Skip to content

Is Wool A Sustainable And Ethical Material?

how sustainable is sheep wool

Durable, degradable and from a renewable source, you’d assume wool is both sustainable and ethical.

But is this assumption backed up in fact?

Here’s all you need to know about how wool is made, its benefits, and its drawbacks.

Is wool sustainable, really?

Whether it’s a cosy knitted jumper or a Merino wool scarf, wool is found in many of our wardrobes. It’s warm and comfortable and often considered to be one of the most eco-friendly materials on the market.

The wool industry’s traditional image is somewhat idyllic. Free-roaming sheep, century-long artisanal heritage and a biodegradable fabric that can change our body temperature almost instantly.

At first glance, wool definitely looks like a sustainable and ethical material, especially when compared to the likes of acrylic and polyester fabrics. But what are the realities of the wool industry today, and what is the environmental and ethical impact of this popular fabric?

ball of wool yarn

Where does wool come from? Different types of wool explained

As we all know, wool primarily comes from shearing the coat or undercoat of sheep but not all sheep are the same!

Depending on the type of sheep your wool comes from, you’ll find yarns with different properties, price points, and even environmental impacts.

Here’s a quick overview of some of the most common types of wool, alongside their key properties and farming techniques.

– Merino wool

Merino wool comes from the thick coats of Merino sheep, a breed originating from Spain but now mostly bred in Australia.

Its signature softness makes this type of wool ideal for being in close contact with the skin, as Merino yarn is made from extremely fine fibres that feel gentle on the skin.

In order to achieve this softness, Merino wool goes through a lengthy scouring process designed to wash away all the grease (lanolin) that is naturally found in sheep’s wool.

– Cashmere

Cashmere is another prized wool fabric. It’s known for its soft feel and is derived from the undercoat of Kashmir goats, which are only shorn during their molting season.

The wool produced by these goats is incredibly fine, even finer than standard Merino wool.

– Lambswool

Lambswool is the product of the first shearing of a lamb, usually sheared when they’re around seven months of age. It’s sometimes referred to as virgin wool.

Lambswool yields extremely smooth and soft wool known for its hypoallergenic properties.

On top of that, there are also varieties of wool derived from different animals, like Angora wool, sheared from the delicate coat of Angora rabbits.

– Alpaca Wool

Alpaca wool is much rarer than other types of wool, but can be found from artisanal shops and small markets.

This wool comes from two main types of alpaca breed – huacaya and suri. Alpaca wool is both warm and hard-wearing, but does come with a hefty price tag. You can read more about how sustainable alpaca wool is here.

Is wool sustainable? The environmental benefits of wool

Wool is usually considered a sustainable material, as it’s made from natural, animal-derived fibres. These can be rapidly renewed, are fully biodegradable and recyclable.

The manufacturing process behind wool is also quite straightforward, and at a first glance, relatively low-impact. 

Once the animal’s fleece is sheared, the fibres are then scoured, spun, and woven into cloth with the help of computerised looms.

There are plenty of environmental benefits to choosing wool over synthetic materials like polyester, semi-synthetic such as bamboo viscose, or even over conventional cotton.

Right after hemp fabric, wool is the fabric that consumes the least amount of energy to produce, resulting in a smaller carbon footprint than other common textiles. On top of that, industry leaders claim that wool also uses 50% less water than conventional cotton to create 100 jumpers.

So, is wool sustainable? The answer might be a little more complex than a simple yes or no.

Why do some consider wool bad for the environment?

While wool does have a smaller carbon footprint compared to microplastic-laden textiles and thirsty fabrics like cotton, it is far from 100% sustainable.

Roughly half of the environmental impact of wool comes from sheep and goats themselves, as animal husbandry is tied to a wide range of emissions and deforestation issues. 

Throughout their lives, sheep and goats will release large quantities of methane gas, something which is usually attributed solely to cattle. As you know, methane is a greenhouse gas that isn’t good for the environment.

Due to their constant nibbling on grass, sheep feeding habits has led to land degradation in some parts of the world due to overgrazing. Many sheep farmers may use artificial chemicals and fertilisers on the sheep and land, but it is possible to produce organic wool too.

On top of that, wool production is also not free from many of the ecological issues found in other finished textiles.

The use of synthetic fibres is one of the driving causes of waterway pollution in developing countries that process wool. 

The scouring process used to wash away the natural grease of the fibre also releases detergents, wetting agents and emulsifiers into the surrounding environment. Not great for our natural ecosystems.

sheep being sheared by farmer

What about the ethics of wool?

Another reason why you might choose to avoid wool products comes down to ethical considerations.

While there are strict animal welfare regulations in place to prevent any harm and distress to the sheep and goats, the growing global demand for wool has led to problematic welfare conditions. This has led to sheep being kept in increasingly cramped and overgrazed spaces. 

Some practices involve cutting off skin folds at the rear and tail of the lamb without the use of anesthetics, to shear bigger yields and prevent diseases. This practice leaves a ringed area of scar tissue which no wrinkles or creases to hold moisture, faeces and attract flies. 

This controversial process is called mulesing.

While many brands have now boycotted the painful practice, it is still a routine procedure in some parts of Australia, the world’s leading wool manufacturer. To be clear, the RSPCA Australia have stated that mulesing is completely unacceptable. 

As it often happens though, the consumer will have to bear the responsibility of researching where their wool comes from, how the sheep are raised, and how they are shorn to make a truly ethical purchase. 

Often times, this information isn’t all there at hand and can be hard to trace. But it is possible to buy ethical wool from companies who do make their supply chain and procedures very clear for the consumer. 

Can wool be good for the environment?

So, is wool sustainable, or at least a more sustainable choice compared to other popular fabrics?

In many ways, wool is an eco-friendly material. The fabric is free of polluting microplastics, incredibly durable and biodegradable. 

Its production process is also not as energy and water-demanding as textiles like silk and cotton. Even more, if natural dyes and organic detergents are used for scouring the fibre, pollution can be minimal.

However, the impact of breeding and raising sheep and goats to meet the increasing demand for cheaper wool cannot be ignored.

And while there is a lack of research documenting the true impact of livestock emissions and overgrazing, the troubling figures we see from meat and dairy production might give us an idea of how unsustainable current practices might be.

But if you can’t imagine winter wear without high-quality wool pieces, opting for recycled wool is the best choice you can make for a more sustainable wardrobe. 

Wearing recycled and biodegradable fabrics helps reduce the impact of synthetic dyes and scouring chemicals, cutting demand for new wool products at the same time!

Don't miss out!
Join The Eco Life Newsletter!
Invalid email address
Give it a try. You can unsubscribe at any time. Check out the privacy policy.
Never spam. Always education.

If you enjoyed that, read more here…

Ben & Murphy Peaks Mam Tor

Ben is the Creator and Editor of Tiny Eco Home Life. I write and publish information about more sustainable, environmentally friendly living in and around the home.

Alongside this website, I love spending time in the natural world, living a simple life and spending time with my young family (Murphy the dog!) I round up my thoughts and recent blogs on the Eco Life Newsletter.