We’re nearly there. That time of year when we venture out to crisp mornings and crunchy fallen leaves to return home to a warm drink and a cosy jumper.
When we do the obligatory season swap and our shorts are resigned to the loft, many people invest in a new comfy knit or two. In a world swamped in microplastic, we know not to choose synthetic options and we drift towards the woollen alternative.
After all, wool is natural and sustainable and sheep live free and happy in the Scottish Highlands occasionally popping in for a trim with the farmer and then back to idyllic bliss to live out their days surrounded by green pastures. Or do they?
Emma Oddie from Ethical Consumer Magazine unravels the true story behind the wool industry and suggests some ethical, sustainable and just-as-cosy alternatives.
Wool: is it the new fur?
Many vegans give woollen clothes a hard pass. Although sheep aren’t killed for their wool, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t exploitation, a massive environmental impact and a whole host of animal cruelty in the mix. In fact, PETA suggests that wool is the new fur when it comes to animal cruelty and this cruelty has been linked to farms in the UK, US, South America and Australia.
Many of the sheep breeds, such as Merino, have been bred to generate huge amounts of wool. More wool means more money for the farmers but the excess skin needed to generate more wool means a fertile ground for infection and maggots. This issue has seen the rise of a practice called mulesing, still common in Australia, where a section of the rump is removed to form scar tissue and prevent infections from taking hold. This practice, like the tail docking, castration and ear clipping that is still carried out in the UK, is often done without anaesthetic, causing pain and trauma to the animal, as well as the risk of infection.
This is only the beginning of the ordeal. With huge, unnaturally large woollen coats, sheep are at risk of heat exhaustion, in summer, and at risk of exposure when their coats are sheared too early in colder seasons.
Put simply, profits are often put before animal welfare in a bid to grab another shearing opportunity. The current mortality rate for lambs is unnaturally high too, around 15-20% of lambs die within the first few weeks of life, and there is really no consensus on why these rates are so high.
Despite sheep having an average life expectancy of between 10-12 years, this is severely cut short for many sheep. Wool quality declines after the fifth year and this means that older sheep are no longer profitable. Sadly, this means the slaughterhouse in most cases. For sheep in many countries, this means live transport in cramped, unsanitary conditions, often for weeks at a time before a painful death in the meat trade. Although the government is in the process of banning live exports from the UK by the end of 2021, many garments will contain imported wool and there is often no real way of knowing how these sheep have been treated.
What about the carbon – surely wool is better than synthetic fibres?
If the animal rights issues alone aren’t enough to put you off wool, then the carbon footprint will certainly get you itchy under the collar.
In our recent report on the carbon cost of clothing, wool was the heavyweight when it came to carbon emissions, with 46 kg of carbon dioxide created for every kg of fabric. Acrylic followed close behind at 38, whereas polyester was less than half at 21. The lowest emitter was linen with less than a third of the emissions of wool.
So why does wool produce all this carbon?
Many factors contribute to the high carbon footprint:
- Sheep are high greenhouse gas emitters (particularly methane) which is closely linked to global warming.
- Land clearing and even deforestation can take place to create new pastures, leading to a decrease in natural carbon sinks.
- This can lead to soil erosion and a reduction in natural biodiversity.
- Many other production processes, such as yarn preparation, dyeing, finishing, fabric production, assembly and distribution contribute to the carbon footprint.
If not wool, then what else?
Well, wool isn’t the only fabric to avoid.
Acrylic and polyester are riddled with issues. They are created from petrochemicals and are non-biodegradable. In fact, every time you wash these synthetic materials, little fibres can slough off and make their way into waterways. We still don’t know the full impact of microplastics on our oceans and food chains, but the initial indications don’t look good.
Cotton also presents big issues, including large pesticide and fertiliser use and widespread human rights issues in the supply chain, particularly in China, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
So, what do we have left?
The good news is that there are some great fabrics out there that don’t come with a large ethical and environmental price tag.
Second-hand is best
For true guilt-free shopping – shop second-hand and wherever possible buy natural fibres that won’t contribute to the plastic problem. If plastic is your only option, or you already have a few synthetic items, wash them in a guppy bag to prevent microfibres from going down the drain. Pretty much anything goes when you buy second-hand natural fabrics as the profits often go to charity shops or vintage businesses and nowhere near fast fashion brands or their dodgy supply chains.
If you can’t find what you need second-hand, then there are a few fabrics that you should look out for:
- Recycled cotton – again, buying items made from recycled materials don’t directly contribute to environmental or ethical issues. But be careful. Labels can often be misleading and recycled content can be a low percentage of the overall garment. Look for 100% recycled items.
- Organic hemp – this highly sustainable crop, uses little water, little to no pesticides and up to three times less land than cotton. More brands are starting to see the value in using hemp although it is often blended with other fibres. Thought has a few hemp items to choose from.
- Organic linen – made from flax, linen has the lowest carbon footprint of any fabric and is completely biodegradable so it won’t end up in landfill. It’s tricky to find pure linen jumpers but it is quite often used in a blend.
For more information on ethical consumerism and to see our detailed guides on everything from fashion and beauty to banks and washing machines, visit the Ethical Consumer website.