When you think about where wool comes from, you likely picture a green pasture of rolling hills, a meandering flock, and extra fluffy sheep. You likely don’t wonder if their coats produce a sustainable wool, and you may not picture the shearing process. Shearing sheep is the process of removing the fleece to make wool.
Most sheep produce 30 lbs of wool each year. A lot of that wool goes to the fashion industry. Wool has been a part of the clothing industry since the Stone Age due to its exceptional temperature regulation.
When it comes to building a home, wool is often found in insulation, carpeting, rugs, and mattresses. But just how sustainable is wool?
What is wool made out of?
Wool comes from fleece, which is similar to hair. It grows on sheep, goats, llamas, and other animals alike. It’s known as a hygroscopic fiber, which means wool is a natural insulator.
It is also a natural and renewable fiber that is biodegradable at the end of its life cycle. While many of us may also think of itchy holiday sweaters when we think of wool, Merino wool is known for being especially soft due to its high microfiber content.
Where does wool come from?
Wool normally comes from sheep, as they are the most commonly bred animals to produce wool. Once a year in the spring, ranchers shear their sheep. Shearers remove the heavy winter coat, which helps the sheep avoid overheating.
After collection, the coat is scoured. This is the process of removing dirt, twigs, leaves and lanolin, an oil collected and used in the cosmetics industry. Then, the wool is cleaned and prepared for spinning.
Fun fact: If you think you’re allergic to wool, you might not be. You’re actually allergic to lanolin oil. Most people also associate an allergic reaction to wool from the itchiness common with cheap wool. High end wool fibers create a smoother fabric and less itch. Don’t be afraid to give wool a second shot!
There are two types of spinning; carding and worsting. Carding pulls fibers apart, which creates air pockets and a fluffier product. Worsting combs and straightens the fibers for a tighter-spun thread. While worsting threads are more durable, they’re less warm… making them a great choice for a rug in a high-traffic area in your home!
Is wool sustainable?
Wool is a complicated fabric to determine how sustainable it is. It’s not a byproduct of petroleum, and it’s a low-impact fiber. This makes it more sustainable than most of the materials in the textile industry. It also doesn’t need fertilizer or pesticides to grow.
China and Australia have the most sheep in the world. Depending on where you live, wool has a long way to travel and creates a large carbon footprint via transportation.
The manufacturing process for wool is rather sustainable. In fact, hemp is the only textile fiber that consumes less energy than wool in the manufacturing process. Shockingly, 50% of wool’s carbon footprint comes from the sheep themselves, the same way that cows emit greenhouse gasses.
Wool is very resilient and elastic. You can bend wool fibers back on themselves 20,000 times without them breaking.
Wool could be a good choice in your home because it’s naturally flame retardant, requires minimal care and is odor resistant. As a natural insulator, wool helps, “reduce energy costs and prevents loss of energy to the external environment,” reducing the overall carbon emissions of your home.
The Ethical Drawbacks of Wool
On the downside, large flocks can overgraze areas, and the barren land can displace native animals. If a farm employs holistic management or adaptive grazing, allowing sheep to graze a larger area, it can actually provide a benefit to the climate. It’s important to do the legwork to ensure the sheep that supply your wool aren’t factory farmed and have adequate space to roam.
While wool is naturally biodegradable, dyes and chemicals added to the wool can cause leaching once in landfills. Commercial dying creates toxic waste from heavy metals. And sometimes, people will even sneak plastic into their wool products. Double check the exact materials used to produce your wool product.
Perhaps the biggest downside to wool is that it comes with a lot of ethical issues. In fact, ethical wool can be difficult to find.
While wool is sustainable, the treatment of sheep often doesn’t create humane wool. For this product, we suggest seeking out accredited suppliers.
Ranchers shouldn’t be afraid to let third-party organizations take a closer look at their business and sheep.
Things to Consider When Purchasing Wool Items for Your Home
Is it 100% wool? Even a little bit of plastic goes a long way in ruining a good water supply. Stay away from wool covered in plastic.
Does it have one of the following certifications? Each of these certifications is a stamp of approval that the farm you’re buying the wool from is operating at a high-standard to protect the planet, and the sheep.
- Mulesing-Free Wool Certified: If you want to buy ethical wool, we highly recommend finding a mulesing-free wool. We aren’t going to go into detail on what mulesing is, but it’s a pretty horrendous practice done to sheep. So horrendous, New Zealand banned it. Mulesing is most often practiced on Merino sheep in Australia, so be sure to double check the practices of the farm before purchasing.
- Responsible Wool Standard Certified: This organization focuses on protecting animal and social welfare and preserving land health.
- Certified Animal Welfare Approved by a Greener World: This certification requires ranchers to raise animals on a pasture or range, are only awarded to independent farmers, and have comprehensive standards for high welfare farming.
- Global Organic Textile Standards: This certification focuses on ecology and social responsibility for textiles.
- Certified Humane: This organization’s mission is to improve the lives of farm animals everywhere.
Where did the wool come from? The further away, the higher the shipping carbon footprint. It can also be worth looking into whether the farm carbon offsets its shipping emissions.
Is there an option to buy recycled wool instead? Wool is the most reused and recycled fiber of the major apparel fibers. People are constantly finding ways to make new and innovative products with recycled fibers. Picking a recycled product is almost always the most sustainable option.
When it comes to Sustainable Wool, Look for the Correct Certifications and What’s Nearby
To make the most sustainable and ethical wool investment, check out wool farms in Texas and California. These two states are the main producers of wool in the US. Once you find wool with the shortest possible carbon footprint, it may be time to seek out what certifications the ranch has received.
If you’re looking to use wool as a carpet or rug, be sure you read our Eco-Friendly Carpet blog post. It includes an in depth analysis on how to purchase the most sustainable carpet to keep your family and the planet safe.
Does anyone really like bugging businesses for accreditation and doing the leg work to find the most sustainable wool option for your home? While this may sound like a chore to you, finding sustainable options for a remodel or build is what we live for.
Start a conversation with us about your hopes and dreams for your sustainable home. We’re ready to support you in making an educated investment and talking through the best products for your project.