Why wool matters… Obviously, that line from this flyer in a shop window on Regent St in London caught my attention. I scoffed, walked past, then doubled back, returning to snap this image. We’ve been conditioned to romanticise wool, sidestepping everything about it, from what it is, how it’s obtained, its ecological impact, heck even how it got to the UK and more.
Is it natural?
The word natural is an instantaneous red flag. In the context of a product, the word has no meaning. Everything is natural, even that plastic bottle sitting on our desk. Everything derives from nature and all products are man-made, synthesised from something else. Unless, we gift a leaf or fruit fallen from a tree, everything we use and eat has had some form of human interaction, manipulation to make it the thing it is. And arguably, if anyone has planted that tree, then that fruit or leaf had to undergo a man made process to come into existence.
So the word itself is manipulative. It’s used to sell us an idea and a feeling. Natural makes us feel guilty or lesser if we buy something else or better and superior if we buy the natural thing. The word serves a consumerist purpose, distinguishing one product from a bad unnatural one and tells me nothing about the product itself.
What is wool and how did it get here?
Wool is simply sheep’s hair. It’s a keratin product, just like human hair. It protects them from the elements, insects and predators.
In the shortest history about sheep ever written: Neolithic settlers from continental Europe brought sheep to Britain around 4000 BCE. They had domesticated sheep in Europe some 2,000 years prior. Those domesticated European sheep descended from primitive species originally living in areas of Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Iran. Like all animal agriculture, the domestication process began around 10,000 years ago. Bronze age Britons wove wool into cloth around 1900 BCE.
In 55 CE, the Romans brought white-faced and hornless sheep to British shores and thereafter sheep and its products proliferated through the centuries. Starting in 1750 in the Highlands of Scotland, Scottish owners of large estates began to evict their tenant farmers from the land. One of the primary reasons for this was to rear sheep on those lands, which would yield much higher profit. These Clearances resulted in forced mass migration, dispossession of land and culture and general misery. It’s arguable whether the Highlands have ever recovered from this population loss.
Today, there are approximately 23 million sheep in the UK and 1.16 billion worldwide.
How’s all that for natural? Whose nature? And at what price and at whose expense?
Is it renewable?
Another red flag term! Unlike natural, the term renewable is meaningful when we’re looking at it in relation to fossil fuels which aren’t renewable. We have to be careful beyond this usage. Renewable is being used to evoke the feeling we can make more of this thing you’re going to buy and it’s fine. While sometimes that’s the case, for example bamboo is something we can grow more of, but it too doesn’t come without drawbacks, the term is also being used to make products more desirable to those consumers with environmental concerns. This expanded usage of the term only ever looks at the end product instead of considering the steps to make the item come into existence.
With respect to wool, let’s start with the animal and move outward as if we were looking at a wheel’s hub and spoke. This is a strategy for analysing and addressing animal-related issues I discuss in more depth in Think Like a Vegan.
To satisfy our demand for wool, we need to have more sheep each year. So, we must breed them. We do this without their consent obviously as no consent is possible. In some places, farmers place a ram in an enclosure and let the ram get to business. In other places, farmers use unceremonious artificial insemination. All this is without questioning whether we should be doing this at all in the first place.
Sheep breeders have selectively bred sheep to increase the amount of wool they grow. The majority of the sheep now grow so much wool – unnaturally – it must be sheared by people. So, yes, we must shear sheep otherwise they’ll grow huge fleece which will affect their health. But who created that problem? Not the sheep.
In addition, some sheep tails are cut off (mulesing) to prevent infection and it’s a very painful process. Even if it were painless, we have no right to use animals as objects.
Sheep don’t generally live long on commercial farms. Naturally, they can live 12-15 years. Most sheep are sent to slaughter between 10 weeks and six months. Where sheep are also used for milk (and that’s not super popular in the UK), mother and child are separated just like in dairy farming.
Most importantly of all, a life can never be renewable. Each of the sheep birthed and slaughtered is an individual who wants to live. That is the point of a life and its prized value. We all share sentience. We all want to live. The argument for me stops there, but let’s continue to look at the other pieces.
All these sheep, what do they eat?
In countries without vast, uninhabited hillsides and plains, sheep are reared in warehouses, just like cows and pigs. In countries like the UK, sheep eat grass and hay. They do so on hillsides, which used to have a variety of trees and shrubs, or in plains which were once filled with native species of flowers, shrubs, grasses, insects and birds.
Today, these landscapes are severely degraded of biodiversity and there’s nothing renewable or even sustainable about this. Biodiversity is vital to people too. It’s not something separate from us. We need biodiversity to live bearable lives on this planet. What we think of as natural landscapes in the UK – the wide open and barren landscapes – are most often wet deserts. The UK isn’t alone in this respect.
Sheep also eat soymeal just like all other farm animals. This can be supplementary feed or the sole feed, depending on how the sheep is reared. We already know 75% of global soya is made into animal feed. The vast majority of raw soya comes from Brazil, where soya plantations are the reason for land grabs, clearances, loss of biodiversity and indigenous lands. I discuss all this at some length in Think Like a Vegan.
Let’s talk about hay for a moment. Fields and fields are planted with what will become silage or hay for animal feed, instead of food for people. Everything from preparing the soil on these fields, to planting, fertilising, spraying insecticide and harvesting, is done by giant machines. Of course this would also occur if those fields were planted with food for people, but the scale would be vastly different.
These activities repeat every year. They literally renew because they happen again and again, but there’s nothing remotely renewable about them.
We must consider transport
Sheep must rotate pastures. Most often, they’re transported between pastures with vehicles large or small depending on the herd size. During their final stop, all sheep are transported by lorry or ship to end up in the same slaughter houses, whether wool only sheep or sheep meant for the plate. There’s no difference. And remember meat must be cold stored and shipped, from the slaughterhouse to the supermarket, an activity which requires a tremendous amount of energy.
Australia, China and New Zealand are the world’s leading producers of wool. China is the leading exporter. All that wool sure is travelling alot and it’s not doing so on renewable fuel.
Processing raw wool
Wool is a greasy and dirty product. It also harbours bacteria which may be harmful to workers. Processing wool requires machinery, detergents, dyes, chemicals and vast amounts of water. Waterless processing may be possible, but it’s still being studied. The effluent generated is filled with a variety of greasy and toxic substances. It can be filtered or processed for composing in the open air, but both of these are additional processes requiring additional energy.
The documentary Slay is helpful in putting fashion and textile industries in context and illustrating the processes.
Wool isn’t something that goes from the sheep to our backs or in our homes in some idyllic, happy circumstance. Quite far from it, especially for the sheep who give up their lives for our choices.
So, have we got a renewable resource? Obviously not. We can pretend it’s renewable if we ignore the billions of lives and the non-renewable resources we use at each step of the process.
A bit of wool will biodegrade. The reality is the world produces 1,949 million kg of wool annually. The fashion industry only uses about 1% of wool produced annually. The rest goes to fabrics for other uses, such as carpeting and furniture.
Sit with these numbers for a moment. Each year. That’s just wool, the end product. My mind boggles at that number and thinking about the related byproducts from rearing and processing sheep and their carcasses, growing and harvesting their food, and wool processing.
Just because we might be able to put a wool jumper in the ground and eventually it might decompose, we can’t describe an entire gargantuan industry as making biodegradable products.
Why wool matters, then?
Wool matters to sheep; there’s nothing ethical about it and that’s the easiest part of this discussion.
Wool matters because it’s a textile associated with fuzzy green notions of goodness, comfort, warmth and old fashioned quality. It also matters because it highlights our need for alternative fabrics.
There are many alternative soft fabrics from textiles made with recycled plastic (rPET), organic cotton (which requires less water, fertiliser and pesticide than non-organic), flax/hemp/linen, soya fibres, wood waste such as tencel, modal or lyocell, milkweed, bamboo. And these are being made for performance gear as well as everyday wear. And there are plenty of non-wool choices for insulation, furniture and carpeting materials. All it takes is asking and doing a bit of searching on the Internet. We can all do that, can’t we?
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