The environmental impact of wool

Sheep sheering
Far from being an eco-friendly material, wool is a nightmare for the living planet.


Watching sheep graze in lush meadows is a lovely way to pass a sunny afternoon. In stark contrast to that benign pastoral image is the ugly truth that the wool industry is wreaking havoc on the living planet.

More and more people are taking notice of this issue, especially since the Boohoo group's U-Turn on banning the sale of wool garments. 

The groundbreaking "Pulse of the Fashion Industry" report ranked the production of sheep's wool as more polluting – for cradle-to-gate environmental impact per kilogram of material – than that of acrylic, polyester, spandex, and rayon fibres. 

Greenhouse gasses

As with other forms of animal agriculture, raising sheep for wool gobbles up precious resources. Land is cleared and trees are cut down to make room for grazing, leading to increased soil salinity and erosion and a decrease in biodiversity.

Sheep, like cows, release enormous amounts of methane gas into the atmosphere and have been referred to as the "Humvees" of the animal kingdom. 

Manure generated by farmed animals – including in countries like Australia and New Zealand, where vast flocks of sheep have been expanded to meet the world's demand for wool –has significantly contributed to the increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases over the last 250 years.

On top of the horrendous environmental impact of wool, sheep suffer terribly in the industry. PETA has released video exposés recorded at nearly 100 facilities on four continents revealing that sheep are mutilated, abused, and skinned alive – even for "responsibly sourced" wool on disingenuously named "sustainable" farms. 

Sheep are sensitive prey animals who are prone to panic when held down. This means that for millions of sheep worldwide, shearing is a terrifying, painful ordeal. Shearers are usually paid by volume, not by the hour, which exacerbates the problem, as they work at breakneck speed in order to maximise their earnings.

Eyewitnesses saw gentle sheep being kicked, punched in the face, and stamped on in a crude attempt to restrain them. 

Animal cruelty

This violence has been documented in ArgentinaAustraliaChile, and the US – and recently, in the UK, where workers were recorded slamming sheep's heads into the floor. 

Shearers left large, bloody wounds on sheep's bodies from fast, rough shearing, and they stitched up gaping wounds with a needle and thread and no pain relief. One farmer was seen dragging two sick, lame sheep into a shed and leaving them there to die.

Several sheep died during shearing, possibly from the shock of the violent handling – or what onefarmer called a "heart attack".

Industry initiatives like the "Responsible Wool Standard" haven't reduced or stopped the egregious suffering of sheep the world over – they've simply createda veil to hide behind while the cruel business continues as usual.

Consumers who are worried about the carbon footprint and sustainability of synthetic materials have a wide variety of eco-friendly options to choose from.

Vegan fabrics

Colombian university students who invented the revolutionary Woocoa, a wool-like material made from coconut and hemp, won an award at last year's Biodesign Challenge for their pioneering work.

Then there's Nullarbor, a vegan wool made from coconut by-products. Other environmentally sound wool replacements include Tencel, organic cotton, bamboo, hemp, soyabean fabric, linen, and recycled fibres.

It pays to remember that, according to the researchers behind the "Pulse of the Fashion Industry" report, even when consumers purchase clothing made from synthetic materials, the impact on our planet is stilllower than that of buying wool items. 

Just as we've seen with the shift away from fur, angora, and mohair,consumers are increasingly looking to purchase products that live up to their own ethics and their concern for animals, humans, and nature.

With so many fabulous vegan fabrics available, there's no need for anyone to buy or wear anything made of wool or any other animal-derived material.

This Author

Elisa Allen is the director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

More from this author