Wool can be a complicated textile to wrap your mind around in terms of sustainability. There are often such binary, emotional views in both camps that it's confusing to know where the truth sits. As always, it's somewhere in the middle - and here's our take on it!
It's probably easiest to start with the cons of wool since you're likely to be more familiar with these. PETA is one of several organisations that is vocal and graphic about the cruelty of wool production with regards to animal welfare. The pressure for mass production and pricing by weight means that some shearing practices are highly inconsiderate of the animal's own pain and suffering by cutting too close to sheep's skin. This results in wounds and cuts that shouldn't happen. If your wool comes from abroad (likely, China or Australia), then the ethical debate gets worse - a lot of the horror stories and photos of animal cruelty in wool production originate in these two countries where some environmental and ethical regulations are more lax.
Another sustainability disadvantage when it comes to wool is the high energy usage in production, which is one of the reasons that wool ranks fairly low on the Material Sustainability Index. Wool requires a lot of heat, water and chemicals - more so than most other textiles.
In addition, it can be argued that wool is a land-intensive textile given the amount of space required for the world's 1.1bn sheep! Needless to say, it's a lot space compared to synthetic fabrics. However, this can often be misleading because it doesn't account for the fact that sheep can be farmed on rangelands where the conditions do not lend themselves to crop farming. Therefore, whilst sheep take up more land than organic cotton farming for example, it could be argued that cotton is using land that should be used for food crop. This isn't the case for wool.
Another advantage of wool is the fact that it's a natural fibre. For a sustainability-focused non-vegan, wool is always going to win against polyester or nylon. If you've read our recent Fast Fashion in Numbers blog, you'll have seen that 70 million barrels of oil are used annually just to make polyester fibres!
Not only is wool a natural fibre, but it's also a very long lasting and durable one. Of all the clothes that consumers donate to charity (or similar) every year, only 5% by weight is wool. That's because it stands the test of time compared to most other materials. It also doesn't need to be washed as often as a result of its thermal and breathable properties. This has post-purchase environmental benefits by the very fact that it doesn't go into your washing machine as often, and therefore doesn't use up as much water as other clothes.
As well as sustainability, we do have to of course consider wearability. Wool stands the test of time for fashion trends, but there are some inconveniences nonetheless. Organic cotton and linen are both faster to wash and quicker to dry than wool. They are also softer on the skin, so more comfortable.
In summary, there's no clear cut "right or wrong" when it comes to the ethics of wearing wool. Some vegans are even OK with wearing organic wool that has come from small-batch artisanal or indigenous sources where the sheep are treated well.
We agree with this approach. For us, there is a place for wool but it needs to be small-batch produced, from a responsible farmer. Logos such as the Responsible Wool Standard address a lot of the animal welfare issues, and is something we like to look out for.
So, if we are buying wool, where do we go? Our faves...