Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book Ethical Vegan, explains the reasons why vegans do not use wool, and nobody else should.
I have seen it with my own eyes.
It wasn’t when I was working as an animal rights investigator. It was much earlier than that. I think it was 1994. I saw it on a farm somewhere near Haweswater, in the Lake District, in the north of England. I was volunteering for a few weeks in a natural reserve run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), protecting the last two remaining wild Golden Eagles in England. The job involved several things. The interesting bit was to spend some days in an isolated cabin in the mountains and every morning trying to locate the eagles near the nest using telescopes, track them the whole day, and prevent anyone from getting closer to where they were. The rest of the time involved doing some maintenance work at the warden’s grounds and helping local farmers.
It was the last part that allowed me to see it with my own eyes. It was early summer, in the middle of the sheep shearing season in the UK, and some farmers needed help in moving their sheeps around so they could be sheared. Traditionally, volunteers at the RSPB reserved had helped for that, so I joined in without hesitation. I wasn’t vegan at the time, so what I saw with my own eyes did not have that much effect on me then — I was wearing wool, and I did not see anything wrong with it.
It was not until seven years later, when I was scrutinising my memories while spending 23 days in isolation on a Scottish island writing my first novel, that what I saw those days in Haweswater took a very different meaning. My stay on the island completely changed me. I went there as a meat-eater, but I returned to Brighton, where I live at the time in the south of England, as an ethical vegan. One of the first things I did back home was to gather all the woolly items of clothes I possessed and decide what to do with them. I gave some of them to charity, while I was planning to wear others until they would wear off — but later I felt guilty so I ended up also donating them.
Since then, as any ethical vegans do, I have not worn or purchased any wool. If you are an omnivorous person, a vegetarian, or a dietary vegan, you may wonder why we reject wool as we reject fur or leather. If that is the case, read on and you will find out why.
Is Wool Vegan?
We often hear this sort of question. Is X vegan? Unless X is referring to an adult person (and I am widening the meaning of person beyond Homo sapiens here) the answer to this question is almost invariably “no”, as a vegan is someone who follows the philosophy of veganism (tofu, apples, cotton shirts, and tennis are not entities capable of following any philosophy). Veganism is the philosophy that seeks to exclude all animal exploitation for whatever purpose (that is a short version of the official definition of the Vegan Society), so, technically, the adjective ‘vegan’ should be applied, if done correctly, only to creatures who can follow such philosophy — and do it willingly and to the point of affecting most of their everyday decisions.
I used the adjective “adult” because one could argue that children who just happen to consume what their parents told them to consume, but do not even know about what veganism means, cannot be vegan (as a gorilla who happens to only eat leaves cannot possibly be either). For the rest of the “nouns”, it would be better if we use terms such as “vegan-friendly” (as for “this is a vegan-friendly hobby”), “suitable for vegans” (as for “these shoes are suitable for vegans”), or “veganised” (as for “this dish has now been veganised”). But this is how the adjective “vegan” should be used if we are very purist about the language. I am not, so when someone asks me if wool is vegan, I may think that it cannot possibly be because fibre cannot hold any philosophy, but I would not say that out loud, and I would answer the question with a succinct “no”.
When we colloquially ask “is wool vegan?” we may mean two things: does wool have any animal product in it (now or during its fabrication)? or, is wool a product that vegans can use? The first question is very easy to answer. Wool, which by definition is “the textile fibre obtained from sheeps and other mammals, especially goats, rabbits, and camelids,” comes from animals because it is just animal hair. The difference between fur and wool is that fur has still the skin attached to it (although it has been processed to avoid rotting) while wool has not, and it is hair from only some species that produce great quantities of it. So, yes, it could not have more animal products as it is almost 100% an animal product itself (minus a few chemicals to preserve it and the dye that gives it colour).
The second question is a bit more difficult to answer because it depends on which type of vegan you are talking about. If you refer to dietary vegans who only have a plant-based diet but do not follow the definition of veganism for anything else (who I sometimes refer to as “half-vegans” but many call them “plant-based people”), they may well use wool as they may only care about food, and they have chosen to eat what vegans eat just for health reasons, not for ethical reasons. But an ethical vegan (someone who tries to follow the definition of veganism to the full) would not be using wool because this is a product that comes from the exploitation of animals, and the definition states that we should avoid any animal exploitation (which means not promoting the products that come from it and not giving money to the exploiting companies).
In practical terms, ethical vegans who have been vegan for some time will not use any wool as they would not purchase or promote any woolly product, and if they were just wearing off the items they acquired before they were vegan, by now the chances are that they all have now been replaced by veganised versions (finding non-animal versions of woolly hats, gloves, blankets, jumpers, mattresses or rugs is very easy these days).
But for that to be true, we should accept that wool production is animal exploitation — or rather, that wool comes from a particular unethical industry that exploits animals. This is something that we vegans accept very readily, but if you are not vegan you may need a bit more information.
The Wool Industry
Whatever processes (practices, technologies, techniques, or procedures) humans have created to produce woolly products for trade, and the people producing them, constitute what we call the “wool industry”. It happens to be one of the oldest industries we know. Domesticating sheeps and goats have been part of human culture since 11,000 BCE, and these animals were the second domesticated animals created by humans only after dogs. The purpose of the domestication might have been mixed, as they were used to produce milk, meat, and also fibre for clothes.
The wool industry might have started by learning how to remove the hair from the sheeps without killing them, but it became a fully fletched industry when people learnt to genetically engineer sheeps (domestication of any animal is a basic form of genetic engineering). Between 11,000 and 9000 BCE, the peoples of Mesopotamia began to raise sheeps selectively, gradually altering their genes over generations to make them produce more hair. That led to today’s breeds that grow dangerous amounts of hair (as it can overheat the animal and facilitate parasitism) that need to be cut off periodically. Their shearing is only necessary because the wool industry has genetically manipulated and deformed them so much that intervention is now required for their health.
The general public wrongly believes that wool production is not cruel as sheeps are not killed and need to be sheared anyway, but this is not entirely true (by the way, note that I use “sheeps” in the plural rather than “sheep” because this is a non-speciesist language we ethical vegan use to avoid treating sentient beings as if they were “goods”). All breeds of domestic sheeps (Ovis aries) are descendants of the wild mouflon of Europe and Asia (Ovis orientalis), which still exist today and do not require shearing since they lose their hair naturally. However, the industry could breed sheeps with normal amounts of hair, as there are breeds today that do not need shearing (such as the Katahdin, Dorper, American Blackbelly, St Croix, Romanov, Blackhead Persian, West African Dwarf and Red Maasai), but if it decides not to, the industry is responsible for the suffering of its sheeps. Therefore, what has defined the wool industry over centuries has been the genetic manipulation of sheeps to produce unnatural and unhealthy amounts of hair, which is clearly an act of cruel exploitation.
Wool that comes from the more than a billion sheeps who are part of the wool industry today (from breeds that are specifically bread for wool) is a direct product of exploitation and cruelty as breeding over-hirsute animals on purpose to the extreme they can no longer lose their hair naturally is cruel. As all woolly products traded come from such sheeps (there is not a mini cottage industry that produces woolly products to trade from the breeds of sheep not bred to produce wool), all woolly products should be rejected by ethical vegans.
According to Business Wire, the global production of wool generates about $2.2 billion annually, and according to the International Wool Textile Organisation, the wool industry exploits about 1.1 billion sheeps. The largest producer is Australia, which is responsible for 25% of the wool industry, and China is the largest importer of woolly products. It’s definitively not a cottage industry, and as far as I know, there is no tradition to trade woolly products made from “backyard” sheeps, as may be the case with eggs or honey (which has justified the terms “vegan” and “began” for those who use these animal products wrongly claiming they are still vegan).
The Cruel Production of Wool
So far, we have only looked at what the wool is, not how it is taken from the animals and manufactured into different products. We know that wool is an animal product which comes from an industry that exploits animals by genetically modifying them, and that all commercial wool comes from such an industry based on the same genetic manipulation. That is enough for any ethical vegan not to use wool. But perhaps you are only a dietary vegan, a vegetarian, or a meat-eater who doesn’t want to contribute to animal suffering if you can avoid it. Perhaps you are a vegetarian who does not eat meat for ethical reasons related to animal welfare. Or a meat-eater who does not use fur for the same reasons. Or a dietary vegan who cares about the environment. If that is the case, you should not be using wool either, because, in addition to the cruelty of breeding genetic aberrations on purpose, the industry causes direct discomfort, fear, distress, and death to the animals it exploits, and seriously damages the environment.
Wool cannot be considered a humanely produced product. Sheeps are very sensitive sentient beings, and they can suffer a great deal. They are very gregarious and intelligent social animals who can remember up to fifty individuals by their faces for years, can self-medicate when they feel sick, and can recognize their babies by their calls. Sheeps have been shown to show complex emotions, and contrary to popular belief, they are not “dumber” than other farm animals, as they have an IQ level similar to that of cows, and almost like that of pigs (which is considered similar to that of dogs). Therefore, when they are chased around to move them from one place to another or to capture them during their handling, this causes them discomfort, fear, and distress.
I can testify this is true because I did this in the Lake District so many years ago. The farmer I was tasked to help during my volunteering at the RSPB reserve instructed me to move sheeps who had been gathered in an enclosure, so they could be taken, one by one, to a couple of freelance shearers the farmer had hired for the season. Shearers are hired when they are needed, and the same shearers may travel from farm to farm (or from country to country) to make a living this way. Indeed, the two I was helping were either Australians or new Zealanders (at the time I could not tell the difference with their accents), known to be the best in the business.
However, if they just turn up, the sheeps will not voluntarily line up to be shared by them, seeing these people as some sort of “saviours” who will remove these very uncomfortable hot over-coats they somehow have grown (sheeps are intelligent but they, of course, have no idea they have been genetically manipulated for generations to grow them). So, the shearers need people to take the reluctant sheeps to them and chase those who run away. This was my job at the farm. Go after distressed sheeps (as they may remember what happened last time and they do not like to be separated from the flock), hold them by the horns, and either drag them (or carry them if they really resisted) to the shearers. That was disrespectful and cruel behaviour on my part. I remember feeling uncomfortable doing it, but getting along with it thinking, “who am I to judge how these things are done?” Years later, when I was on the Scottish island writing the novel that made me a vegan, I felt very guilty about it — and about eating cheese, wearing leather, etc.
But that is not all. Their fear was justified because I remember how rough they were treated by the shearers, and how often their clippers (they could be manual but professionals use electrical ones called handpieces) cut the sheeps’ skin and flesh and made them bleed. Shearing causes suffering because in the wool industry it is typically done very quickly by shearers who are contractors paid per fleece (or per its weight), not per hour of work, and are therefore likely to rush, treating animals very roughly and often causing them injuries and bleeding. Some shearers (known as Gun Shearers) can process up to 400 sheeps in a day, and they aggressively pin them down to prevent them from moving around — which is scary and hurts them. Some sheeps resist more than others, so the impatient shearers may hit them and stomp on their heads to keep them still.
It is not just me who remembers the blood. Numerous undercover investigations by the animal rights organisation PETA have exposed these violent practices in several countries, including Australia, where most of the world’s wool comes from (Australians use the Merino breed, which is the most aberrant breed with the most excess hair). These investigations have also exposed the practice of mulesing: carving huge pieces of skin from sheep’s backs to prevent flystrike, a myiasis disease where flies lay eggs in the folds of the skin and maggots eat the animals alive. Although this disease can be treated chemically, mulesing, which is done without anaesthetics, is very common, especially in Australia.
A Lethal Industry
In addition to the suffering caused during the extraction of the hair, we also have the suffering created by the separation of lambs from their mothers on those farms where sheeps are also used as a source of meat — which is often the case in most sheep farms. After birth, many lamb’s tails are docked, usually with a rubber ring that causes part of it to wither and drop off. Castration by the same method is widespread, even though it can result in acute and lasting pain. A Viva! investigator in the UK filmed the procedure repeatedly, and when the farmer was asked if it hurt, he said “It bloody does!”
Farmers would try to exploit the sheeps to produce as much profit as possible, so they most likely will use them for lamb (baby sheep meat), mutton (adult sheep meat), milk, and wool. Although lamb meat may generate most of the profit of a flock, it is not that wool is just a by-product of the meat industry, because the sheeps used were genetically modified to produce more hair, not to become big and fat (like in the case of pigs genetically modified by the meat industry). Therefore, both the meat and the wool industry operate in tandem equally exploiting the sheeps, none being subsidiary of the other. If you support the wool industry, you are also supporting the meat industry, because sheep farmers need both to be profitable enough — if people stopped using wool many sheep farmers may not survive by only selling meat, so they might convert to plant-based agriculture.
This also means that it is not unusual for farmers to try to breed an excessive number of lambs, which will generate all sorts of health problems for the ewes who may end up suffering from mastitis (a common bacterial infection of the udder). And although most sheeps are reared outdoors, several million are kept on factory farms, where they have no exercise, no sunlight, no fresh air, and often very little food.
Like all animal exploitation industries, when the animals produce less, they are killed. When ewes reach about five years of age they start losing their front teeth from grazing, which made them produce less milk. As a consequence, their lambs may end up being underweight, and less profitable. Most commercial farmers will then auction the ewes off to stockyards where they may continue to be exploited for breeding, milk, and wool for some time until they get sent off to slaughter for mutton, burgers, or pet food. Alternatively, they may be put in lorries or boats and exported to other countries. Each year, 1.7 million sheeps are exported from Australia to the Middle East and North Africa, travelling long distances in deplorable conditions, just to be killed when they get to their destination.
So, the wool industry, intertwined with the meat industry, also kills sheeps both as babies but also as adults, who would be killed prematurely in slaughterhouses (a sheep in the industry only lives an average of five years, while a sheep in the wild or a sanctuary can live an average of 12 years). If you have any woolly product, the sheep from which the wool was taken was likely killed so you could have the product you wear and the wool producer could make many more products like this one. Therefore, vegetarians or dietary vegans who decided not to eat meat because they did not want to contribute to animals being killed are being inconsistent if they buy products made of wool because, by doing so, they are still contributing to animals being killed. Imagine the strength of the cognitive dissonance of someone rejecting a mutton dish while wearing a shirt made of the hair of the same sheep they rejected and was killed to give room to more wool-milk-meat-producing sheeps.
Bad for the Environment
Environmentally speaking, wool is not the sustainable natural fibre that the industry would have us believe. The Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report 2018, published by Global Fashion Agenda and The Boston Consulting Group, ranked wool production in 5th place for fibres with the worst environmental impact (the first was leather followed by silk), and experts now recognise that wool is much worse than acrylic fibres, polyester, spandex, and rayon concerning the environmental impact per kilogram of material produced.
According to a 2021 report titled Shear Destruction: Wool, Fashion and the Biodiversity Crisis produced by the Center for Biological Diversity and Collective Fashion Justice’s CIRCUMFAUNA initiative, wool production is a key contributor to biodiversity loss and climate change. The report found that, compared to other materials used in similar types of clothing, the average climate cost of sheep’s wool is three times greater than acrylic and more than five times greater than conventionally-grown cotton. Wool uses 367 times more land per bale than cotton, and the chemically intensive process of cleaning shorn wool pollutes waterways and kills aquatic life. The wool industry heats the planet due to the CO2 and methane emissions it emits, but the report found that 87% of consumers still perceive wool production as environmentally acceptable, showing how the industry’s propaganda has deceived many people.
Pesticide baths to control sheep scabs and parasites such as lice, ticks, and blowflies are frequently used by the wool industry, and they end up contaminating the soil and groundwater. Although carcinogenic arsenic hasn’t been used by the industry since the 1950s, it is still found in the soil today.
The Centre for Biological Diversity and the Collective Fashion Justice are calling on fashion industry associations, brands, and designers to commit to reducing wool use by at least 50% by 2025. Most vegans — including me — would like this to happen sooner: a commitment to 100% reduction right now (committing to something doesn’t require much time to prepare, so there are no excuses).
What I have written about sheeps is, generally speaking, applicable to other animals raised for their “hair”, like goats (e.g. for cashmere and mohair), alpacas, lamas, camels, rabbits (e.g. angora wool), musk oxen, and bison.
Saying NO to Wool Is Very Easy
If you are one of those people who are not vegan because you think — or rather you say — that plants have feelings, most mice are killed to grow plants, our teeth are like the carnivore lions’ teeth, your body needs proteins that have been inside other animals, or factory farming does not provide any of the meat you consume, you may also say that using wool is fine because nobody dies or suffers in its production, it is a by-product of another industry so not using it would be an environmental waste, and the grateful sheeps who generously gave you your woold died happily of old age somewhere in a sanctuary. If you are such a type of person, you would be wrong on all these assumptions.
However, if you know that only animals are sentient, most wildlife deaths in crops are caused by the animal agriculture industry as they are grown to feed their animals, your canines are in no way near those of lions, plants are the ones that create proteins from CO2 in the air, and factory farming dominates all meat markets, you must also know that wool is not a humane green product that does not cause suffering. You must know that wool does not come from animal sanctuaries, but from profit-making sheep farmers. You must know that the wool industry created the need to shear domestic sheeps, not Nature. You must know that the ewes and rams exploited by the wool industry end up being killed by the same industry. You must know all this, and if you did not, you should know it now after reading this article.
If someone sells you a woolly hat saying that it was made from sheeps living in a vegan animal sanctuary, where, carefully and gently, their carers removed their hair every year until they die of old age, that would most likely be an outright lie. As outrageous as saying that rearing sheeps is more sustainable and carbon neutral than growing plants — no vegan would fall for that.
Wool is an unnecessary product since there are many good enough alternatives easy to make and get — and often cheaper. Not just from synthetic plastics (which could be recycled), but also from sustainable natural fibres, such as Tencel (or Lyocell) made from wood cellulose, hemp, organic cotton, soya bean fibre, linen, bamboo, woocoa (coconut and hemp fibre) and Nullarbor (created by bacterial fermentation). Therefore, there is no real environmental excuse for buying woolly products.
Wool is not vegan-friendly as it is an animal product that all vegans who follow the definition of veganism avoid. But it is also not humanely or sustainably produced because of the suffering that the wool industry causes to the animals who are raised to produce it. The wool industry is not humane because of its unethical genetic manipulation, its violent handling, its harming shearing, and its slaughter of billions of sentient beings, and it is not sustainable because of the preventable long-lasting damage caused to the environment. The fashion industry knows this, and although it just started to ditch fur and exotic skins from its collections, sooner or later will need to do the same with wool and leather.
Vegans do not use wool for the same reasons they do not use silk, leather, or fur. They do not buy woolly products for the same reasons they do not buy beef burgers, goat cheese, or leather boots. They do not wear second-hand wool for the same reason they do not eat roadkill, abandoned eggs, or discarded yoghurts. They do not support the wool industry for the same reasons they do not support the dairy, zoo, or shooting industries.
Vegans do not use wool because vegans adhere to the philosophy of veganism.
As simple as that.