the wool debate: can wool be ethical?

My best friend asked me a few weeks ago: what actually is ethical fashion? I gave an answer that probably wasn’t as in-depth as one I would write on here, thus definitely was not satisfactory and open to holes that could be unpicked. Indeed it was. She posed to me: can wool be ethical though? At that moment, I was wearing my Paloma Wool jumper (my Instagram seems to suggest I’ve never actually taken it off) and adorning my The Acey merino wool scarf, both ethical brands that have used wool in their products. So I was cornered… are the wool garments I wear ethical? Is using wool ethical and can wool ever be ethical?

So I took to re-reading a chapter in To Die For by Lucy Siegle. Titled ‘Woolly Thinking’, I knew it would help answer this question and I was on a quest to find out more on. It’s more than curiosity because it isn’t often when one can combine the phrases ‘using animal produce’ and ‘ethical’ in the same sentence, if at all, and I can’t quite believe I stumbled into buying wool because it was from an ethical brand without thinking of the repercussions of such act. Admittedly, I know I’m not the perfect ethical buyer but I’m learning and I see this as a huge learning process. Wool perhaps isn’t quite so disregarded as leather because the animal isn’t killed but does it make it right and again, how can wool be taken in an ethical way?


Sustainable VS ethical 

If it was a matter of whether buying wool, even from ethical companies, was sustainable then I think there’s a pretty clear cut answer. You can buy sustainable wool. But it’s not about that, it’s about the ethics behind the process of using an animal and the animal’s welfare.

With regards to the sustainability of wool, there’s two sides of the coin. Cashmere, a wool that is much rarer than merino had an influx of fast-fashion brands selling it a few years ago and with that led to demand outweighed supply. Although merino wool is definitely more sustainable it is not without issues as Lucy writes, ‘in 2009 less than 0.1% of the 1.1 million tonnes of the global wool clip was classified as organic.’ A shocking figure for an industry that is both large and has a huge potential for pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in the process of producing wool and also importing of it from Australia, New Zealand and Mongolia.


Which leads me to discuss the ethical side to buying and producing the woolen pieces we love to wear. As Lucy notes ‘there are humane and inhumane farming practices.’ Evidence for this is in the conditions the sheep can be kept in but also in a practice called ‘mulesing’. In short, to prevent merino sheep from suffering from flystrike that often leads to death, part of their backside is chopped off. I cannot believe I’m writing that but I couldn’t believe it when I was reading it either. Mulesing is only something that has very recently been changed as ‘M&S made non-mulesed wool a cornerstone of their knitwear operations… Nike, Gap, Liz Claiborne and H&M all ‘voiced concern’.’ So it is something that is being tackled and it the wool industry isn’t without completely faulty. In the book Lucy mentions an ethical brand I hadn’t heard of before but in the process of writing this post I’ve found, followed etc. because it is showing a part of the wool industry that shines a light on the humane treatment of sheep. Izzy Lane, founded by Isobel Davies, who is a vegetarian and is very much motivated to prevent the inhumane treatment of sheep, was launched in 2007. Rescuing the sheep that she would shear for the wool, the brand is very much at the heart of the wool industry should be like and after looking into how awful the wool industry can be I think that I do think that there are some brands out their that can produce sustainable and ethical wool products.


What have you said?

After reading ‘To Die For’ I then went to Becky (Cruelty Free Becky) to gather her views on the matter, I thought it would be helpful to have the stance of someone who was vegan because even if my views have changed after researching and writing and understanding the wool industry I still feel pretty hypocritical saying that wool isn’t ethical and I’m that I’m going to stop buying wool because of animal welfare when I still eat meat. Even if I do come to that conclusion, there are other ways that one could increase their awareness of the ethics of the animal trend and it doesn’t just have to be boycotting wool.

Becky said: ‘I personally do buy secondhand wool because I think you have to consider the many trade offs between the environment the animals and garment workers…’

Previously, I hadn’t considered secondhand wool as an option, only taking it as an either/or with regards to buying wool but Becky’s point is so valid and also raises the other animal fashion product that has been in the media of late: leather. Perhaps there is a more clear cut answer to buying leather – it results in the animals death – there is not a ‘humane’ way to produce leather but wool production isn’t so definite. How do we know the exact production line and how do we know the sheep are treated in a humane way? We can understand that measures would be in place, in particular with ethical brands but we cannot know for certain.


Becky said she feels the same about buying secondhand wool as she does about secondhand leather, linking me to a great article on her blog titled: ‘can you still be vegan and buy secondhand leather?’ It’s well worth a read because it again raises the issue of how sustainable the industry is in terms of pollution and its effect on the planet thus raising the point that sustainability is interwoven (little bit chuffed I managed to get a wool pun in there) with the ethics of the production of wool and leather. Secondhand wool and leather has its place and I think it allows people to buy ethically without the repercussions of such purchase if it were new.


But Becky stated in the post, and it’s something that I relay over and over on these posts about ethical issues because I think it is so important that it is okay to not be perfect all of the time. I didn’t know the harm of the wool industry but now I do I’m of the view that if I can, I will buy wool second-hand and if not I will of course buy from ethical brands like The Acey, Paloma Wool and Izzy Lane. Lucy said in the book that a good cashmere jumper will last years but I think that applies to all types of wool, but where I can I will buy secondhand. Everybody has to start somewhere.

I would love to know your thoughts on the matter, do you think wool can be ethical and if you’re reading is as someone who buys ethically – do you buy wool? It’s a topic that has opening up some huge questions to me about more than just who I buy from but the composition of what I buy and where the materials really come from. No matter the change, however little, is positive and it just goes to show that buying ethically is a learning process and I am definitely still on that journey.

lots of love, eleanor xx


    1. eleanorclaudie 10th February 2018 at 5:39 pm

      Thank you so much Lucy!

    1. eleanorclaudie 10th February 2018 at 5:37 pm

      Thank you! xx

  1. lexie 11th February 2018 at 9:44 am

    Super interesting post! I’m not a big wool wearer, so regrettably this isn’t something I’ve thought about much. Really great to learn a little about it though. On another note, your shoeees!! I’m obsessed with Veja, need to get myself a pair. Hope you’re doing well gal xx

  2. Carol 2nd December 2018 at 4:22 pm

    Hi Eleanor, so long as the sheep aren’t farmed intensively (i.e. crammed into sheds by their hundreds), wool, certainly in the UK, is humane. In fact, it’s actually cruel not to shear the sheep for summer and farmers have been reported for not doing so.

    I can only speak for the UK but we don’t have wool farms or a wool trade as such any longer so the sheep are being produced for the meat industry and the wool is a byproduct. Farmers here actually make so little from the fleece anyway that they often burn it instead… but they still shear the sheep in summer for the sheep’s sake.

    Anywhere in the hillfarming (sheep) areas of the UK at shearing time, you’re welcome to look over any sheep pen wall and watch the shearers at work. They are very skilled and rarely even nick the sheep. You can also walk the footpaths across their fields and see the undamaged shorn sheep afterwards. The sheep sometimes get a little stressed as they are ‘grabbed’ for shearing but, with any animal, that is initially stressful for them. You then see that they soon relax for their couple of minutes of shearing and, afterwards, when they’re rid of their heavy and cumbersome fleece, many frolic away doing little bucks and bounces of relief.

    Any farmer here maltreating their sheep, at shearing or any other time, would be condemned wholeheartedly. Apart from at shearing time and dosing for parasites etc., the sheep are rarely handled and have a very natural life in most of the UK – that does include dealing with our awful weather though.


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