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Known for keeping people warm and being itchy, wool is a common material used in clothing. However, like all products we take from animals, the industry presents us with some complications. Many say that wool is just a byproduct of meat, and that hey, sheep need to be sheared! But are these statements really true?

Consumer industries, including wool, are vast and driven by profit. The welfare of animals simply doesn’t make the top priority when there are deadlines and jobs at stake. With this list, we have spent some time researching what makes the wool industry function, and scratched at the surface of what’s really going on. We encourage you to read the whole way through, and check out our tips on what you can do at the end of the article. The sheep, goats, rabbits, and other animals deserve a voice and we thank you for being one on their behalf.

1. Is sheep shearing necessary?

A wild sheep takes care of its wool just fine, growing just enough for the winter and simply shedding it naturally in the summer. In captivity, just as factory farmed animals have been bred to be larger to produce more meat, sheep have been bred to produce more wool, making them more susceptible to heatstroke and leading to the need to be sheared.

2. What is mulesing, and are there alternatives?

Mulesing is the practice of removing skin off the sheep’s hind to prevent flies from laying eggs in the skin. This is typically performed without any painkillers for the sheep. Because of how sheep have been bred to produce more wool, flies and other insects can lay eggs in the folds of their skin.

In Australia, one of the world’s largest producers of sheep’s wool, museling is being phased out and replaced by other methods of preventing flystrike.

According to Australian Wool Innovation Limited, “A significant proportion of woolgrowers have removed the need for the traditional procedure in some or all of their sheep. Where the risk of sheep flystrike remains high, many woolgrowers are replacing traditional procedures with welfare-improved practices – such as welfare-improved surgery with pain relief or breech strike prevention clips – while longer term breeding programs are underway.”

Alternatives are becoming standard industry practice, thanks in part to animal advocacy organizations for keeping the pressure on wool producers.

3. Is wool really a byproduct?

The demand for wool can be seen in how often it’s featured in fashion and clothing, which is still a large percentage. To say that wool (or leather, etc.) is simply a byproduct of the meat industry is ignoring the larger issue. It could be said that our demand for wool is fueling the lamb meat industry, and we could sit here arguing all day. The bottom line is that we are using animals for our own purposes, rather than letting them live their lives.

4. Do we only get wool from sheep?

No, in fact, other animals we use for wool include rabbits and goats. A recent investigation on an angora rabbit farm in China revealed intense cruelty toward these animals and prompted some retailers like H&M and Espirit to take a look at their purchasing decisions.

The industry is even starting to affect animals that are not used for wool by encroaching on their habitat. As we reported in August, in Central Asia a recent study “revealed that an expansion of pastureland for goats used in the cashmere industry is the main cause of the decline in Central Asian wild animal populations. Many of these animals native to China’s Tibetan plateau, Mongolia and India are already endangered.”

5. But, isn’t wool from small farms? So it’s not that bad, right?

Nope. Actually, the vast majority of wool is not harvested by small farmers who keep a manageable flock of sheep or other animals.

In the case of sheep, after they are used for wool, many are exported for slaughter. PETA reports, “Every year, around 3 million sheep undergo the cruelty of live export from Australia to the Middle East and North Africa. These sheep are slaughtered after enduring grueling journeys on extremely crowded, filthy, disease-ridden ships. The voyage can last days or even weeks, and the sheep can be exposed to all weather extremes.”

What’s more, just like with livestock production, raising animals for wool involves a lot of space, and a lot of excrement which creates methane. According to PETA, “In New Zealand, methane emissions from enteric fermentation, coming mostly from sheep, make up more than 90 percent of the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions.”

This is only New Zealand so just imagine all the other massive wool farms out there and their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions!

Good news? Choices, choices, choices!

With nearly everything in this great big world, we are faced with the wonderful burden of choice. Do we need to buy wool? Absolutely not! Check out our list of environmentally friendly and ethical yarns and textiles for your next at-home project. You can also donate to organizations like the Snow Leopard Trust and the World Conservation Society who are working to conserve Central Asian animals who are threatened by the wool industry. And, as always, vote with your dollar and let your voice be heard by retailers that continue to sell wool. Write a letter explaining your concern, or better yet, thank a store when they start to carry animal-free products.

Image Source: Peter/Flickr

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4 comments on “5 Alarming Facts About the Wool Industry”

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Karen Ryan
4 Years Ago

I have read Molly Drakeley 's comments .... so now I need more feedback from someone else ...her points seem valid. ...anyone ? Thanks

Crystal A. Gee
31 Dec 2013

I’ve been reading a lot about this issue lately and have decided to try to avoid buying wool products from now on. I know others will disagree, but it’s a personal choice, because I’m vegan and that’s very important to me. I don’t have anything against anyone who buys wool or who is in the sheep shearing business. I don’t know them personally and am not suggesting that they’re bad or wrong for doing so. Again, it’s just not something I feel comfortable with after seeing photos of sheep that are bleeding and after reading many, many articles (from different sources). I’m not able to view the link on here for some reason, so I’m not sure what this article says, but here are my reasons for not wanting to buy wool: 1. The most commonly raised sheep there is the Merino. Merinos have been specifically bred to have wrinkly skin to produce more wool. Their coats are so thick that some die of heat exhaustion during hot months. Unlike wild sheep, Merinos cannot shed their fleece. 2. Since domesticated sheep can not shed their fleece themselves, their wool will grow longer and longer while flies lay eggs in the moist folds of their skin. The hatched maggots can eat the sheep alive. To prevent this from happening, ranchers will perform an operation called mulesing. Without anesthesia large strips of flesh are cut of the backs of lambs and around their tails. Other procedures performed without anesthesia include punching a hole in the ears of lambs several weeks after birth, docking their tails and castrating the males. The castrations are done when the male lambs are between 2 and 8 weeks old, with the use of a rubber ring to cut off their blood supply. 3. Sheep are sheared in the spring, just before they would naturally shed their winter coats. Because shearing too late would mean a loss of wool, most sheep are sheared while it is still too cold. An estimated one million sheep die every year of exposure after premature shearing. Another problem with sheep shearing is that the shearers are not paid by the hour, but by volume. They handle the animals very roughly and a lot of sheep get injured. 4. When the wool production of sheep declines, they are sold for slaughter. Millions of lambs and sheep are exported for slaughter each year. In Australia they have to travel long distances before reaching very crowded feedlots, where they are held before being loaded onto ships. Many sheep die in the holding pens. 5. Those who survive the holding pens are packed tightly into ships. Lambs born during the trip are often trampled to death. A lot of sheep get injured or die. In Europe they have to travel long distances in tightly packed trucks without food or water. They are frequently exported to countries with minimal slaughter regulations and where the sheep are often conscious while being dismembered. Source: http://www.veganpeace.com/animal_cruelty/wool.htm Some of the info may have been in the article posted, so I apologize for any duplicate information. Have a great day and a very Happy New Year, everybody!

Molly Drakeley
4 Years Ago

After reading this whole article I have to unfollow. I raise sheep and even have a sheep shearing business. There is nothing wrong with buying wool from local producers. Yes infact sheep do need their wool sheared or they can and will overheat. In nature sheep have become covered in deer like hairs, I.e the big horned sheep that live in the mountains, and it is true that industry sheep have been breed to sustain wool thus they need to be sheared( even the bak yard pets might i add).Now this statement is what fueled my decision to leave "The bottom line is that we are using animals for our own purposes, rather than letting them live their lives." As you stated above in the article the sheep will over heat...with that being said you through all of the "facts" to the wind and jump on the PETA train. Next I will address the muscling as you said your self the trend has become widely shamed out of most producers. Next, rabbit and goat "wool". Rabbit and goat fibers can be removed through modem shearing methods so like you said "choices choices choices" buying fiber from local farmers will solve the "widespread abuse" you claim. "Wool being a bi-product" is a true state ment depending on the breed of sheep. There are wool breeds , meat breeds and duel purpose breeds. This might present itself a shock to you but you would make no money shearing the wool off a meat sheep( many producers through it out in the us) and vice versa, you would not make as much money in meat from a wool sheep.also might I add the wool industry you say is doing soo well, hit its peak some 20 or so years ago with the creation of synthetic, plastic, harmful fibre alternatives. Live shipping... I suppose PETA never mentioned that the " horrible and cruel" boats have license vets and crew. The barges have pens where food and water is available at all times and sick animals must be noted and treated at all times. Now why would they do this you might ask well there are laws in place and why would they want a stressed or dead animal shipped to sale? When animals are stressed they don't taste as well and a dead sheep is not a profitable sheep. Also might I add that lanolin a byproduct of wool( sheep sweat) is an all natural product used in everything from makeup to hand soap an even an alternative to wd40. This lanolin is harvested when the wool is heated and oils separated from the fiber. Wool is also used in cases of oil spills and insulation for houses. Now before you go bashing an entire industry with facts from an Eco-terrorist group maybe you should go out and talk to a farmer and ask them about their sheep and their views. I know that most PETA employees have no experience with small time fiber growers and would be shocked with what they find. Now I you would like to meet some sheep farmers I would love to give you some names and contacts and then you could write an accurate article. I "liked" this page because I a want to be green and believe in animal welfare but I did not know this group was just jumping on the PETA express... So next time you write an article do some of your own research. Thanks, Molly Drakeley, a future large animal vet, with a herd of shropshire sheep,and a sheep shearing business

02 Jan 2014

Molly, live export of animals is inherently cruel, and has resulted in the death of millions of animals at sea over the past several decades in Australia. It is indefensible. There is some information about the process at the below links http://www.banliveexport.com/ http://www.independentaustralia.net/politics/politics-display/historicising-animal-welfare-and-live-trade,5007

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