The use of wool is, in fact, one of the most widely debated, confusing, and misunderstood topic in veganism. And I don’t blame people for it! There are a lot of gray areas in how the wool industry functions.
Is Wool Vegan?
Wool isn’t considered vegan-friendly by most vegans for two reasons. Firstly, it comes from animals and veganism calls for avoiding all animal products. Secondly, there are many ethical issues involved in how sheep are raised for wool by industrial farmers.
However, some are of the opinion that the use of wool cannot be termed as a strict no because no animals are killed in the process and shearing sheep is essential for their health and life.
So, which of these point of views is true? Let’s dive a little deeper into how wool is produced and gain some insight into the wool industry to find out!
Is Wool Cruelty-Free?
The process of wool manufacturing, as most of you must already know, starts with the shearing of wool bearing animals, which in most cases are the sheep. And the process where it all starts from is controversial in itself.
What’s the Issue with Shearing? Is Sheep Shearing Cruel?
Over the years, we have been made to believe that shearing is just grooming or a haircut for sheep. However, that’s not true, especially with reference to how it’s generally done in the commercial industry.
If you have the heart, watch the following video to know the reality and why is wool cruel…
The videos contains disturbing footage.
But, isn’t shearing essential for sheep’s health and survival?
It is for the vast majority of them. But, why sheep need shearing is a controversial topic on its own.
The fact of the matter is that sheep did not always require shearing. We have made them dependent on us for their survival.
Before they were domesticated, sheep only grew as much wool as needed to keep them warm. They were also made to naturally shed their hair, just like dogs and cats. However, their years of selective breeding done to increase the production of wool (for humans use) have now made shearing essential for their health and even survival.
What makes the situation even worse is that some breeders do not even hesitate to shear their sheep in cold weather for their profit. One such incident got widely publicized in 2019 (thanks to PETA), when a large flock of sheep was found out in the cold, rainy, and windy weather, at Murrayfield Station in Tasmania, with no wool on their bodies to offer protection.
To sum up this discussion on sheep shearing, even if we accept that shearing has now become essential for sheep’s own wellbeing (we can’t undo the results of years of selective breeding), how it’s done in the commercial sector (at least for the most part) is unethical and outright cruel.
Are There Other Ethical Issues Involved In Sheep Husbandry?
Following are some other ethical considerations that make vegans detest sheep husbandry and the wool industry at large:
§ Flystrike Prevention/Management Methods
The methods many industrial farmers use to prevent and treat Flystrike is a major bone of contention in the wool industry that makes most vegans avoid wool.
For those who do not know, Flystrike is a parasitic infection of sheep, caused by flies. It’s a fairly common condition and is also known as Myiasis.
When sheep’s wool get soiled by their urine and faeces, the flies get attracted to the sheep. They lay eggs in the affected animals’ hindquarters. When these eggs hatch, the maggots make their way into the sheep’s wool and ultimately penetrate through their skin where they reside and feed off their flesh. Flystrike is a painful condition and can often be fatal as well.
What’s wrong with Flystrike Prevention Methods?
While there are several ways to prevent (or reduce the risk of) Flystrike in sheep, the methods that are most commonly used by industrial farmers are cruel and inhumane, to say the least. These include:
Tail docking is the process of shortening the tail of sheep to prevent fecal matter from accumulating on the sheep’s rear and tail, which leads to Flystrike. Although the process is effective in preventing the harmful condition, the way it’s done in sheep husbandry is unethical and painful for the animals.
The methods generally used for this purpose involve the use of:
- Rubber Ring – A constricting is tied using an elastrator to cut off the blood supply to the tail. It’s left until the tail eventually falls off, which typically takes up to 7 to 10 days.
- Hot Blade – Docking via this method involves using a heated docking iron/pliers to cut the tail off. It also involves holding the cut end of the tail against the heated blade to promote homeostasis.
- Rubber Ring + Bloodless Castrator – This process involves applying a bloodless castrator across the tail, widthwise, for about 10 seconds, followed by a rubber ring.
Even though industrial farmers who use these methods claim that they are quick and do not cause much pain to sheep, it’s not difficult to figure out that these processes cannot be painless. How can cutting off a body part be a painless process?
What makes tail docking even worse is that it is performed on sheep at a young age. Lambs as young as only one to two weeks old have to go through this painful process.
According to research, more than 90% of lambs in industrial farming undergo tail docking in the US. And it’s not uncommon for tails to be cut too short that the lambs develop rectal prolapse. It is a condition in which tail muscles get weak, resulting in the rectum protruding from the anus.
Mulesing is a surgical procedure performed on Merino sheep to prevent and/or control Flystrike infection.
Since Merino sheep have wrinkly skin, they are more likely to collect moisture and faeces in their rear area, which makes them more prone to Flystrike than other sheep breeds. The procedure used in industrial farming to prevent or control Flystrike in Merino sheep, called mulseing, is downright abuse.
The surgical procedure involves removing a large part of sheep’s skin, from the buttocks, along with the tail. The purpose of removing the skin is to prevent wool growth and create smoother skin, which doesn’t collect moisture or faeces in the folds and attract parasitic flies.
The process is carried on lambs when they are 6 to 12 weeks old. The babies are restrained in a metal cradle, on their backs while their tail and skin is cut off using shears that are similar to garden shears.
The fact that mulesing is performed without anesthesia and the sheep are not even given pain killers afterwards makes this process even more horrific.
Many people argue that mulesing isn’t performed worldwide and is even banned in New Zealand. However, the process is still legal in Australia, which is the largest producer of wool.
Are Flystrike Prevention/Control Methods Ethical?
The above discussion has made it clear that the methods used for Flystrike prevention and management in sheep are unethical and come under animal cruelty.
There may be some sheep farmers who refrain from using these methods or perform these procedures carefully, to reduce the pain and limit harm to sheep. But, most do not. This is the sad reality of industrial sheep farming.
§ Excessive Breeding is Cruel to Ewes
Since commercial sheep farming is all about producing as much quantity of wool as possible, it involves excessive breeding, which is cruel to ewes. Apart from the whole reproduction process, breeding multiple lambs can also be stressful for ewes and can even lead to Mastitis.
Mastitis is a bacterial infection of the udder. While there can be multiple causes of Mastitis, raising multiple (two or more) lambs is the most common reason in sheep. The inflammatory condition not only affects ewes’ health, but is also one of the primary reasons for their culling.
Mastitis is also contagious, which means if one ewe develops the condition, all female sheep in the flock become vulnerable to the bacterial infection.
§ Sheep That Are No Longer Useful Are Slaughtered
Sheep that cannot produce enough wool (which can happen due to several reasons) and ewes that experience reduced milk supply (which is a natural part of aging, but can also happen due to other factors) are no longer considered profitable. They are then sent to slaughterhouses to fulfill the demand for mutton meat.
Note that these are apart from the lambs that are specifically raised for meat.
Millions of sheep are also exported to many Middle Eastern, African, and Asian countries every year, where the demand for their meat is high. The terrible conditions in which sheep are exported and slaughtered there is a whole different story of animal cruelty.
The Sum Up – Is Wool Vegan-Friendly?
In case you have been wondering is wool okay for vegans or wanted to know why do vegans avoid wool, the above discussion must have provided you the answers. The cruel, unethical practices that are prevalent in commercial sheep farming make a large number of vegans refrain from using wool and classify it as non-vegan.
Can Wool Be Vegan (In Any Way)?
Since majority of the sheep (now) need shearing to stay healthy and alive, some people may argue that wool can be cruelty-free if sheep are sheared carefully. This could be a possibility in an ideal world. However, it doesn’t seem possible in today’s commercial industry.
There are ethical issues involved in almost every stage of industrial farming and they cannot all be rectified because farmers are not willing to do it. There may be some breeders who care for sheep and raise them ethically, but that’s not the case with majority who’s only concerned about profits.
You may find vegan-friendly wool on the market, but there is no foolproof way to confirm the claims.
Vegans have a hard time trusting suppliers. And their lack of trust is justified because there are no regulations or checks and balances in sheep husbandry and wool industry. Also, it’s impossible to trace the source of wool used in a jumper or cardigan.
There’s no way you can know if a manufacturer is sourcing wool from sheep that are ethically raised or those have been subjected to cruelty. You have no other information about the wool’s source than what’s provided by the manufacturer and we all know how common it is for manufacturers to make false claims to increase the reach of their products.
The wool industry relies upon industrial farmers, the vast majority of whom are involved in cruel and unethical practices. Hence, wool cannot be vegan.
To sum up this discussion, let’s answer some of the most common questions people ask about wool and its status in veganism.
§ Are animals killed for wool?
While animals may not be directly killed for wool, the unhygienic conditions they are raised in and the inhumane practices and procedures they are subjected to often lead to their death.
§ Will sheep die if not sheared?
Sheep can develop health issues and may eventually die if they are not sheared. However, as we have discussed earlier, this need for shearing is also created by humans with years of selective breeding. Furthermore, the way sheep are sheared in industrial farms is cruel, which is a major point of contention for vegans with regards to the wool industry.
§ Are vegans allowed to wear wool?
There’s no one stopping vegans from wearing wool. It’s a matter of personal choice. Since a significantly large number of vegans follow veganism because they want to contribute in decreasing animal-cruelty, they stay away from using wool.
However, if you’re only following a vegan diet for health reasons and have not committed to the whole philosophy of veganism, you may be okay with using wool. As I said earlier, it’s personal choice.
§ Why is PETA against wool?
PETA has been actively discouraging the use of wool for several years, for the same reasons many vegans avoid it. Since PETA is all about ethical treatment of animals, it is only justified why they are against exploiting and abusing sheep for higher and better production of wool.
§ Is wool industry bad for the environment?
PETA regards wool production a nightmare for the planet. According to the 2018 Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report, wool ranks in the top five most environmentally damaging materials. From sheep farming to wool manufacturing, the wool industry pollutes the environment at every stage and is considered a significant contributor to climate change.
§ Is acrylic wool vegan?
Acrylic wool is made from synthetic fiber, which means it is vegan. However, it is not ethical because acrylic fibers are a major source of water pollution.
§ Is Alpaca wool vegan?
Alpaca wool is made from the fleece of Alpaca, a camelid mammal species. It’s an animal-derived product and hence, non-vegan.
§ Is Merino wool vegan?
Merino wool is the wool made from the fur of Merino sheep. It’s not only non-vegan, but also cruel and unethical. As discussed above, Merino sheep are generally subjected to the abusive practice of mulesing to prevent or reduce the risk of flystrike.
§ Is recycled wool vegan?
Any wool that’s made from animal fleece is not vegan. However, some people argue that it’s fine for vegans to use recycled wool as it doesn’t cause any harm to any new animal. Again, it comes down to your own choice. Some vegans are okay with using recycled wool while some prefer to avoid it as well.
§ Is cotton wool vegan?
Let’s get it straight; there’s no such thing as cotton wool…
Keeping these technical terminology differences aside, cotton itself is vegan, so anything made from cotton will be vegan-friendly.
§ Is there cruelty-free wool?
As discussed earlier, some suppliers or manufacturers may claim that their wool is sourced from ethically-raised sheep. But, there’s no way you can counter-check their claims.
What Are the Vegan Alternatives to Wool?
Natural fibers are the best vegan alternative to wool. They are not only cruelty-free, but also durable and more comfortable. Following are some of the best vegan wool alternatives:
- Organic cotton
- Coconut fiber
- Soy fabric, also called vegetable cashmere
- Hemp fabric
- Beech tree fiber/fabric, also called modal
- Lyocell, also called tencel, made from wood pulp
- SeaCell, a silky fiber made from seaweed and eucalyptus
- Recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET), more commonly known as recycled polyester.
Did you find this detailed vegan breakdown of wool informative? Are you interested in learning about the ethical issues or cruelty practices involved in other industries? Read my article Is Olay Cruelty-Free to find out if the leading skincare brand is involved in animal cruelty.