In the guide below, we look at how wool specifically rates amongst different measures, to see how sustainable, eco friendly and cruelty free it might be.
It’s worth noting that although we outline different types of wool in this guide, we are primarily focussing on wool from sheep.
Summary – Is Wool Sustainable, Eco Friendly & Cruelty Free For Fibres, Fabrics & Textiles?
Sustainability & Eco Friendliness
– Potential Benefits
Is renewable and natural
Sheep can act as a carbon sink when they consume plant matter and store the organic carbon in their wool. Additionally, some wool farmers have or are experimenting with gut vaccines that inhibit gut organisms, and can thus reduce the animals’ methane emissions by up to 20 percent, according to some sources. New dying procedures that might allow for the fabric to be treated at lower temperatures—may also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent, according to other sources
Wool production may not use as much chemicals as some other fibres, particularly if there is not a heavy use of pesticides or fertilizers for animal feed, and it also depends on chemicals used for wool bleaching and dying
Livestock that are managed properly on grazing land, or who have a smaller land footprint, might not do as much soil or land damage
Wool production can make use of grazing and pasture land, and other types of land, that some types of fibre crops may not be able to make use of
Run off from manure may be an environmental issue to consider at the farm level for wool farming
Certified organic wool exists as an alternative to conventional wool, and it’s processed according to organic standards
– Potential Drawbacks
Wool uses a reasonable amount of water just to produce the wool (without taking finished wool textiles into account)
Sheep and other animals used to produce wool emit greenhouse gases from burping and passing gas, and also from manure
Sheep and other animals used to produce cotton can create overgrazing and other land and soil degradation issues if not managed and rotated properly
Animal Welfare Considerations
There’s a range of potential animal welfare issues during wool production to consider
These issues might happen at the farming stage, but also at another stage like the transport stage
Some animal welfare issues may arise from trying to prevent disease in animals like sheep
These are program in place that can help retailers verify or confirm which wool suppliers or producers may be implementing specific practices to address specific animal welfare concerns
There are different types of wool, and each of these different types of wool may have a different production footprint, as well as yields and production efficiency
There’s a number of different practical challenges to consider for sheep farming, and the different methods that can be used for it
Sheep can be used for both their wool, and their meat. Some sheep are bred for just a specific type of wool, and some for primarily their meat
Wool is still one of the leading natural fibres in terms of production quantity, but, it is far behind polyester and cotton for example. Wool may actually be the leading animal fibre
Wool as a fibre may have higher production costs than a range of other fibres
Wool as an industry has generally declined in terms of overall production in several major countries for a rang of reasons, but, one major reason is the competition from other fibres like cotton and also synthetic fibres
What About The Eco Friendliness & Sustainability Of Other Fibres & Fabrics?
These guides may provide further insight on how wool compares to other fibres too.
Other Factors That Might Impact The Sustainability Or Eco Friendliness Of Fibres
*This Guide Is A Generalisation Only
The different variables in wool farming (conditions, climates, sheep breeds and genetics, farming methods and practices, farming technology, farming methods), processing, production, usage, etc. can all impact the final sustainability footprint of wool.
This is especially true between different producers, and between the developed and developing world countries.
Types Of Wool
There’s different types of wool.
One of the most common might be Merino wool.
An generally more expensive and luxurious type of wool might be Cashmere.
Mohair, alpaca, camel, virgin, angora and vicuna are examples of other types of wool.
There can also be a difference between greasy wool and other types of wool.
The listed commodity.com resources goes deeper into listing the types of wool, number of sheep breeds and so on.
Use Of Sheep For Agricultural Products
Sheep can not only be used for their wool, but also for meat.
Some sheep are only farmed for specific types of wool, while some sheep might be primarily farmed for their sheep, but may be able to produce some wool too.
Animal Welfare & Cruelty Issues For Wool & Sheep
Animals like sheep and goat, amongst other animals, are used for wool production.
There’s a range of potential animal welfare and cruelty issues for these animals during various parts of the wool production process.
Welfare issues may happen on the farm level, or during live transport too.
Some sources indicate that some animal welfare issues may be unavoidable in order to prevent animals like sheep from diseases like flystrike.
There are some practices and standards in place for retailers to better understand or track what suppliers might be doing about specific wool animal welfare issues through the wool supply chain.
Potential Animal Welfare Issues
wikipedia.org mentions that the invasive procedures that can take place in the wool industry on animals like sheep and goats are:
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 potential animal cruelty issues in these resources the listed peta.org.au, peta.org.uk, and mnn.com resources.
These guides cover animal cruelty issues in general, the most eco friendly form of wool and how merino may have some issues, and potential issues with the UK wool industry.
Why Some Animal Welfare Issues May Be Unavoidable
gro-intelligence.com: [some potential animal cruelty concerns for sheep farming actually develop out of a need to protect sheep from diseases. One example of this is mulesing] which is one way to avoid meat and wool losses through flystrike.
Tracking Animal Welfare For Wool Supply
From gro-intelligence.com: [Some apparel retailers require wool producers to declare the mulesing status of their sheep in a document.]
How Much Water Does Wool Use?
Wool production can use water for a number of things such as supplying water for drinking, growing feed that livestock may consume, cleaning and washing down manure and other waste, processing wool, and washing and cleaning wool, as just a few examples.
Wool appears to use a significant amount of water to produce wool itself (by weight), although we don’t have data on water required for finished wool textiles.
The type of water should also be considered i.e. whether the water used is mainly renewable or not.
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.
– 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 (blackberry-ridge.com)
Carbon Footprint Of Wool
Sheep in particular expel methane, but there’s also nitrogen in manure to consider.
In addition, the number of livestock used for wool production has to be considered, as each one has a footprint
In some countries with a large wool production industry, wool production can make up a reasonable % of total emissions.
However, wool can also be a carbon sink, as sheep eat the organic carbon stored in plants and convert it to wool.
Wool stores more carbon that some other fibres sources.
Greenhouse Emissions From Sheep
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) (slate.com)
Sheep As A Carbon Sink
Sheep are part of the natural carbon cycle, consuming the organic carbon stored in plants and converting it to wool.
Wool is a short-term store of natural, renewable carbon [and] Fifty per cent of the weight of wool is pure organic carbon.
[This 50% number is] higher than cotton (40%) or wood pulp-derived regenerated cellulosic such as viscose (24%).
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
In general though, wool production may not be as pesticide or fertilizer intensive as a crop like cotton for example, depending on how much of these inputs are used for animal feed.
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 (followgreenliving.com)
Wool, Soil Health, & Soil & Land Degradation
It depends how the sheep are farmed.
The more they are pasture farmed and rotated to different pastures, the less damage they might do.
In some instances, animals 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, and aren’t rotated to new pastures regularly, there can certainly be soil and land degradation, erosion and desertification from issues like overgrazing.
Wool, & Land Use
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.
How Many Chemicals Does Wool Use In The Processing Stage?
You can read more about the wool to yarn process (the steps), and wool bleaching and dying, in the listed blackberry-ridge.com, and woolmark.com resources.
Wool might not use as many chemicals as some other fibres in the processing stage.
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
Impact Of Wool On The Environment, Humans & Human Health, & Animals & Wildlife
There can be several potential negative side effects from wool farming that pollutes the land, air and water:
– Land & Soil
Overgrazing can be an issue for some forms of wool farming.
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.
Emission of methane from sheep burping, and nitrous oxide from manure.
These can contribute to climate change and air pollution.
Humans & Human Health
The impact here may be minimal compared to some other industries.
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.
Wildlife & Animals
There’s two main issues to consider:
Using animals to make wool in general, which can be an issue for vegans
And, animal cruelty issues such as live export, mulesing, and more
Yield Of Sheep, & In Wool Production
There’s various factors and variables that can impact yield in wool production.
… each sheep can approximately produce between two to 30 pounds annually.
A sheep’s breed, genetics, and nutrition are the main determinants of wool production, but the interval between shearing also impacts yield.
Lambs produce smaller quantities of wool than ewes or rams.
Generally, a ram produces more wool than a ewe of the same breed
Production Of Wool
Wool Production In General
gro-intelligence.com has a wool production chart in terms of production quantity of greasy wool over the last few decades.
Wool production is still important in the world, but it appears the industry has generally declined from what it once was due to a number of factors, such as competition from other fibres for specific uses, and in order to benefit from the traits of other fibres that wool may not offer. gro-intelligence.com also outlines that cotton production costs (especially since mechanisation) may be cheaper than wool production costs
Lower auction prices for wool for farmers, and more competition for agricultural land, are some of the economic factors that have seen many wool producers switch to other forms of agricultural production in place of wool.
gro-intelligence.com outlines some numbers and data that illustrate how Australia has shifted from wool production to beef and cotton production over the last few decades.
From gro-intelligence.com: ‘Global wool production today is a fraction of its peak in 1990, replaced by cheaper and highly adaptable synthetics and cotton blends better suited to dyes and mechanical handling’
Total Production Of Wool As A Share Of All Fibres
According to one set of data, clean wool makes up 3.4% of all natural fibre production.
Although cotton ranks as the top overall fiber used by industry, wool reigns as the number one global source for animal fiber (commodity.com)
Countries That Produce The Most Wool
It depends on the type of wool, as there are different types.
Australia is one of the prominent producers though.
Australian production of wool has declined throughout the recent past for various reasons.
gro-intelligence.com mentions though that recent production of greasy wool has shifted to China somewhat
In the future, wool may become more and more of a niche fibre because of these factors.
Australia accounts for 25% of the world’s greasy wool sales and an even greater 81% of superfine merino wool
Since peak production in 1990, wool receivals have fallen by around 74%.
Drought, low wool prices and higher prices of other agricultural products have contributed to the decline of Australian wool production [and] The increased production of other natural fibres like cotton and synthetic fibres are also creating competition for wool.
[In the future, wool may become mainly a] niche luxury product …
In Australia, wool production by 2016 had dropped 63 percent from its peak in 1990 (gro-intelligence.com)
Sheep Farmed For Meat vs Wool
gro-intelligence.com indicates that ‘… sheep may primarily be used for their meat in the future’
Some of this may have to do with the economics of wool production, but some may have to do with other factors like an increasing demand for food in the future as population numbers increase, and specifically meat.
Economic Impact Of Wool
Value/Size Of The Wool Industry
The world wool trade amounted to $4.72bn (USD) in 2018, with Australia leading as the top export nation of origin (commodity.com)
Price Of Wool
gro-intelligence.com indicates that ‘[wool prices] are currently six times that of cotton, and seven times the price of synthetic fibres’
Wool may need to do something to cut production costs in the future if it wants to be able to compete with other fibres, and if it wants to move out of the category of being mainly a niche fibre
Economic Benefits Of Natural Fibres In General
One particular benefit is the the associated employment it provides amongst natural fibres.
Practical Considerations For Wool As A Fibre
The sustainablelivingfabrics.com.au listed resource lists some benefits of wool when used in clothing
It’s worth noting that wool can be produced in different levels of softness and ‘fineness’.
The earthtimes.org listed resource indicates that wool can be combined with other eco friendly fibres like jute
There’s also an FAO.org resource referenced in that guide, along with other resources, that point out some of the potential practical benefits of wool as a fibre.
gro-intelligence.com outlines some of the practical challenges of sheep farming including breeding conditions, pasture nutrients and breeding capacity, land degradation and overgrazing, free range grazing and how it can require more monitoring and be more labor intensive, managing predators and disease, costs associated with flystrike, and so on.
What About Organic Wool?
Organic wool exists as an option to conventional wool.
Organic wool is usually processed according to organic standards.
You’ll want to check the wool manufacturer or seller’s website to see the standards the wool product is processed in accordance with, and then cross check those organic standards for yourself.
Alternatives To Wool
peta.org.uk mentions that some alternatives to conventional wool might be: ‘… lyocell, organic cotton, rPet, linen, SeaCell, modal, hemp, and soya fabric …’