The environmental impact of wool

The environmental impact of wool

The repercussions of wearing wool are not as innocent as you may have been lead to believe. Wool is often depicted as the harmless by-product from a sheep’s seasonal haircut making it seemingly sustainable – after all, the excess wool is reused and made into items of clothing. However, the material actually contributes to climate change and pollution, and according to the Pulse of the Fashion Industry report, the production of sheep’s wool is the fifth-worst material in terms of environmental harm. Not to mention the way in which wool is produced inflicts a great deal of suffering onto animals. Elisa Allen, PETA director, explains more about this fabric and recommends some kinder alternatives.

Environmental impact

As with the manufacturing of other animal-derived materials, wool production gobbles up precious resources. Land is cleared and trees are cut down to make room for grazing sheep, leading to soil erosion and biodiversity loss. In Patagonia, Argentina, widespread sheep farming led to such severe destruction of soil that it triggered a desertification process that currently threatens an estimated 93 per cent of the land in the region.

Sheep release enormous amounts of methane into the atmosphere and have been referred to as the Humvees of the animal kingdom. Manure generated by farmed animals, including the vast flocks raised in countries like Australia and New Zealand to meet the world’s demand for wool, has significantly contributed to the increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases over the last 250 years. In fact in New Zealand, methane emitted by animals – primarily sheep – accounts for over 90 per cent of the country’s total methane emissions.

Wool has a higher cradle-to-gate environmental impact per kilogram than acrylic, polyester, spandex, and rayon fibres from a sustainability standpoint.

There is also the issue of sheep ‘dip’ – a toxic liquid used to rid the animals of parasites. It’s difficult to safely dispose of and often ends up in local waterways. In one incident, just one cupful of sheep dip, which contained the noxious chemical cypermethrin, was dumped into a river, killing 1,200 fish downstream. Farmers are advised to not allow sheep into an area where they could come into contact with a watercourse, such as a stream or field drain, for at least two weeks after dipping. Sheep dip could wash out of their fleece during this period and cause major pollution, highlighting how damaging the substance is to the environment.


Cruelty to animals

Sadly, this isn’t where the devastating consequences of producing wool ends. Animal abuse in the wool industry is pervasive and systemic. Shearers are often paid by volume, not by the hour, causing them to work quickly, often cutting sheep and leaving them bleeding. Investigations in Australia – the world’s largest exporter of wool – the United States, South America, and here in Britain have found that workers kicked, punched, and stamped on sheep’s heads; jabbed them in the face with sharp metal clippers; and left huge gashes on their bodies that were later crudely sewn up with a needle and thread, without painkillers.

Without human interference, such as genetic engineering for maximum wool production, sheep grow just enough wool to insulate themselves from the cold and shed their excess wool by themselves during the warmer months. However, today, many are bred by humans to grow excessively heavy fleeces. This can cause folds to form in their skin, in which flies may lay eggs – a condition called flystrike. In Australia, lambs are often forced to endure ‘mulesing’, in which workers cut chunks of skin off their backsides without any painkillers. This is a crude attempt to create smoother skin that won’t collect moisture and attract flies, but the exposed, bloody wounds often become infected. Many sheep who are subjected to this mutilation endure a slow, agonising death.

When their wool yield drops, sheep aren’t given a happy retirement. Millions of them are loaded onto filthy, crowded ships every year and sent to the Middle East or Africa on weeks-long journeys during which many die of disease, starvation, and dehydration. Those who survive the ordeal are dragged from the ships, often by one leg, and their throats are slit while they’re still conscious, sometimes right there on the docks.

Wool farmers also inflict suffering onto other animals too by culling other forms of wildlife that are seen to threaten their sheep. For example, in Australia, many landowners kill kangaroos who are considered pests because it’s believed they compete with sheep for resources. In the US, farmers and the federal government slaughter millions of coyotes every year to prevent them from preying on farmed animals like sheep.

In 2019, there’s simply no need for animal-derived wool as there are many synthetic fabrics that have a lesser environmental impact and don’t inflict suffering on living creatures either. Look for eco-friendly knitwear such as organic cotton or Tencel (a closed-loop fabric derived from wood cellulose), as well as fabrics like hemp, soya-bean cashmere, and recycled fibres. The advancements in vegan materials are growing at a rapid rate and by boycotting this damaging industry and choosing these alternates, we all have the ability to make a difference.

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This article first appeared in Issue 11 of Be Kind magazine, published January 2020