My mother is a knitter and my closet is full of her chain link necklaces, soft cloche hats and chunky cowls. I love wool, but since reading an article recently sent to me, I’m reminded again of the environmental and ethical complexities of this natural fiber we so adore.
When we think of wool, it’s hard for many to think it could be anything but sustainable, growing off the back of a sweet little sheep. According to the Organic Trade Association, “In order for wool to be certified as ‘organic,’ it must be produced in accordance with federal standards for organic livestock production.”
That means no cruelty, no genetic engineering and as you might imagine, no being dipped in parasiticides (insecticides) to control external parasites. In Australia, super-soft Merino wool rules and mulesling, a painful wool shearing technique, is used on the majority of the sheep to hide-trim strips of “excess” flesh thereby maximizing wool output. This process eliminates the risk of Blowflies launching a full “flystrike,” a process by which flies nest in the folds of an animal’s skin. Feel free to feel ill. PETA narrated by singer Pink which, in traditional PETA fashion, is enough to make anyone think twice about eating lunch, much less buying a sweater.
You may have to do a little investigating to find out if the wool you are buying is mulesed or not as it’s atypical to have it appear on labels, but it will be well worth your time.
Jocelyn Tunney, of O-Wool and Tunney Wool Company, says investing in certified organic wool is comparable to how one should approach organic food.
“One would want to purchase organic wool for the same reasons as one would want to purchase organic food,” she says. “It’s a more sustainable farming solution, is kinder to the animals and is healthier for the consumer. Conventional wool is grown like conventional food – the land and sheep are sprayed and dipped in pesticides as a cheap means to increase salable product. The land organic wool comes from has to go through the same transition and certification process as the land organic food comes from.”
She’s quick to add that she’s talking about “certified” organic.
“A lot of people will label things organic (particularly wool) but organic holds very little meaning unless it is listed as certified organic, which has gone through a governmental certification process,” she says. “Here in the U.S. this is through the NOP (National Organic Program), which is how food receives the green USDA certified organic label. Wool itself can be USDA certified organic, but currently there is no certification process for textiles (yarn, fabric, etc.) in the USA, so a textile product cannot be certified. If you are purchasing something that does not say ‘made from certified organic wool,’ you are getting conventional wool.”
Donna Oakes, owner of vegan boutique Cow Jones Industrials says that because of the lack of accountability when it comes to verifying sustainable standards with animal-based products like wool and leather, she’s been a vegan consumer for 22 years.
“I am not comfortable selling items made from animals for a number of reasons – the most obvious products I wouldn’t sell would be those made from fur, next comes leather items – I don’t eat animals, so why would I wear them and if I don’t wear them, I wouldn’t sell items made from them,” Oakes says. “Wool is the area that doesn’t seem clear for a number of people who come into my shop. I could go on in detail but it really comes down to a very simple issue for most vegans: do we feel comfortable using animals for our own purposes? For me, this is not only an animal ethics question but one that I respond to as a feminist, and that answer is no.”
The Organic Trade Association advises that if you want to buy wool, consider this when you balk at higher prices:
1) Organic wool producers receive a higher price at the farm gate as their costs of production are higher, primarily associated with higher labor, management, and certification costs;
2) The organic wool industry is very small relative to the overall wool industry and does not have the economies of scale and resulting efficiencies of its conventional counterpart, and
3) Federal organic standards for livestock production prohibit overgrazing. If the price of wool is low, the difference cannot be made up by simply increasing production per unit of land, as is commonly practiced by many livestock producers.