Why Wool Is Not Vegan
As a vegan, one of the questions that I get a lot from perplexed people concerns wool. Many people have an idyllic image of happy sheep roaming green hills, that and because its cultivation does not necessitate the death of the animal, unlike meat production or leather, for example. However, the cultivation of wool is far from the pastoral idyll one might imagine, with any industry that profits from animals, money always comes before the animals’ well-being,
Wool production is an industry. Like any other branch of animal agriculture, it thrives by commodifying animals and objectifying them as resources for human consumption. It converts sentient creatures into units of production, thereby consigning them to brief lives of neglect, abuse, and captivity in the service of increased profit margins.
Moreover, just as the dairy industry implicitly supports the meat industry by supplying it with veal calves and female cows whose milk production levels have dropped, wool funnels sheep who are no longer producing profitable levels of wool into the meat industry, often through live export which entails its own unique set of abhorrent practices. Ultimately, every shorn sheep will be brought to slaughter.
FAQ: Sheep and other animals aren’t killed for their wool so why should I avoid it?
Some well-intentioned people overlook clothing and other items that contain wool because the cultivation of the raw material does not always require the death of an animal. The thing to understand is that veganism is an ethical philosophy which begins with the idea that we should not use animals in any way and avoid, to the extent that is possible and practical, all forms of use. Every single shorn sheep, goat, alpaca, muskoxen, camelid, or rabbit whose fur is used to make wool will be slaughtered once their productivity lessens. In the end, they all die.
The world’s largest exporter of wool is Australia, where mulesing is a common practice. This barbaric procedure—in which farmers carve huge chunks of skin and flesh from lambs’ backsides using tools resembling gardening shears in a crude attempt to prevent a parasitic infection called “flystrike”—is typically performed without any painkillers.
Shearers are usually paid by the sheep, not by the hour, which encourages fast work without regard for the welfare of the animals. Sheep commonly suffer from injuries ranging from nicks to complete amputation of their udders, ears, penises, and other body parts. Says one eyewitness: “[T]he shearing shed must be one of the worst places in the world for cruelty to animals … I have seen shearers punch sheep with their shears or their fists until the sheep’s nose bled. I have seen sheep with half their faces shorn off …”
Export and Slaughter
When their wool production begins to decline, most sheep are killed for meat. Many are sent on a long journey in a severely crowded, multitiered ship to countries that have few if any animal welfare laws or regulations. These sheep—millions every year from Australia—are often slaughtered by having their throats cut while they’re still conscious.
How is Wool Listed on Labels?
It would be great if the labels on our clothing, bedding, and other textiles would list the animal that the natural materials came from, but sadly that isn’t the case. Not only are the labels ambiguous in terms of who the raw material was cultivated from, there are a plethora of names to describe the type and weave of the textile. This can confuse even the most well-informed consumer. I’ve listed some of the most common names you might find listed on a label, but this is by no means an exhaustive list. When the origin of a textile is in doubt, avoiding it in favor of a plant-based alternative may be the only solution.
Beaver cloth, botany wool, broadcloth, challis, cheviot, chinchilla cloth, donegal, felt, flannel wool, gabardine, glen checks, harris tweed, heather mixture wool, herringbone wool, homespun wool, houndstooth check, jersey (usually knit in fine wool but can also be found in silk and man-made fibers), laine (French for “wool”), lambsdown, lindsey-woolsey, loden fabric, mackinaw fabric, melton, merino wool, oatmeal cloth, panama cloth, petersham, pilot cloth, poodle cloth, rabbit hair, sharkskin, tartan, or tweed.
What About Recycled or Second-Hand Wool?
This is a question that is brought up frequently when discussing vegan fashion. Should we wear or use animal-based clothing or textiles if they are recycled or bought at a second-hand store? Some organizations claim that reusing or repurposing textiles already produced is perfectly fine and falls under the proverbial vegan umbrella. I emphatically disagree. It is true that these products have already consumed resources in their manufacturing, thus eliminating the need for additional resources to produce new, plant-based items. But the wearing of these items still sends a message that animal-based clothing is not only acceptable, it is fashionable. After all, in most cases the people will have no idea if the item is second-hand or recycled. They will only see the item for what it is- the skin, fur, or hair of an animal. Instead we should work on reducing and eliminating these items from being manufactured in the first place.
What Are the Alternatives to Wool?
As you’ve seen above in the vegan kitting and crafting section, there are lots of alternatives to animal-based wool. Some are natural plant-based fibers, some are a mix between synthetic and plant-based, and some come straight from synthetic fibers. Finding alternatives to wool has never been easier. Look for plant-based textiles such as organic cotton, bamboo, soy (soy silk), banana silk, nettle, ramie, jute, kenaf, pineapple fiber, fique, corn, washi, pine paper, tencel/lyocell, ingeo, rayon, viscose, modal, lenpur, acrylic, dralon, nylon, polyamide, and polyester.
Vegan Knitting & Crafting
Wool yarn is a common choice for knitters and crafters, but what if you are vegan? Good news, there are plenty of non-animal choices for vegan crafters. Here are a few to get you started.
Cotton is the most common plant-based yarn, and there are a variety of readily-available 100% cotton and cotton/synthetic blends out there but there are a few considerations to note. Conventional cotton crops are some of the most intensively sprayed plants in the world. By choosing organic cotton yarn you can eliminate exposure to these pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, and defoliants. (3)
Other Plant Fibers Include:
- Soy (Soy Silk)
- Banana Silk
- Pineapple Fiber
- Pine (Pine paper)
Synthetic Plant Fiber Yarn
Synthetic plant fibers are fibers that start out as plants but go through a transformative chemical process to become yarn. These include tencel/lyocell (from wood pulp), ingeo (from corn), rayon, viscose, modal, and lenpur (from pine trees).
Synthetic yarns include acrylic, dralon, nylon, polyamide, and polyester. Some synthetic yarns contain a blend of synthetic and plant fibers, others are made to look like animal-based fibers. It should be mentioned that acrylic, nylon, and polyester are petroleum-based and refined from petroleum byproducts, which means there are inherent environmental consequences in their production. There are those who uses these facts to justify and even promote the use of wool. This is ridiculous given the huge environmental consequences of animal agribusiness. From the eutrophication of the waterways to the greenhouse gas production to the loss of sentient life- the cost for breeding, raising, slaughtering “spent” animals, and transporting them around the globe greatly outweighs the production of synthetic fibers.
Shopping for Vegan Yarn
You can find natural, organic fair-trade yarn of various types at many craft and knitting shops on the high street and online retailers. Please note that most of these retailers are not solely vegan companies and some offer animal-derived yarn in addition to plant-based alternatives.