Many people believe that wool is a harmless material that can be used to create ethical fashion garments. We are made to believe that wool comes from a gentle and necessary haircut given to a sheep who is free to live their life out in safety until they pass away naturally. Unfortunately, this is far from the reality of the wool industry.

Completely intertwined with the sheep meat industry, the production of wool means the slaughter of sheep, who, while they are alive, are subjected to legal but painful procedures and often violent shearing practices. 

Similarly unknown to many, wool is far from the sustainable material it is advertised to be. While it is true that wool is biodegradable, human breeding of sheep for commercial gain has devastating impacts on the environment. Did you know that approximately 20-35kg of Australian wool is produced from one hectare of land, compared to 2270kg of Australian cotton? Or that to produce one kilogram of wool it takes 25kg of CO2e emissions, compared to 1.6kg CO2e for one kilogram of cotton?

Fortunately, we do not need wool to stay warm in winter; there are plenty of other materials which are free from animal cruelty, and more sustainable. 

Rescued newborn lamb Willow, safe and sound.
(Image: Rachael Michelle)

Genetic manipulation

Sheep do need to be shorn, but only because humans have selectively bred them for so long that their genes have been modified. Domesticated sheep originate from mouflon, an animal which still exists in the wild today.

Mouflon have a coat of fur and a wooly undercoat; both of which shed annually. In contrast, sheep have only a single coat made up of mostly the wooly fibres, which they are unable to shed to moderate their temperature between seasons.

The ancestor of domesticated sheep, the mouflon, did not and does not need to be shorn, as they have not been genetically manipulated.

Shearing

The most widely discussed aspect of the wool industry, shearing, has been exposed as consistently violent and abusive globally and across Australia. Investigations have exposed shearers punching sheep in the face, stomping on them, hitting them with metal clippers, carelessly cutting them, and stitching bloody, gaping wounds without training or pain relief.

Industry shearing is so often violent not only because sheep are commodified and devalued as individuals by the industry, but because shearers are generally paid per animal shorn, or by weight of wool. Being paid this way, rather than per hour, incentivises speed which inevitably results in rougher handling, more careless work, and injury. Unfortunately, this is only one of the ways the wool industry hurts sheep.

Sheep shearing investigations in Australia have exposed incredibly graphic violence far bloodier and brutal than this image, which is about as ‘calm’ as shearing sheds ever look.
(Image: Chantel McAlister)

Painful procedures

In the wool industry, sheep are subjected to painful standard practices. It can be easy to forget that lambs and sheep even have tails; the most common painful practice is tail docking, where lambs have their tail cut off or otherwise severed. 

Other painful standard practices include castration – where male lambs have their testicles cut out or otherwise removed – and, in Australia, mulesing; the slicing off of the skin around a lamb’s rear. All of these standard practices are completely legal and, almost universally, do not require pain relief to be provided for young lambs (the Victorian government recently made it a legal requirement for pain relief to be given during mulesing, but this is the only exception). 

A lamb wiggling their tail in glee at Edgar’s Mission

Winter lambing 

These painful procedures are forced upon the young lambs who survive the winter lambing season. Every year in Australia, 10 to 15 million newborn lambs die within the first 48 hours of their lives, largely of starvation, neglect and exposure.

Sheep impregnated to give birth in winter have weaned lambs by spring, when the pastures are most fertile. The wool and meat industry practise winter lambing for this reason; surviving lambs grow fatter faster, and with reduced supplementary feed costs, as compared to if lambs were weaning into dry summer. 

These monetary savings come at the cost of many newborn lambs’ lives; hypothermia is a common cause of death for lambs who are unable to meet the energy intake required to maintain their internal thermoregulation processes, and who are far too often not provided sufficient protection from rain, wind and cold.

Millions of lambs just like these two die every single winter lambing season in the wool and meat industry.

Slaughter industry

As surviving lambs grow up, and once they have been painfully mutilated, they are categorised. Depending on their weight and the quality and amount of wool they are growing on their backs, some lambs are slaughtered at 6-12 months old for meat. Some of these lambs are shorn of their wool prior to their slaughter, while others have their skin sold with wool still attached (used for sheepskin jackets and slippers).

Other sheep, who have deemed ‘higher quality’ wool, are kept alive for several years, to be regularly shorn, and often to be used for breeding more lambs. These sheep are slaughtered halfway into their natural lifespan, at 5-6 years old. At this point, they are considered ‘cast for age’; because their wool quality and fertility decreases, they are no longer profitable alive (unfortunately, this is all the industry is really focussed on). Their flesh is sold as mutton. 

The reality of wool as a slaughter industry, which produces meat from the flesh of sheep, is one that shocks many. However, the industry itself states that all sheep bred primarily for wool are eventually slaughtered for their flesh as meat. This is the case even for pure Merino sheep, commonly thought of as an exclusively ‘wool breed’. 

An industry fact sheet on wool.

At the slaughterhouse

In the abattoir, sheep are extremely stressed. Awaiting their death in an unfamiliar environment and with large amounts of handling, sheep in slaughterhouses release high levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone. 

Every year in Australia, 30 million lambs and sheep from the meat and wool industries are slaughtered. 

Standard, legal practice means that sheep are stunned, electrically or with a captive-bolt gun that is shot into their brains. Following stunning, sheep are slaughtered by having their throats cut open and bleeding out.

Sheep look on into an abattoir.
(Photo: Tommaso Ausili)

Protecting sheep

Sheep feel a wide range of emotions – fear, anger, despair, boredom and happiness among them – just like the cats and dogs we share our homes with, and like us. Sheep deserve to be treated with respect, dignity and compassion. However, the law currently does not protect them, and in fact, specifically exempts them, from the legal protections companion animals are offered. 

You can sign a petition to demand the legal protection of farmed animals from cruelty. And most importantly, you can make kinder choices when buying clothing, avoiding wool products which cause this pain and suffering. 

Lambs and sheep deserve protection and kindness.

Alpacas harmed and killed for their wool, too

Many people consider alpaca wool a cruelty-free alternative to sheep’s wool. Unfortunately, this industry is just as violent as any other that farms and treats animals like objects. An investigation in Peru, the top alpaca wool exporting country, has shown alpacas screaming and even vomiting from pain and fear as they are forcefully and roughly restrained and shorn. Alpacas are also, as with all animal fibre farming systems, slaughtered when they are no longer profiting the industry.


A baby alpaca.

Environmental exploitation

Globally, about 550 million sheep are slaughtered every year. While technically wool is a natural material, as it is not man-made, this does not make it sustainable. Indeed, it is not even truly natural for sheep and alpacas to exist as they do today – they have been bred into existence at an enormous scale for the purpose of their slaughter and our consumption. The result of this is devastating for the environment. Perhaps most shockingly, alpaca wool has been rated by the widely known Higg Index as the second most environmentally impactful material to produce of all.

Greenhouse gas emissions

To produce one kilogram of Australian wool, approximately x15 more greenhouse gas equivalent emissions are emitted than for one kilogram of Australian cotton.

Sheep are ruminant animals, which means they digest their food very differently to humans and other animals. Ruminants are the principal source of farmed animal methane emissions. Methane is a particularly problematic greenhouse gas, as it is 84 times more potent than CO2 in the short-term. For this reason, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations has stated, “livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation.”

In Australia, farmed animals are the third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions after the energy and transport sectors, and account for 56% of Australia’s total methane emissions. These emissions come from both cattle and sheep. 

Sheep in an Australian feedlot.
(Image:
Farm Transparency Project)
Australian land being cleared for animal agriculture.

Land clearing and desertification 

More native land is cleared in Australia for animal grazing than any other industry.

Wool production is incredibly land inefficient. On one hectare of land, 20-35kg of Australian wool is produced, compared to 2270kg of Australian cotton.

Further, sheep are a hooven animal who are non-native to Australia, and their presence impacts land health negatively. It has been recorded in Australia, in Patagonia, and many other places, that removing sheep from land helps the natural environment thrive, and reduces soil erosion and the risk of desertification. Desertification is devastating for our native plants and animals.

Eutrophication

Eutrophication is when a body of water becomes overly enriched with minerals and nutrients. As a result, excessive algae growth occurs and this process often results in oxygen depletion in the water. In turn, this kills fish and other aquatic life. Areas where this occurs are called ‘dead zones’. 

Because there are so many sheep bred for exploitation and slaughter, there is an enormous amount of sheep faeces. Phosphorus and nitrogen are the main nutrients involved in eutrophication and both are present in sheep faeces. As a result, diffuse pollution – the release of pollutants which individually may have no effect on the water environment, but which at a large scale, can have a significant negative effect, harms waterways. This is particularly the case in sheep holding yards, where sheep are kept at saleyards before their slaughter.

Residents in Australia hold up 100 year old Murray cod during an environmental crisis where up to a million local fish perished due to blue-green algae smothering their home.
(Image: Tolarno Station – a sheep station which runs alongside the Murray-Darling)

Wool scouring involves the use of detergents which are environmentally damaging. (Image: Susan S)

Wool processing

Between a sheep’s back and a knitted garment, wool must be processed, with dirt and grease being removed. This ‘scouring’ process involves chemical detergents. The liquid waste from wool scouring baths are deeply concerning for the environment; the organic effluent from a typical wool scour is similar to that of the sewage from a town of 30,000 people, running into our waterways. 

Detergents used in this process are often made of chemicals called alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEOs). APEOs are endocrine disruptors, meaning they interfere with the body’s endocrine system. They are known to be toxic for aquatic life, even causing feminisation of male fish, which in turn is of course detrimental to fish populations.

Human exploitation

The wool industry is full of harm not only to animals and the environment, but to the humans implicated in their exploitation, too. 

Shearers

Sheep shearers, who are paid not by the hour, but by weight of wool or per animal shorn, are frequently mistreated and put at risk.

‘As far as conditions for safety, I think it’s worse now than what it used to be … it’s just getting progressively worse… Not having toilets, not having fresh running water rather than washing in a bucket, not having proper harness holders, not having equipment that [has] safety buttons.’ – a shearer speaking to the ABC.

Unsafe equipment is a serious concern for shearers and those working in woolsheds. In 2017, a woman working in a woolshed was scalped by overhead machinery. 

However, the concerns are not only physical. The ABC also reported that ‘some shearing contractors were actively flouting the law and providing workers with drugs as payment’. ‘The Australian Workers Union said that in the past two years it had almost two dozen members report that contractors were making payments in drugs and cash.’

Poor working conditions in shearing sheds. (ABC)
Working in a slaughterhouse can seriously harm a person’s mental health.

Slaughterhouse workers

Studies have found that slaughtering animals for a living  can mean serious mental health concerns. PITS, or perpetration-induced traumatic stress, is similar to the more commonly known PTSD, with a fundamental difference; the mental suffering comes from having committed violent acts, not being the victim of them. 

We must consider that the people who we pay to exploit and kill animals in the wool and sheep meat industries are suffering due to their work, too. That they are not the ‘enemy’, but people suffering within a system which puts them at risk, and which normalises violence on a massive scale. 

Alternatives to wool

There are lots of alternatives to wool that are free from animal cruelty, and kind not only to animals, but to the earth too. Knitwear made from hemp, sustainable and recycled cotton, bamboo lyocell, Tencel and recycled synthetics (including from ghost nets!) are all great options. Make sure to read labels and buy garments free from any animal materials.

Have a search online for ethical products made from these materials, and remember that there are plenty of vegan second-hand goods available, too!

There are plenty of animal cruelty-free alternatives to wool, that don’t hurt lambs.
(Image:
Willow Creative Co)

For those wanting to know exactly where they can get some goodies now though, we’ve selected some of our favourite vegan, ethically made, sustainable knit pieces below. They come from brands and stores that either only produce and stock animal friendly garments, or which clearly label which of their garments are vegan.

These garments are more expensive than others, as the people who produced them were paid fairly. If you’re looking for more affordable ethical options, there are plenty of amazing second-hand cotton and man-made material knit products in stores, and on apps like depop. This is a great sustainable option, too.

Opia

Ethically made Australian label Opia creates knitted garments like this cosy sweater and ribbed pant look.

Both garments are made from cotton, which will biodegrade if ever to go back to the ground.

People often believe cotton uses a significant amount of water to grow. This is true, however much of farming does. The global average water requirement for cotton is 9,359m3/ton. The global average water requirement for sheep meat is 10,400m3/ton, important to remember as the sheep wool and meat industries are one and the same. (ref 1, ref 2)

Will’s Vegan Store

This ethical, carbon neutral label produces their vegan knitted garments – suited to all genders – from recycled polyester and cotton. The polyester they use has been re-spun into yarn out of recycled clothing waste.

Using recycled man-made materials is a great way to make the most of what has already been produced, reducing waste. If you’re concerned about microfibres, wash in a Guppy Friend bag which collects these.

Kow tow via Nois

Shopping via vegan online store Nois you’ll find lots of ethically made, fair trade, organic cotton knitted jumpers, beanies and scarves to keep you toasty in winter.

Fair trade cotton ensures that everyone on farm and involved in harvesting the raw fibre is treated and paid fairly.

Armed Angel

This ethically made label labels which of their products are PETA approved vegan and uses innovative eco-materials.

This cardigan for example, is made of Tencel, a kind of lyocell material which is made from sustainably harvested wood pulp, produced in a closed loop, recycling system.

Afends

If you stick to the hemp clothing collection by Afends, you’ll get ethically made, vegan garments made from a blend of hemp and organic cotton – like this beanie.

Hemp is a water friendly crop which as a fabric is very strong and biodegradable.