Wool is not vegan, and its production entails a staggering degree of cruelty and animal suffering.
Sheep produce more than 90 percent of the world’s wool supply. Nearly all the rest comes from goats, alpacas, and rabbits. The crinkly nature of the hair shorn from these animals makes it easy to spin into thread and yarn. Annual wool production worldwide totals about 1.7 million metric tons, taken from about 1.8 billion domesticated sheep and goats. The top wool producing nations are Australia and China, which unfortunately have pathetically weak animal welfare laws protecting sheep.
Animal Cruelty in the Wool Industry
Sheep were domesticated from Asiatic mouflons, who grow only as much hair as they need to stay warm. Sheep, by contrast, grow extremely thick coats, and their coats are woolly rather than hairy.
Once a year, sheep farmers clip these thick coats down to bare skin. Limiting shearing to once a year cuts labor costs but causes substantial suffering. It results in animals being exposed to extreme heat and cold while either having thick insulating coats or no protection at all.
The wool industry also carries out a barbaric procedure—often without anesthetic—called mulesing. Using a knife, workers slice off strips of the wrinkly flesh near a lamb’s hindquarters. The resultant scarring inhibits hair regrowth and thereby prevents parasitic flies from laying eggs. Most Australian sheep also have their tails cut off, again for the sake of reducing the prevalence of these parasitic flies.
Additionally, Australia is the world’s #1 live export country. Each year, producers ship upwards of a million sheep to the Middle East for slaughter. While live export allows for fresher meat for consumers, the practice inflicts misery onto animals who must live aboard terribly crowded ships for weeks at a time. The largest boats carry 85,000 sheep!
Products that May Contain Wool
As one of the most common textile fibers used for thousands of years, wool shows up in all sorts of items.
- Business Suits
Angora and cashmere are premium varieties of wool taken from rabbits and goats. As with virtually all other animals raised commercially, both angora rabbits and Kashmir goats suffer deplorable treatment.
Vegan Wool Alternatives
Fleece jackets, made from microfiber textiles, are among the most popular types of winter outerwear. These garments are warm and attractive, but bear little resemblance to wool. Other jacket styles feature a fleece-like interior made from coarse polyester that carries a strikingly close resemblance to wool.
What’s great about these sorts of synthetic fleece materials is they offer plenty of warmth, without wool’s scratchy feeling. Plus, unlike wool, these vegan fabrics are water resistant and they don’t produce a foul odor when wet. I’ve always found wool garments, especially turtlenecks, uncomfortable and it’s nice to have vegan alternatives.
Other wool alternatives include cotton or polyester textiles. Many of these fabrics have a feel and texture remarkably similar to wool. In particular, cotton flannel shirts are hard to tell apart from garments made from woolen fabrics. But to be frank, although these fabrics closely resemble wool they don’t offer comparable warmth.
Campaigns to Protect Sheep
Thanks to animal welfare campaigns, live export has diminished significantly, and mulesing is now sometimes performed with anesthetic. Additionally, New Zealand has pledged to halt live export by 2023.
Recent developments offer reason for encouragement, but there is still a great deal of cruelty associated with wool production that demands opposition. Both Animals Australia and Compassion in World Farming run ongoing campaigns to ban cruel industry practices and to discourage the purchase of wool.