WOOL - is wool really sustainable? - Fabric Index - A Shift
Fabric Index


Wool is probably one of the most well-known fabrics next to cotton. The fibre’s unique characteristics are a soft touch and durability. What made wool become such a popular fabric not only for garments but also interior pieces? Is wool sustainable? Should we be thinking more critically about the fabric?

Let’s start by looking at what wool is.

When people think of wool, they most likely think of wool derived from merino sheep. This is, in fact, the most used sheep breed for wool. However, wool is also sourced from other animals, such as goats, rabbits – think of the Angora wool, or camels and even pigs. While wool is grown to keep an animal insulated, it is not the same as hair or fur. It consists of approximately 97 percent protein and 3 percent fat, which also gives the material some of its unique characteristics. Don’t worry we will be coming back to those later!

woman wearing sustainable wool knits.
Woman wondering if wool is sustainable?

Wool goes way back in history.

The fabric is said to go back to the moment sheep were first domesticated – which was around 11,000 years ago. It’s basically ancient! Before that sheep were too hairy and therefore less useful. Around 400 BC to 300 BC the first woolly sheep came to Europe from the Near East. They later became a serious trade business, especially for countries such as England. In the 16th century, Spain allowed Merino lambs to be exported, only by royal permission. Later Australia overtook the German wool market, as well as the British and is still the biggest producer of wool worldwide as of today. With the introduction of synthetic fibres in the 50s (?) wool became less interesting for global markets. However, today wool-based textiles account for 12,6% of the market in terms of volume. 

What makes wool such a special fabric?

When we think of wool we quickly have an image in our heads, maybe of an old jumper  that itches a little, or warm merino wool socks. The possibilities for wool are endless, though! To understand the fabric a bit better we need to remember that wool is a protein called keratin. The outer layer is protective and helps to expel dirt. The inner structure is where it really gets interesting, though!  Wool is made up from millions of cigar-shaped cortical cells, which make up 90% of the fibre. The special arrangement of these cells contributes to the fact that wool doesn’t wrinkle much. Each wool fibre is folded in a way that each fibre acts like a coil spring, giving wool its elastic value. This allows wool to stretch up to 50% when wet and 30% when dry making wool a resilient and durable fibre that can last you a lifetime.

And we aren’t done yet! While organic fabrics like cotton burn at 225 °C, wool starts to react only at over 600 °C without it being chemically treated. Finally, wool has self-cleansing and body temperature regulating characteristics. This isn’t only convenient for us but also means airing your wool piece is often all it needs if you didn’t happen to pour red wine all over it. 

Is wool sustainable?

Well, since it’s a natural fibre wool has the ability to be 100% biodegradable in 1-5 years, if untreated with chemicals. However, the wool production is relatively destructive, since toxic chemicals are often used to preserve wool and when managed or discharged poorly pollutes the waterways. So how is wool produced?  In order to source wool, sheep or other animals are needed. What does that mean in terms of sustainability? Well, sheep, just like cows, emit large quantities of methane gas, which global warming potential is 86 times higher than of CO2 when in the atmosphere for an average of over 20 years.  One sheep can produce about 30 litres of methane each day. A lot, right? Besides, wool production causes deforestation. Land needs to be cleared and trees cut so that sheep can graze there. That again leads to an increase of soil salinity and erosion as well as a decreased biodiversity. Biodiversity loss is becoming a hot topic of sustainability in recent years. At the G7 Summit in August 2019 it was even featured as one of the three main pillars in the Fashion Pact, a global coalition of companies in the fashion and textiles industry with a set of sustainability objectives. 

Woman wearing beige wool.

We can’t talk about wool production without looking at the animals. 

The main sufferers from wool production are clearly the animals. The negative impact of wool sourcing on animal welfare is tremendous with only little developments in recent decades. Sheep are sensitive animals who panic easily and just like us can feel pain, joy, loneliness and fear. That is also why – what many people may not know – shearing can be a terrifying and painful experience for them. In the wool industry shearers are usually paid by volume and not by the hour, which encourages fast work without regard for the welfare of the sheep. Imagine your hairdresser was paid by how many haircuts he or she gave instead of how long he or she takes for it to finish. Sounds scary? Well it’s the reality for sheep. PETA has released a video expose of 12 videos recorded at nearly 100 facilities on four continents showing sheep being kicked, punched and stamped on by facility workers. 

Sadly it doesn’t end here. Merino sheep are most common in Australia, they are specially bred to have wrinkly skin and more wool. Unfortunately, this unnatural overload of wool causes animals to die of heat exhaustion. Annually, hundreds of lambs die before the age of 8 weeks from exposure, starvation or disease. While this is plenty to think about, merino sheep are the most to suffer from mulesing, too. Mulesing is a technique legal in Australia for instance, where crescent-shaped flaps of skin are cut off around a lamb’s breech and tail, mostly done without any painkillers. 

Are there alternatives to wool, you may wonder.

It is quite difficult to find a material that delivers just as wool, however, there are a few steps you can take. Even though wool is an organic fibre, an organic wool standard has been established by the Global Organic Textile Standard. This standard mainly focuses on improving animal welfare and to ensure responsible sourcing. Which brings us to another important topic, sourcing methods need to ban the use of mulesing, insecticides, meaning to dip wool for parasite removal and genetically modified feedstock. This might already be the case in most places? Well, in 2013 only about 1% of the world’s sheep and 1% of the world’s wool supply were organically managed.  For us, besides organic wool, another option can be to buy recycled wool. Not only does it save wool garments from landfill, but also reduces water and land used for sheep grazing. 500 litres of water are saved per kilo of recycled wool compared to virgin wool.

What to do with the wool pieces we already have in our wardrobe?

If you are shocked about the welfare of sheep for wool production, but still like the idea of a warm and cosy wool jumper, remember to take extra good care for it. Not only does it help the environment but also supports the longevity of wool. Knowing how to care for a wool garment can save some unpleasant shrinking experience, as it happened to one of our founders Sophie but also help to get the most out of your garment. In our ASHIFT CARE section, we have summarised some of our tips and tricks to keep your wool pieces shining.