From fur beanies and blankets to leather boots and belts – animal skins and coats are some of the original fashion and textile fibres. Only in the past few decades has the wearing of furs and leathers become less favourable (or should I say frowned upon) due to the ethical issues involved in farming, catching and attaining said skins or coats.

But not all animal products are sourced alike, and some, such as wool, present a renewable and sustainable source of high quality material that acts as a barrier for us as it does for the sheep that grow their fleece. 

The quality and usability benefits of wool are extensive. The fibre is strong, soft and warm making it perfect for long lasting and high quality garments and home furnishings such as rugs and carpet. The natural fibre is hypoallergenic, breathable and odour and stain resistant. It’s basically a wonder material, so it’s no wonder it’s a popular, high quality fibre. 

But of course, all materials (natural or synthetic) come with an impact of sorts. Here’s what we found out about the ethical and sustainability credentials of wool. 

How ethical is wool production? 

Wool is a regenerative fibre and shearing sheep is a common process that is for most varieties of sheep, necessary. But don’t let the wool be pulled over your eyes, as with any industry that involves animals there are ethical issues at play. 

Pippa McConnell is the manager of Australian fashion label Woolerina. Working closely with sheep farmers, she’s across the ethical issues of working with wool. 

She says the two main topics about which the wool industry has had negative press are mulesing and the mishandling of sheep during shearing. Mulesing is a process that is used to avoid flystrike which can make an animal very sick, therefore flystrike needs to be avoided.

Mulesing however is being used less and less as the industry has been working on alternative solutions to overcome the mulesing process and many farmers are in fact moving away from this practice entirely. 

“In our experience the mishandling of sheep during shearing is very unlikely. Sheep are a farmer’s livelihood and therefore are treated with respect and dignity and if an incident should occur of a shearer mishandling the animal, they are quickly dismissed from the shearing team and the shed,” Pippa says.  

“To determine if the wool used in the garment has come from an ethical source is a little harder as, unless it states on the swing tag that the wool comes from sheep that are unmulesed, grazing in a paddock and treated kindly, there is no real way to determine the environment the wool was grown in.” 

How sustainable is wool? 

New Zealand carpet company Bremworth is transitioning away from synthetic fibres and is now focused on producing wool carpets, grown, processed and made in New Zealand. And while design and performance on the floor was a big driver of that, the desire to stop contributing to the mass amounts of synthetic materials that end up in landfills each year was just as important. 

“Even as a small producer, we were importing 2500 tonnes  of synthetic fibre annually. So we’re stopping the problem at the source and calling it quits with plastic fibre for good, in favour of nature’s own miracle fibre: wool,” the brand says. 

As a further bonus in helping to reduce the brand’s environmental impact, all carpet and yarn manufacturing takes place in New Zealand, across each step of its carpet-making process: Elco Direct wool buying operation (across North Island), Wool Spinning Plant (Napier), Wool Felting & Spinning Plant (Whanganui) and Carpet Tufting Plant (Auckland). So the brand is keeping things pretty tight.

But wool doesn’t just magically appear, there’s a water and emissions footprint that’s associated with farming sheep. According to the Victorian Department of Agriculture, water requirements for sheep range between 6-10L per head each day. 

And while they’re not burping up emissions at the rate cows are, they do contribute to the nation’s agricultural emissions in terms of C02 output.  

But while wool production has some obvious environmental deficits, the benefits are considerable and potentially far outweigh any negatives. Because it is a naturally grown fibre, it breaks down easily in landfill, making it highly favourable compared with its synthetic alternatives. According to Woolmark, it takes wool 3-4 months to decompose. Compare that with the 40-200 years that synthetics take to break down (if they even break down at all!) 

As a total bonus, wool is one of the few fibres that we’re actually really good at capturing and recycling, further reducing the textile’s impact on the environment. 

Lots of brands are already using this fantastic secondhand resource in their products around the world and in Australia and New Zealand.  

Waverley Mills, the last woollen mill of its kind in Australia, is one of them. The manufacturer has been creating its recycled woollen blankets and throws using offcuts from the factory floor for decades. Today with research, innovation and creativity it continues to make quality, recycled products. 

The farming practices in relation to wool production are evolving, and there’s innovation in the agriculture space happening to help bring down livestock emissions. But even with those improvements waiting to happen, wool is a clear winner when it comes to sustainability into the  fashion and textile space.  

This article was produced in partnership with Bremworth