The Ethics of Wool

The first synthetic polymers - the ancestors of our modern-day plastics - were created to find an alternative to ivory. Up until then, the volume of materials we could produce was constrained by the limits of nature. With the introduction of synthetic polymers, we no longer had to rely on existing supplies of tortoise shells, horns, silk, ivory, leather, and wool.

Now as we find ourselves working backward, trying to swap synthetic materials with more sustainable options, we can't help but look back to those materials we felt the need to replace in the first place. But times have changed. It's certainly not the case that supply is our only concern. For those materials that come from our animal friends, we also have the question of ethics to address.

Here at Good Intent, we offer a small number of products made from wool that are designed to serve as alternatives to conventional synthetic options. So, we felt it was important for us to tackle this question. Offering the most sustainable and ethical products out there has always been our goal. Does wool fit the bill?

How is wool produced?

Sheep shearing is the process of removing wool from a sheep. Adult sheep are typically shorn once per year. There are two methods of shearing: blade and machine. Blade shearing utilizes a tool similar to scissors and only removes some of the sheep's wool. This method is typically used in colder climates, where the sheep will benefit from having some wool left behind. Machine shearing utilizes a mechanical blade device similar to electric shavers. 

"Sheep must be shorn regularly to prevent excess wool from interfering with their bodies’ ability to thermo-regulate. Excessive wool coats also make the sheep more vulnerable to becoming immobilized by physical obstacles in the environment and more susceptible to predator and parasite attacks. Annual shearings using approved, standardized handling techniques are designed for the comfort and wellbeing of the sheep. Shearing generally takes place before the lambing season in order to aid in lamb health and survival." -Yoko, Echoview Fiber Mill

What's so great about wool?

Wool is unique in its ability to regulate body temperature, keeping wearers warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Wool is a renewable resource, meaning it can be regenerated at the rate that it is consumed. It's easy to maintain, resistant to stains, and at the end of its useful life, it can break down in a home compost system.2 In summary, by virtually any standard, wool can be counted as an environmentally sustainable material. 

"Today, synthetic fibers account for over 65% of global production because they are standardized, relatively cheap and easier to manage on a large scale than natural fibers. Why should a person spend more money on natural fiber products than synthetic 'vegan' products that are usually made of plastics or resource heavy bamboo from China? Julie Jensen, the Owner of Echoview Fiber Mill, asked herself those questions and has some pretty convincing answers. Synthetic plastics are made in a lab from oil and chemicals, and the process releases harmful volatile organic compounds that are a major contributor to smog and health issues. Economically, these plastics are connected to large corporations and are dependent on fossil fuels. Natural fibers come from living, breathing animals or plants that are a renewable resource and often have a small-scale farm or indigenous community behind them. If you consider the carbon footprint of the raw materials you consume and the power of your dollar, buying USA domestic wool/natural fibers is absolutely the best option." -Yoko, Echoview Fiber Mill

What makes wool unethical?

In recent years, PETA has published a series of undercover exposés that feature wool sheep suffering from poor nutrition, overexposure, and injury as a result of shearing. In their article "Inside the Wool Industry," PETA points out that the massive scale of the wool industry is often the culprit when it comes to mistreatment. In Australia, where about 25% of the world's wool is produced, farms are often so large, and the pace of work so quick, that sick sheep are left to die and workers are disincentivized from putting adequate time and care into the shearing process.4

How do you find humanely sourced wool?

As PETA points out, while there are lots of great benefits of scale, being able to keep a close watch on your supply chain isn't one of them. If you want to be assured that your wool product was sourced from a well-cared-for sheep, we suggest you start with a small, local supplier. 

Our wool products come from Echoview Fiber Mill, a company that we admire for their commitment to sustainability throughout their production process. And their sense of responsibility extends to the wooly friends who grow their fibers, too.

"The farmers we work with take great care of their animals - many of their animals are named and treated as beloved pets. Happy animals produce healthy, wonderful, guilt-free fleece that makes luxurious wool products. All of our fiber is sourced from within the US, and the majority of it is just a drive from Echoview Fiber Mill." -Yoko, Echoview Fiber Mill

There are also a few certifications you can look out for to ensure your wool is sourced responsibly. 

1. The Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) is a voluntary global standard that addresses the treatment of sheep and the environment they are raised in. Certified farms are audited annually to ensure that practices on their farms, and all of the subsequent processing steps, meet the standard.

  • RWS Certified companies you might know:
    • Patagonia
    • Eddie Bauer

2. ZQ Certification requires farmers to adhere to the ZQ Grower Standard that demands sheep be offered Five Freedoms: the freedom from thirst, to live naturally, free from discomfort, free from distress, and free from disease. The standard addresses not just animal welfare, but environmental sustainability, quality, traceability, and social responsibility as well.  

  • ZQ Partners you might know:
    • Allbirds
    • Eileen Fisher 

The takeaway

There's plenty of evidence that unethical treatment of sheep occurs on many wool farms across the globe. But as with anything we purchase, being careful about how and where we buy wool makes all the difference. If you're committed to aligning your purchases with your values, it might serve you well to set aside some time to research before you buy. This could even include sending emails to companies to inquire about their sourcing!

Needless to say, we feel really good about the wool products we carry at Good Intent, and we hope you can too!




Many thanks to Yoko from Echoview Fiber Mill for all the great tidbits and help with our research!


References: 1 | Science History Institute, History and Future of Plastics, 2 | Good on You, Material Guide: How Ethical is Wool?, 3 | Wikipedia, Sheep Shearing, 4 | PETA, Inside the Wool Industry, 5 | Responsible Wool Standard, What is the RWS?, 6 | Merino Wool Gear, The Ethics Behind Merino Wool

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