Or, why vegans aren’t cool with wool
After doing a series of blogs on why vegans don’t consume dairy, honey, and crickets, I realized that there will always be an argument on why we should save animals instead of eating them, but here I’m gonna take a sharp right into fashion. After all, isn’t that fluffy wool a by-product that doesn’t harm animals?
While we’re going to talk mostly about sheep and wool here, other animals used similarly include goats (cashmere, mohair, pashmina), lamas, alpacas, camels, rabbits (angora), and musk ox.
What the shearers (and companies that profit) say
Here’s what the industry says in their defense:
- There are industry guidelines and educational programs designed to educate farmers and ranchers properly, and to protect sheep.
- Universities, university extension services and wool producers have sheep shearing schools (like this one) that are open to the public and designed to teach correct, safe, and humane sheep shearing practices.
- Shearers are often from farming backgrounds and understand the animals they are dealing with.
- A shearer should be able to shear a sheep in about a minute while the sheep remains unharmed. It is rare that shearers actually cut them, and accidental cuts are like nicks that people have when shaving, and do not involve serious injury.
- Shearers care for the welfare of sheep. After all, their livelihood is reliant on the sheep’s comfort.
- Shearing helps identify health problems in sheep so they can be treated as soon as possible. Farmers can identify which sheep is lame (inability to properly use one or more limbs) or has an udder disease while it’s being shorn, and they mark it with spray so that they can treat it later.
- If a sheep gets injured, farmers and shearers work together to treat it immediately.
- If a shearer is careless and unprofessional, word will spread and they will cease to be employed or in business. No farmer would hire someone who physically abuses sheep.
- It is crucial to shear sheep annually for the sake of their health. It prevents buildup of urine/feces in wool that can lead to irritation, parasitic infection, and flystrike (a disease caused by flies feeding off damaged skin caused by urine, diarrhea or continual wetting of fleece).
- Wool regrowth improves the sheep’s ability to control its body temperature during extreme heat and cold conditions and creates a cleaner environment for newborn lambs.
- Sheep with large amounts of wool can become immobilized by physical obstacles in their path and are more susceptible to predator attacks.
- Textile Exchange’s Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) is one of the known certifications available for brands. They say they keep the welfare of sheep and the land they graze on in mind, ensure that wool comes from farms that have a progressive approach to managing their land, practice holistic respect for animal welfare of the sheep, and respect the Five Freedoms of animal welfare. But, Animal Liberation Australia says RWS allows castration and tail docking (the cutting, burning, or otherwise severing of a lamb’s tail) and recommends the use of an emasculator burdizzo and a heated scarring iron. Shearing in winter (during which a sheep could die of hypothermia) is accepted by the RWS.
- Don’t be fooled by the Woolmark certification either. Even though it says it’s invested into R&D focusing on animal welfare, it’s Australian-funded, which you’ll learn later is one of the worst (if not THE worst) countries for sheep practices.
But if you HAD to buy wool (for the non-vegans):
Buy Canadian. Jennifer LeBrun, CEO and Founder of ULAT Dryer Balls (and creator of the only patented wool dryer ball), says that Canada’s standards of sheep management are better than that of other countries. Her products are made with 100% Premium Canadian Wool in Canada. Here’s what she said when we had a conversation about Canadian wool:
“…with my background in fibres and desire to be ethical in all we do, I have visited our partner mill, personally conducted farm visits, and serve actively in wool circle[s] across the globe. The Canadian Wool industry is different from other wool producing nations and as a Social Enterprise, [we’re] committed to our mission statement. Empowering communities by embracing nature, one dryer load at a time, we choose Canada Wool and partner with others who also demonstrate our shared values.”
She pointed me to the National Farm Animal Care Council‘s Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Sheep, which has comprehensive recommended practices to reduce pain and suffering for the animals. You can learn more about their Animal Care Assessment Framework here and browse their videos here. There’s also the Canadian Sheep Federation, but their codes of practice weren’t as clear.
But just because a wool product is Canadian, that doesn’t mean it was sourced from Canadian wool, so look for “Canadian Wool” on the label, and/or check with the brand or manufacturer directly to ask where they sourced the wool. ULAT Dryer Balls doesn’t private-brand their products, so other wool dryer balls on the market are dense and small like tennis balls (so be sure to get the real thing if you want to ensure cruelty-free wool!).
Until the rest of the world catches up with Canada (you’ll see below why it’s still not perfect here either), it’s not a good situation for sheep in other places.
So let’s get into the 5 reasons why wool isn’t cool for vegans.
Reason #1: Animals would survive if we left them alone
Photo: Wolfgang Hasselmann
There is a reason some species survive and others die off. Sheep survived before we realized we could use their wool for clothing, so while I get the argument that shearing prevents urine/feces and other harmful materials or pests from getting into the wool, or saves them from downing (growing so much wool that they can’t stand), they TYPICALLY grow just enough wool to protect themselves from temperature extremes, providing insulation against both cold and heat.
This is a lofty dream, but how about transitioning sheep farmers to caring for sheep WITHOUT shearing them annually? The same way that animal conservationists work on saving a species WITHOUT interfering with their natural behaviours unless they absolutely have to?
We all know what happened when some people f*cked around with wild animals at a wet market…but I digress.
Reason #2: Animal Cruelty
Admittedly, the videos you can find on sheep shearing aren’t nearly as bad as this one. In the blog I cited above by a sheep shearer, she says the sheep is “relaxed” because it isn’t crying out for help, but that doesn’t mean it’s comfortable—I could still see it jerking! Search PETA on YouTube for more of these videos of animals being sheared.
The following section was so long, I had to divide it.
- Semen is taken from rams (male sheep) by hand, or with a machine that masturbates them.
- Female sheep (ewes) are strapped into cradles and semen is forced into their uterus.
- Ewes are given fertility drugs to have twins and triplets. Multiple births per pregnancy result in significant complications. Mother ewes exhaust themselves birthing, and are downed.
- Multiple births lead babies to be born weaker and smaller, lowering their chances of survival. More lambs are rejected by their mothers as they are only able to adequately care for one, resulting in deaths.
- Sheep are genetically modified to produce an unnatural amount of wool, which causes them to overheat and have heatstroke, the exact condition shearers say they’re avoiding.
- Merino sheep are specifically bred to have wrinkly skin (which means more wool per animal). This unnatural overload of wool causes animals to die of heat exhaustion during hot months, and the wrinkles also collect urine and moisture. Flies lay eggs in the folds of the skin, and the hatched maggots can literally eat sheep alive.
- Farmers practice winter lambing to breed the highest number of lambs at the lowest cost. Sheep are impregnated so they give birth in winter months and their babies are weaned in spring. Mothers have richer feed in winter and the surviving lambs grow fatter more quickly in springtime when pastures are most fertile, resulting in lambs born in the harsh conditions of winter. Up to 25% them do not survive their first few days.
Shearing and abuse
- Just 2-12 weeks after birth, lambs’ ears are punched, their tails are docked, and the skin around the back and buttocks of lambs is sliced using instruments resembling gardening shears (called mulesing) to cause smooth, scarred skin that won’t harbour fly eggs. This is all without anesthetic and is extremely painful and causes lambs distress. Males are castrated without anesthetic.
- Timing is critical: Sheep are sheared each spring, just before they would naturally shed their winter coats. Shearing too late (common with large flocks) means loss of wool. Sheep who are shorn too early in the winter often die from hypothermia. A closely shorn sheep is more sensitive to cold than a naked man; a sheep’s normal body temperature is about 102 degrees F, much higher than a human’s.
- Shearers are usually paid by volume, not by the hour, which encourages working quickly and carelessly.
- Exposés of sheep farms and shearing sheds on 3 continents revealed horrendous abuse. Workers were documented violently punching sheep, beating and jabbing them in the head with sharp metal clippers, kicking them, poking their eyes, slamming them into the floor, throwing them, leaving sheep bleeding after fast and rough shearing, sewing up large bloody wounds without any training or anesthesia, and slaughtering fully conscious sheep by driving knives into their necks.
- Farmer Robert Lawrence, who employed shearers for 15 years, said he had a shearer break 14 legs (of sheep) over two days of shearing, and this behaviour was linked to drug use.
- Farmers with upwards of thousands of lambs are unable to properly care for them. Downed ewes and lambs have been found without their eyes and tails due to predators such as foxes and crows.
- Malnourished ewes are taken into labs and placed in climate-controlled chambers to determine how much exposure they can withstand before they die.
- Aging sheep are subjected to tooth-grinding, an unanesthetized procedure (farmers claim this reduces tooth loss and extends the sheep’s productive life). A battery-operated grinder is used to wear down teeth. Another method involves the edge of a disc cutter to cut right through the teeth near the level of the gums. This procedure exposes the sensitive pulp cavities inside and causes teeth to bleed profusely.
- Angora wool comes from rabbits farmed in tiny cages mainly in China, where they live on wire cage floors. They are strapped to boards for plucking or shearing every 4 months and get injured while fighting the pain. Newly born male rabbits are often killed immediately if not used for breeding.
- Lamas and alpacas are native to South America and thrive in cold climates. Many are raised in warm climates where they overheat and are subject to heat stroke. In a first-of-its-kind PETA US undercover investigation of Mallkini—the world’s largest privately owned Peruvian alpaca wool farm—workers were reported to have slammed the alpacas—some of whom were pregnant—onto tables, tied them to a medieval-looking restraining device, and pulled hard, nearly wrenching the lamas’ legs out of their sockets. They held struggling alpacas by the ears as the animals were roughly shorn with electric clippers, causing them to cry and some to spit and vomit out of fear. (Major brands have since cut ties with Mallkini’s parent company, the Michell Group.)
- Although sheep typically live for 10-12 years, farmers consider sheep to be no longer profitable at around 5 or 6 years old, and they are sent to slaughter.
- Older sheep produce lesser quality wool, and they are killed and sold as a cheaper meat called mutton (Jerry didn’t like it on Seinfeld and neither should you).
- Animals that are potential predators of sheep are also threatened. Although there are some laws governing the killing of kangaroos, on their own property, landowners can do whatever they want to these animals without fear of repercussions. The preferred method of killing joeys (whose mothers have been slaughtered) is decapitation or a blow to the head. In the US, millions of coyotes are slaughtered every year by ranchers and the federal government.
Information specific to Australia
Between 10 to 15 million baby lambs die of starvation, neglect and exposure (often hypothermic deaths) within the first 48 hours of their lives.
- An estimated 1 million sheep die every year of exposure after premature shearing.
- In 2013, the Australian Workers Union’s national pastoral industry co-ordinator, Sam Beechey, told ABC Rural that some shearers took their frustrations out on the sheep and that he witnessed shearers gouging sheep’s eyes and breaking their jaws.
- Seven million sheep travel annually from Australia to the Middle East. When they reach the feedlots, they’re held before being loaded onto ships. Many sheep, ill or wounded from the journey, are faced with intensive crowding, disease, and strange food. Others die in the holding pens. The surviving sheep are herded onto huge ships, up to 125,000 per ship so that not all can lie down at once, or reach the feed troughs. Mired in their own waste for 3 or more weeks, the sheep suffer from sea-sickness, temperature extremes, disease, and injuries. Younger animals or babies born en route are often trampled to death. Shipboard mortality ranges up to 10 percent.
- Sheep who survive the trip are killed in ritual slaughter (Halal). Since Islamic religious law does not require that the knife be sharpened between kills, sheep often have their throats sawed open with dull knives.
- Sheep suffer over 50 million operations a year that would constitute cruelty if performed on dogs or cats. Extremely high rates of mortality are considered “normal”: 20-40% of lambs die at birth or before the age of eight weeks from cold or starvation.
- Eight million mature sheep die every year from disease, lack of shelter, and neglect. One million of these die within 30 days of shearing. When the sheep are no longer effective wool producers, they are transported long distances to slaughterhouses in trucks and trains without food or water. Those who fall are trampled by other frightened animals. On arrival, the dead and dying are piled into heaps. Those with foot rot attempt to drag themselves on their knees.
That was a whole lot of info, so go ahead and take an oat latte break.
Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur
Reason #3: Environmental harm
Land has been cleared and trees have been cut down to make room for grazing sheep. This has led to increased soil salinity, erosion, and decreased biodiversity. In the first half of the 20th century, local sheep farmers’ scale of operations in Patagonia, Argentina (second to Australia in wool production) outgrew the land. Soil erosion triggered desertification and threatens as much as 93% of the land. Once second to Australia in wool production, Argentina is no longer a major wool producer. (Ironically, the brand Patagonia uses animal-based wool in its products.)
Researchers in Oxford found evidence in South Africa’s Karoo region that very high stock numbers (mostly sheep) caused vegetation change and lead to the formation of heavily eroded areas.
The Higg Index condemns alpaca farming for eutrophication, which happens when nutrients from farm waste runoff accumulate in surrounding waterways, causing the growth of toxic algae and making water undrinkable for humans and inhabitable for many aquatic species. It’s so significant at alpaca farms because small farmers in Peru stockpile alpaca waste in open air before burning it. The pile of waste can sit for days prior to being burned and once it is set ablaze, it can burn for more than 4 days, releasing greenhouse gases into the air. This also leads to nitrogen and other potentially harmful elements leaching into the soil, and in groundwater. Rainfall will also cause nutrients to run off directly into surrounding waterways.
The New Zealand government studied two medium-sized farms and found fecal contamination in the water that exceeded levels for drinking and safe recreational use in every reading since 1994. In recent times, it has exceeded safe livestock drinking levels.
In New Zealand, methane emissions from enteric fermentation, coming mostly from sheep, make up over 90% of the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Peruvian alpaca have a high environmental impact because of the methane and nitrous oxide emissions from their manure.
Sheep dip, a toxic chemical used to rid sheep of parasites, presents disposal problems and can harm the environment. A Scottish study of 795 sheep-dip facilities found that 40% presented a pollution risk.
Reason #4: Wool waste
After all that pain and suffering we went through in #2, wool then gets wasted.
Research from Dalhousie University published in 2017 included a survey that found that about 50% of wool in Atlantic Canada goes unused. Approximately 30% of the wool collected by the Canadian Co-operative Wool Growers (CCWG) went unsold in 2019 because of the trade dispute between the United States and China—and the ongoing pandemic has made things worse.
In Prato, Italy, a textile industry epicentre, about 3,500 companies employing 40,000 workers process discarded textiles, especially wool.
The only upside to this is that wool is compostable.
Photo: Michael Fenton
Reason #5: Harm to workers
Even in the American Society of Animal Science’s open letter defending sheep shearing, they say:
“Livestock farming and ranching is not easy. It is physically demanding, the hours tend to be long and there are no vacation days. Many factors which cannot be controlled such as weather, disease challenges, and predators can impact livelihoods. In spite of these challenges, farmers and ranchers raise livestock out of a labor of love and an inborn fondness for animals.”
I know enough from the factory farming industry that these folks don’t do it because they love animals. It’s because they gain financial profit from killing them (and/or selling their skin, wool, fur, etc.).
In a Globe and Mail article on the lack of the next generation of Canadian sheep farmers, shearer Amber Petersen says it’s exhausting and tough work. She’s had a pinched nerve in her arm that keeps her up at night, aching knees, throbbing wrists, and sore hips. She works 7 days a week: 3 days at a desk job for a land surveying company, and the rest of the time in a barn somewhere, hunched over on a sheet of plywood. An international competitor, she wears men’s shearing clothes, because they’re not made for women: custom-made suede moccasins, double-lined pants, and an elastic belt. This is of course, her choice—but it goes to show you that shearing isn’t an ideal career for anyone who wants to maintain their mental and physical health. (Petersen is training a 21-year-old protege to eventually take her place.)
Which brings me back to reason #1: We don’t even need to be doing this. There are so many other jobs looking to be filled in our economy.
What would we do with the wool that MUST BE shorn?
The Open Sanctuary Project says that if a sanctuary must shear an animal to save it, it can:
- Turn the wool into yarn and sell it
- Donate the wool to another organization
- Compost the wool
- Use the wool for building comfortable nesting for wild animals (and naturally dye it before letting it go)
Alternatives to wool
We know that synthetic alternatives to animal-based fabrics aren’t the best for the environment because they’re often made of plastic, but we’re already so much further ahead with vegan wool and cashmere than where we are with plant-based leather right now. These natural materials include:
- Australian cotton (which is land and water efficient and uses minimal pesticides compared to conventional cotton)
- Organic cotton
- Rayon (semi-synthetic)
- Recycled cotton
- Tencel lyocell
- WEGANOOL: This grows wildly in deserted lands with no water, care, or pesticides. It’s produced by hand, empowers women, and helps the rural economy in dry parts of India, where jobs aren’t secure.
Best of all, these are comparably priced, warmer (hello, winter!), and hypoallergenic (they won’t give you that goddamn itch you get from real wool on bare skin!).
Have I missed an important facet of obtaining wool, or convinced you not to buy clothing made of this material? Let me know in the comments.