The Impact Of Wool

This material has harmful consequences for both animals and the planet.

With winter in full swing, reaching for a woolly jumper may be thought of as the perfect warming solution. Yet 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. 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 soil erosion that it triggered a desertification process. This currently threatens an estimated 93 per cent of the land in the region.

Sheep release enormous amounts of methane into the atmosphere. 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.


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

Cruelty to animals

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.

Pushed to the extreme 

Without human interference for maximum wool production, sheep grow just enough wool to insulate themselves from the cold. If left to their own devices, they 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.

The wool trade

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

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

An ethical solution

There are many synthetic fabrics which have a lesser environmental impact and don’t affect animals either. Look for eco-friendly knitwear such as organic cotton, Tencel, as well as fabrics like hemp, soya-bean cashmere, and recycled fibres. The advancements in vegan materials and growing at a rapid rate and by boycotting this damaging industry and choosing to these alternates, we all have the ability to make a difference.