Is wool vegan? As a vegan, you’d think my response would be an emphatic no.
Wool comes from sheep, and it’s not for human consumption—therefore, it’s exploitation.
That was my understanding of wool. And if I’m honest, that’s what I wanted to believe.
However, the ethics of wool is not as straightforward as we’d like it to be. It’s more grey than any area of veganism I’ve investigated to date.
You’ll find that there are extreme examples of good and bad across wool practices, depending on various factors.
Most vegan articles about wool highlight the severe exploitative cases, and most anti-vegan articles try to shine a spotlight on sheep’s positive health and welfare.
These competing perspectives make it incredibly confusing to know what is right and wrong as mindful consumers.
So I want to bring an objective perspective to the wool industry by assessing the ethics as it relates to veganism.
A brief history of sheep and wool
Wild sheep are in mountainous habitats, and their diet consists of grass primarily.
Male sheep are called rams, female sheep are ewes, and young sheep are lambs. A group of sheep is known as a flock.
According to Wikipedia, the bodies of wild sheep (and some domestic breeds) are covered by a coat of thick hair to protect them from cold.
This coat contains long, stiff hairs, called kemps, over a short, woolly undercoat, which grows in autumn and sheds in spring.
However, today, only 2% of the global sheep population are wild sheep.
Humans have developed the woolly undercoat into a fleece of long wool, which was fundamentally used to keep humans warm.
In addition to wool, sheep are also kept for milk and meat.
Domesticated sheep have been part of human culture since 11,000 to 9,000 B.C. Sheep were the second tamed animals only after dogs.
The domestication and breeding of sheep paved the way for the rise of shepherding, whose primary responsibility was to keep the safety and welfare of their flock.
Shepherding has evolved into commercial farming practices, ranging from a small backyard acreage to large scale operations.
Do sheep need to be shorn?
As mentioned above, 98% of the total sheep population has been domesticated and bred to grow wool. The other 2% of sheep have naturally shedding hair.
This basically means that all sheep need to be shorn.
A prime case study is Shrek 1 and Shrek 2, the two sheep who escaped from farms in New Zealand and Australia, respectively, ran wild for six years. When the sheep were found, they grew over 60 pounds of fleece on their bodies.
I’m surprised they survived Australian summers carrying such a thick coat!
So yes, sheep need to be shorn. This is (now) by design, and I don’t think the intent to breed sheep to produce more wool is ethical, but we can’t undo the past.
I also want to call out my hypocrisy as we do the same thing with dogs. For example, I adopted a pet dog at the age of 11 months who was bred to appease many positive qualities for human companionship.
- He doesn’t shed hair.
- He can live indoors happily.
- He’s good with children.
- He wants to snuggle all the time.
Even as a vegan, I’m not naive to acknowledge that my dog is essentially a product of the dog breeding industry. And now Chewy and all other domesticated dogs are dependent on humans for their survival.
My dog needs to be shorn, but we call it grooming.
Sheep are also dependent on humans for their survival which includes shearing.
How large is the wool industry?
According to Business Wire, global wool production generates about USD 2.2 billion annually.
The International Wool Textile Organisation states that the wool industry cares for approximately 1.1 billion sheep.
So 1 billion sheep generates over 2 billion in annual revenue for fleece.
Wool is supplied from all over the world. However, the largest producer is Australia which is responsible for 25% of the wool industry.
The wool market is like watching a volatile stock price, and I guess that’s because it is!
With China being the largest importer of wool and with constant trade wars between China and the U.S., predicted revenues remain inconsistent.
To summarise, the wool industry is significant in size. And while farmers routinely complain about not making enough money to support their production, there’s still a reason why over a billion sheep are still kept to produce wool—cash money.
How is wool extracted from sheep?
The simple answer is that sheep are shorn using mechanical shears called handpieces.
These handpieces are large clippers, not too dissimilar to the ones I use to shave my head or what dog groomers use.
Yet, despite the simple tools, there are varying degrees of treatment and care towards sheep in the shearing process—depending on the farm and the shearer.
On one side of the spectrum, there are ruthless methods of removing wool from sheep. Here are some examples:
- Sheep naturally resist shearing time (much like some pet dogs), and some shearers aggressively pin down the sheep to prevent them from moving around, causing pain and trauma to the animals.
- When sheep resist, footage has been captured of shearers hitting and stomping on the heads of sheep to keep them still.
- Shearers are generally paid by the weight of wool produced, not by the hour. The goal of the shearing school is to get shearers to be able to shear 100 sheep in a day. Some shearers can shear up to 400 sheep in a day! These folk are referred to as Gun Shearers. So with internal competition created by the framework of the shearing profession, some shearers go about their practice carelessly, trying to hit and exceed their daily targets. Going at such a speed often means harming sheep, e.g., regularly knicking ears, tails, and chunks of skin.
- When wounds are accidentally created through the shearing process, some sheds sew wounds without the use of anesthetics, again causing significant pain to the sheep.
This is just one side of the story.
On the other side of the spectrum, skilled shearers with many years of experience take time and care to methodically remove wool from sheep without causing any harm to the animals.
The problem with wool is that there’s very little transparency and accreditation through labelling for consumers to know how the wool they’re purchasing was obtained.
When are sheep shorn?
When evaluating the ethics of wool, it’s essential to understand when sheep are shorn as it relates to seasons and weather.
For this section, I’m going to focus on the Australian wool market, as it’s the largest.
It was once common practice to shear sheep annually just before spring. This makes sense as maintaining a thick coat becomes uncomfortable for sheep during hot Australian summers.
However, wool brokers are advocating for 6-month shearing intervals to maximise profits.
Frequent shearing cycles have been found to increase the fertility of ewes, increase lambing and higher rates of twins. This helps to breed more lambs for meat, and more adult sheep for wool, thus increasing overall revenues.
With these cycles, shearing occurs in October (Spring), February (Summer), and June (Winter), with wool auctions held in the proceeding months.
For our international readers, while Australia is a warm country, many states have incredibly harsh winters. I live in one of them—so I know!
The two states with the highest production of wool are New South Wales and Victoria, both of which experience cold winters.
Now it’s one thing to deal with unpredictable weather when you try to shear at the right time of the year. But it’s downright deadly to pencil in shearing during the months of winter.
For instance, Tasmania is one of Australia’s chilliest states, and Peta captured footage of shorn sheep on a farm in the middle of winter.
Animal Liberation reported 10-15 million newborn lambs die each year from starvation, neglect and exposure to cold weather.
Again there are always two extremes in these examples.
A quick local Google search reveals an award-winning shearing company called Elkins Alpaca Shearing who suggests shearing once a year just before the warmer months. That’s the way it should be.
Inconsistencies, folks. Inconsistencies.
Another point of contention in the wool industry is the treatment of a condition in sheep called Flystrike.
Flystrike is a myiasis condition in which domestic sheep are infected by one of several species of flies which are external parasites of sheep.
It’s pretty disgusting.
When sheep pee on their coat and make it dirty, flies are attracted and lay eggs on the sheepskin. Fly larvae then eat into the sheep and kill them.
Millions of sheep and lambs die each year from Flystrike.
Flystrike can be treated using a variety of methods, including:
- Through regular shearing. Shearing keeps wool down on sheep, and therefore reduces chances of attracting Flystrike. However, as discussed previously, more frequent shearing may result in shearing in colder months, which isn’t ideal.
- Flystrike can be treated by applying products like Cyrex, and more recently, tea tree oil, which are liquids that prevent and kills larvae.
- Another approach is a process called mulesing, which involves removing the skin from the genital/buttock area of the sheep to prevent wool from growing and attracting flies.
Like all of the other examples, there are two sides of the spectrum when looking at the harm caused to sheep in the process of treating Flystrike.
If we were to treat sheep with the same love and care as we do with domesticated cats and dogs, we would take them to the vet and get them treated with the least amount of irritation to the animal.
I do not doubt that there are farmers who approach treatment with this level of consideration.
However, getting veterinary care for flocks of sheep is very costly and would eat into profits. So, of course, there are cheaper methods like mulesing, which, if done well, can be okay for sheep.
But there are many examples of where mulesing can be very cruel and painful to sheep. After all, we’re talking about removing chunks of skin with varying degrees of care.
Read more: Is Mohair Ethical? What You Need To Know
How the meat and wool industry work together
It’s impossible to discuss the ethics of the wool industry without mentioning the meat industry.
If you Google “how to make money from sheep,” you’ll find lots of information on how to monetise a flock.
There are three main revenue streams from keeping a flock, including:
- Meat – the “highest quality” meat is from lambs, which are sheep under the age of 12 months. You can also make money from mutton, which is the flesh from an adult sheep. However, mutton is not very popular.
- Wool – as I’ve mentioned already, sheep are shorn one to three times a year, and you can sell their wool on the market.
- Milk – sheep milk is a specialty product used to make cheeses like pecorino and Roquefort.
So why am I mentioning the various revenue streams from sheep?
Well, when assessing whether wool is vegan, we’re analysing multiple levels of exploitation during the life of a sheep.
I acknowledge that sheep need to be shorn, but does that mean we’re not exploiting them?
Let’s break this down for a moment.
A farmer needs adult sheep to produce wool. But those same adults are also used for breeding lambs. So there’s a dual purpose.
Breeding more than two to three lambs to every ewe is too much for a mother to handle, often resulting in Mastitis.
According to the Australian government, Mastitis is the term for a bacterial infection of the udder. It is most common in ewes raising multiple lambs. Most cases occur during the initial weeks after lambing or immediately before weaning.
With lamb meat representing most of the profit in a flock, it’s only natural for farmers to breed an excessive amount of lambs, which then exploits ewes through Mastitis.
Furthermore, farmers use sheep to produce milk for the cheese market. Again, this increases Mastitis in ewes as we steal milk for human consumption instead of supporting the weaning lambs.
Another consideration is taking lambs away from their mothers, creating separation anxiety. A practice we look down upon in the dairy industry.
So while we need to shear sheep, the question remains; are these sheep being exploited during their lives? It appears that the answer is yes.
What happens to adult sheep that are no longer productive?
After spending a few hours in sheep forums, I found a few options for managing old sheep.
When a ewe reaches about five years of age, they start losing their front teeth from grazing all day.
As they struggle to graze, it changes their biology—leading to diminished milk supply. It also results in lambs not reaching market weight at weaning.
At this point, the ewe is no longer profitable, so commercial farmers will typically auction them off to stockyards so they can get some money for their assets before the sheep becomes utterly useless to them.
What happens to these sheep at stockyards?
For the most part, sheep continue to be exploited for breeding, milk, and wool—but often in terrible conditions.
Once there is truly no productivity left, the sheep get sent off to slaughter for mutton, burgers, pet food, and other types of foods.
Another terrifying option is exporting sheep overseas.
Each year, 1.7 million sheep are exported from Australia to the Middle East and North Africa. If you don’t know already, live export conditions are horrific, and no living being should experience such a thing.
But these trade agreements exist to serve the halal community in these regions. Who, by the way, slit sheep’s throat without the use of stunning as per halal standards.
Again, this is just one extreme, but unfortunately, it’s a common destiny for many sheep.
There are case studies of backyard farmers who keep sheep on until they naturally die. Sheep have a similar life expectancy to dogs living between 10-12 years on average.
This is a much better scenario than being sent away at five years old. At this point, these sheep are considered to be pets.
Is there a scenario where wool is vegan?
So is wool vegan? Sure, there are some rare situations where one could make the argument. But it would mean meeting two requirements:
- Sheep need to be shorn carefully—just like what you’d expect from your caring local dog groomer.
- Sheep are kept purely as pets or rescues where they aren’t exploited for breeding or milk.
It’s just like the human hair industry, and yes, there’s such a thing!
Some hair salons sell excess human hair to companies that produce wigs, and I believe, some fashion garments.
We don’t see this practice as exploitation, so why would we see it differently with sheep?
The problem is, vegan-friendly wool, while it sounds harmless, is incredibly rare—as it’s challenging to find trustworthy suppliers. The traceability of wool fabrics, in general, has a long way to go.
As you can see from this post, there are exploitative practices and non-exploitative practices at each point of contention.
My concern is that once we start exploiting animals for revenue, it becomes harder to draw the line for what is ethical. We keep taking and taking, little by little, justifying along the way until we outright exploit sheep.
Finding pure altruistic wool farms still entice entrepreneurs to make a little bit more, and at what point do they wake up and realise that they’re running a commercial practice?
Demand for a product you can produce is an enticing prospect.
The way I see it, if we’re living in the grey with wool, as a vegan, I think it’s safer to not participate in the consumption of wool. Better to be sure, right?
We’ve spent thousands of years modifying DNA for our needs, and it’s likely to take a long time to reverse the detrimental impact of our decisions.
If we keep buying wool, we keep signalling to the wool industry to breed more sheep, which comes with all of the other problems.
Summary: is wool vegan?
Sheep are specifically bred for wool, meat and milk. Farmed sheep don’t live as long as they naturally would and experience varying degrees of exploitation in their lifetime.
However, if sheep are cared for as domestic pets, are shorn in appropriate seasons, and get to live their full life, there are some rare scenarios where wool is vegan-friendly.
Sustainable alternatives to wool
Since becoming vegan in 2014, I’ve found it easy to live without the consumption of wool.
Now I’m not living in Iceland, but where I live, it does get to -5 degrees Celsius with frost, and I do just fine without wool.
The most common vegan alternative to wool is organic cotton. Now cotton is not perfect, as it requires a lot of water to produce, but I’ve found it to be the best functional alternative.
For a list of innovative brands making fashion (and bedding) without the use of wool, check out our list of the best ethical and sustainable clothing brands.
Another alternative is to buy wool second-hand because, at this point, you’re not directly telling the market to produce more.
It’s ultimately up to you to decide what you think is the right thing to do. Just know that as much as there is “good” in the wool industry, there’s also “bad”.
What do you think? Is wool vegan?
What do you think? Is wool vegan?
Where do you sit in the ethics of wool as it related to the exploitation of sheep?
I’d love to start a conversation with you in the comments below.
Thanks for reading.