheep grow older, their wool production decreases. From that moment on they are no longer usable for industry and that is why they are slaughtered. In nature, sheep can be as old as 17, but in the wool industry they regularly do not reach the age of 6. In Australia and New Zealand, almost all sheep are transported to the Middle East for slaughter. In other countries, including the United Kingdom, but also for the meat sheep in the Netherlands, this is also not unusual. Financially, this is the best option, since slaughter is cheaper there.

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transport for slaughter merino sheep autralia to the middle east

© Coralie Boon - @thula_art

During transport, the conditions for the sheep are very poor. The journey to the Middle East takes six weeks on average, during which they reside in overcrowded containers stacked on ships and are not protected against extreme weather conditions, such as temperatures rising to 40 degrees Celsius. Exhaustion, dehydration, injuries and stress are commonplace.

‘And what about the environmental impact of wool?’

A lot of research is being done on the impact of various fabrics on the environment. In short: after silk, wool is the worst material in terms of negatively impacting our environment. This infographic tells you all you need to know about that. From left to right, this table shows a comparison of several materials per 1 kilogram of fabric: its impact on the climate, land use, water stress, use of resources, ecotoxicity and plastic soup.



'Impact of your clothing on the environment'. Table by Milieu Centraal, 2018.

Unfortunately: wool is not simply good for the environment just because it is a natural material. The production of wool has an average to high impact on the environment in almost all categories. We'll tell you what's up with that in a minute.

Above you can also see that recycled cotton, Tencel (the patented brand name of lyocell), but also recycled wool have the smallest environmental impact of the substances that are included in the table of Milieu Centraal.

‘So is second-hand or recycled wool still okay to buy?', you might be wondering

You should realise: to get recycled or second-hand wool, it must have been ‘newly produced’ at some point. The animal-unfriendly practices as described earlier were logically also part of that production process. By purchasing this, you are still maintaining the animal-unfriendly cycle of wool production. Wool, just like any other material, cannot be recycled indefinitely. So the idea that we could stop new wool production now and then simply reuse existing wool forever is unfortunately not a possibility. Instead, choose a product with which you can make the better choice. A choice that’s beneficial to both the animals and the environment.

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impact of fabrics wool linen hemp on the environment

© Coralie Boon - @thula_art, with research from Milieu Centraal.

The impact of wool on global warming

The production of all fabrics has an impact; greenhouse gases are released during production. CO2, methane and nitrous oxide contribute to global warming. The more greenhouse gases are released during the production process, the more sunlight is being caught by the earth’s atmosphere because of them.

The use of fossil fuels, for example, contributes to this. For wool production, fossil fuels are used to heat stables and sheds.

Add to that (even though this doesn’t only apply to wool) the fur of a sheep isn’t immediately ready to be worn. From washing and spinning the wool to dyeing it: the production of the fibre goes through various processes. Fossil fuels are needed for generating energy in the factory where they process the wool before transportation, which also uses fossil fuels. All these processes have an impact on the environment.

At the moment, the biggest pollutants are the gases that are released with the belches and farts of ruminants. The sheer number of livestock on this planet (60% of all mammals on the planet at this time) combined with the very limited diet these animals are fed, causes a very high amount of methane being released into the atmosphere. A gas that is about 30 times more efficient in retaining heat than CO2. And heat-retaining gasses in the atmosphere are the reason for global warming.

Animal substances in particular contribute the most to global warming:

Cradle to gate environmental impact index per kg of material

'Cradle to gate environmental impact index per kg of material.' Table by Global Fashion Agenda, 2017.

Land use necessary for wool production

For the sheep to graze a lot of land is needed. Pastures to be precise. Land use is important, among other things, because intensive agriculture comes at the expense of biodiversity. Another reason why it’s a shame that so much land is needed for wool production is because otherwise this land could possibly be used for sustainable farming.

The water used in wool production

The chart by Milieu Centraal states that wool has a "small impact" on water stress. This doesn’t automatically mean that little water is needed for wool production. Water stress simply shows the relationship between water use and water scarcity in an area. In a dry area, therefore, high water stress occurs faster.

Less water is needed for the production of wool than for growing non-organic cotton, for example. (That’s why in our online department store you'll also find a lot of GOTS-certified cotton garments.) Nevertheless, wool production requires huge amounts of water because the sheep must drink, their food needs water, and the wool must be washed and processed. And it gets worse.

Scientists even link sheep farming to the destruction of the natural ecosystem, which has already led to increased soil salt content, soil erosion, flooding and a decrease in biodiversity in various areas.

Wool, pesticides and ecotoxicity

Ecotoxicity indicates how much risk there is of serious environmental damage in a certain area or ecosystem when toxic substances leak out. In the production of wool, the pesticides that are used cause damage to the environment.

After shaving, about one half of an animal's wool can be used to spin wool, the rest of the hair is not suitable for this. The wool is 'contaminated' with fat (lanolin), dirt, dead skin cells, sweat, pesticides and plant material. To rinse the wool clean, it’s washed in a warm bath, or an industrial process can be followed that requires strong chemicals – both are bad for the environment and for factory workers. Sometimes sheep (with fur and all) are even put in a bath with insecticides to combat ticks, fleas and parasites.

These harmful substances end up in nature. When the sheared wool is processed, they are washed out again and can also end up in the water.

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Biologisch katoen gerecycled

‘So what are sustainable and animal-friendly alternatives to wool? Is there a plant-based option?’

Fortunately, there are animal-friendly alternative materials to substitute for wool that are just as warm, beautiful and a lot more sustainable. Recycled materials, hemp, organic cotton, lyocell/Tencel, linen, bamboo, cupro, but also recycled polyester made from plastic bottles or ghost nets saved from the ocean... Just to name a few, which (unsurprisingly) are all vegan.

In our online vegan department store you’ll find a sheep load of the most beautiful items of clothing and accessories, all completely free of wool and other animal-derived materials. We’re constantly working on expanding our assortment, so you’ll find an ever-growing collection with the most beautiful, sustainable, vegan brands. Have a look for yourself, ladies and gents!

For further explanation about the life of the (merino) sheep and the wool production process, you can look into these articles and websites

In the following studies and articles you can read more about the impact of the wool industry on the environment


1. 'The Wool Industry.' PETA. n.d.