Wool is Cruel.

Via Gary Smith
on Jan 4, 2010
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Pulling the Wool over our Eyes.

Fur is bad news, we know. But so, apparently, is wool.

Wool may be natural. It’s also almost 100% Cruel.

Most of us think of wool as a cruelty-free product (this article was born when elephant’s editor-in-chief replied with surprise to a comment of mine that wool was cruel, too).

When it comes to wool, we conjure up images of idyllic surroundings and happy sheep who naturally shed their coats or need haircuts to keep cool during the hot summer months, and live out this peaceful life until they take their last breath.

Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth.

Wool is a multi-billion dollar a year industry. Like most animal agriculture enterprises, the welfare of animals is barely part of the picture. Sheep are commodities, pure and simple, and their only value is how much money they bring to the enterprise.

The majority of the world’s wool comes from Australia. In fact, Australia is now home to more than a hundred million sheep. Nearly all are Merino sheep, who are loved by the industry because they produce heavy fleece that makes a fine wool. Merino sheep are not found in the wild and are not native to Australia, so they do not do well in the heat of Australia. They have been specifically bred to have as much skin as possible — wrinkled skin. Wrinkled skin means more wool. Wrinkled skin also means flystrike.

Flystrike is caused by moisture getting into the wrinkles in the sheep’s skin. When this occurs, a foul odor is emitted, which attracts flies. Flies lay eggs and maggots are born. The maggots literally eat away the sheep’s skin.

The least expensive method to deal with flystrike (remember that sheep are commodities to the industry) is to cut off large chunks of skin around the tail so moisture does not collect in the folds. This practice is known as mulesing. Farmers throw lambs onto their backs and restrain their legs between metal bars. They use gardening shears to carve out flesh from their rumps. This is done without anesthesia or painkillers – spending money on anesthesia would cut into their profits. The skin is scarred and becomes smooth, which prevents flies from nesting and hatching eggs.

The good news is that because of pressure from PETA, ranchers have agreed to phase out mulesing by 2010. The bad news is that what will replace mulesing isn’t much better. Instead, ranchers apply clamps to lamb’s rumps to cut off circulation. This causes the flesh to eventually fall off.

Doesn’t sound pleasant, does it?

Other procedures performed without anesthesia include punching a hole in the ear of the lambs several weeks after birth, docking their tails and castrating the males. The castration of male lambs happens between two and eight weeks old, with the use of a rubber ring to cut off their blood supply.

Then comes the shearing process. Sheep are shorn in spring, just before they naturally shed their winter coats. 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 each year of exposure after premature shearing. Shearers are paid by volume, not hourly, so they must work quickly. Some sheer up to 350 sheep a day. The welfare of the sheep does not play a role in their shearing. Nicks, cuts and infections are not treated. Again, this would cut into profits.

So, what happens to the sheep once the ranchers have decided that the wool output is not as profitable as it was? They sell them off to slaughter, most at around age three to four (their natural lifespan is 15 to 20 years). They are typically shipped to the Middle East and North Africa. They are crammed onto filthy, disease-ridden ships, up to 100,000 of them at a time, and the voyage can take three weeks to a month. Two million sheep die during these voyages per year. The ships have open decks, exposing the animals to the elements. During the journey, they are taken off their natural feed and fed pellets. Most do not eat the pellets because they don’t understand that it’s food — up to 47 percent die from starvation en route.

On top of the terrible ship experience, animal welfare laws are non-existent in these parts of the world. The sheep are dragged off the ships to unregulated slaughterhouses. The sheep are not stunned before slaughter and are conscious when their throats are slit. In fact, some animals are still alive while their legs are being sawed off and their skin removed. Unfortunately, I have seen the videos.

Wool is a cruel and bloody industry that doesn’t at all resemble the image of happy sheep on green pastures. Deciding to boycott Australian wool is not enough. China, a country with a terrible reputation for animal cruelty, is second in wool production. While there may be sheep farmers who adhere to more humane practices, the inseparability of the wool and meat industries means even comparatively well treated sheep are destined for pain, suffering and a terribly sad end. Like dogs, cats, dolphins, horses, and all other animals, sheep are sentient beings who deserve to have a life free from suffering.

Today, when there are so many natural and synthetic fabrics that are cruelty-free, there’s no reason to choose fabrics taken off the back of an animal.

Informative Resources:

1. Alternative Outfitters

2. Humanitaire

3. Earthlings [documentary film]


Gary Smith is co-founder of Evolotus, a PR agency working for a better world. Evolotus specializes in health and wellness, spirituality, animal protection, natural foods, documentary films, non-profits and socially beneficial companies. Gary and his wife adhere to a vegan lifestyle and live with their cat Chloe, in Sherman Oaks, CA.


About Gary Smith

Gary Smith is co-founder of Evolotus, a PR agency working for a better world. Evolotus specializes in nonprofits, documentary films, animal advocacy campaigns, health/wellness, natural foods and socially beneficial companies. Gary blogs at The Thinking Vegan and writes for elephant journal, Jewish Journal, Mother Nature Network and other publications. Gary and his wife are ethical vegans and live in Sherman Oaks, CA with their cat Chloe and two beagles rescued from an animal testing laboratory, Frederick and Douglass.


78 Responses to “Wool is Cruel.”

  1. Becky says:

    I'm wondering the same. I've seen organic wool advertised…is that any better?

  2. Jackie says:

    Thank you for exposing the wool industry for what it is. Very informative article!

  3. I'd love to know myself. Obviously vintage fashion is a good option.

    Gary? Organic? Or lines that are cruelty-free?

  4. Thanks for this article, Gary. I think most people have absolutely no idea how something as seemingly benign as wool production is actually incredibly cruel. And to Beth and Becky–organic production has absolutely nothing to do with humane or better treatment. Most organic farms are factory farms and treatment of animals is every bit as bad as on other factory farms. And in the end, the animals all go to the same slaughterhouses. There are so many great alternatives to wool. I knit and am having a lot of fun with fibers from bamboo, soy, organic cotton and hemp. Much more interesting–and compassionate–than wool!

  5. It's not all that way. My sheep live happy lives, out on pasture, happy as can be. There are many small family farms raising sheep humanely.


  6. Suasoria says:

    Lisa, do you supply to the clothing industry?

    Because of the interrelationship between wool and meat/sheep slaughter I imagine it would be hard to point to a volume supplier that's cruelty free.

  7. Beth says:

    Can you (or other readers) recommend wool clothing makers that use cruelty free suppliers?

  8. Great to hear. How do we support YOU?

  9. Abbie says:

    I had no idea 🙁

  10. Jeannnie Harvey says:

    I cannot read all or view the videos…IS THERE NOTHING SACRED ANYMORE ! DOES THERE HAVE TO BE SOOOOO MUCH CRUELTY… The more I get to know mankind the more I love my Dog…God Bless you for those who feeel animals do not feel! No more stated is needed. Wake up Humans !!!
    Jeannie Harvey….

  11. Aamma says:

    and i'm a knitter.

    i intend that people rise in consciousness & treat all beings with love & respect. until then, i'll have to only buy ethical yarn.

  12. Matt Johnston says:

    Ibex is a Merino Wool Company out of VT that uses New Zealand Wool. New Zealand wool is is 100% Mulesing free and Ibex is 90% made in the USA. Check them out

  13. Yay, I will! I love wool, so this is good news.

  14. Suasoria says:

    NZ wool is not 100% mulesing-free according to activists there, and live exports of sheep for cheap mutton in the middle east remains an issue. NZ passed a live export ban a few years ago, but he government is considering lifting it.


  15. libra says:

    Please don't be fooled, there is no such thing as any "cruelty free" wool or any cruelty free animal product for that matter. They are contradictions in terms. Even if the wool supplier doesn't practice mulesing, the sheep are eventually slaughtered, their families are separated and sold off, and their lives do not belong to themselves. There are sustainable, beautiful, animal free alternatives for knitwear such as bamboo. Lets make the effort to go that route

    I read below that someone has a small family farm where the animals are free and well treated. This may be a very rare exception but even small farms eventually slaughter their animals which is inherently violent.

    Lets practice true ahimsa and simply find alternatives to using other beings to fulfill our whims. We dont need to use wool or animal products so lets not. Lets not engage in the suffering of another because we want a sweater.

    Great article!

  16. libra says:

    Actually, its not good news because all sheep go to slaughter anyway!!

    Please don't be fooled, there is no such thing as any "cruelty free" wool or any cruelty free animal product for that matter. They are contradictions in terms. Even if the wool supplier doesn't practice mulesing, the sheep are eventually slaughtered, their families are separated and sold off, and their lives do not belong to themselves. There are sustainable, beautiful, animal free alternatives for knitwear such as bamboo. Lets make the effort to go that route

    I read here that someone has a small family farm where the animals are free and well treated. This may be a very rare exception but even small farms eventually slaughter their animals which is inherently violent.

    Lets practice true ahimsa and simply find alternatives to using other beings to fulfill our whims. We dont need to use wool or animal products so lets not. Lets not engage in the suffering of another because we want a sweater.

  17. guest says:

    That is actually not true. There are a good handful of family farms that keep sheep as pets (my parents are planning to do this in the near future) and shear them naturally, organically, and humanely when the sheep is ready to be sheared.

    Just like there are many small, organic family farms that keep chickens as pets and sell the eggs.

    Sadly, small farms like these are not supported because, either competition from large industry wipes them out, or well-meaning people like you mistakenly convince people that their product is inherently cruel.

    Like I said, my whole family is vegetarian and would never harm an animal. If we produced wool from pet sheep, you cannot honestly say that it is produced with cruelty.

  18. One point: on bamboo, we here at elephant (along with most of green community) generally don't view bamboo as "eco," or particularly cruelty-free—much of it comes from un-susatainably harvested areas of China where the panda, etc., is effected. If it comes from a managed area, fantastic—but it still is getting shipped halfway around the world, which ain't efficient, and it still takes a great deal of energy to break bamboo down into that soft material we all love. Eco Fail.

  19. Thanks so much for the informed comment, Elaine, and I'll check out your writeup.

  20. One point: in my interview with Michael Pollan, he justified (after much thought) eating humanely raised meats because without our consumption, or in this case without our wanting to wear wool, there will sadly no longer be a place for most animals at all. While this is obviously murky moral territory, it seems to be a valid point.


  21. I'm with you on bamboo, see comment above. Go hemp and organic cotton!

  22. Jill says:

    No tragedy there. I'd rather never be born than be born as an animal used for human consumption.

  23. These family farms with sheep and chickens, while preferable to factory farms, still generally kill the animals for their flesh in the end. My Internet search for humane wool turned up an organization that boasted to be the first sheep farm in the United States to be "certified humane" by major "humane" organizations. However, it also offers "flavorful lamb cuts."

    Sadly, I suspect that like "humane meat" and "humane slaughter," "humane wool" is an oxymoron more than 99.9% of the time. And boycotting wool saves money on drycleaning 🙂

  24. Kelsi says:

    This is such a bummer. I've always been such a wool superfan.
    Does anyone have any (nonsynthetic) fiber suggestions that are good at keeping you warm and dry in cold weather?

  25. Elizabeth says:

    Cotton farming is terrible for the earth, and polyester is a nice word for plastic. I'd rather knit with wool from a farm I know is cruelty-free.


  26. Izzi says:

    I agree with your point of view on the humane treatment of animals but this article does not leave any room for peeps that are trying to do good work. NOT all wool is created equal. Please check out “Zque” certified wool from New Zealand (http://www.zque.co.nz/).
    The beautiful thing about wearing wool next to your skin is that you get incredible performance naturally. I will not wear synthetics next to my skin…it feels gross to me besides all the other negative attributes (stink, does not breath, super flammable and the landfill).
    There are a lot of un-cruel choices of clothing to wear. Maybe a less narrow view on the subject would be more mindful?

  27. Via Twitter, a suggestion:
    @elephantjournal If not wool? => Fleece made from recycled PET plastic is cruelty-free 🙂 Several mfrs make garments of this material

  28. Organic cotton is bad for the earth? And us?

  29. […] The following Facebook conversation was prompted by our recent post on elephantjournal.com: Wool may be Natural, but it’s Cruel. […]

  30. Megan says:

    Actually bamboo yarn is still more eco friendly, and far more sustainable than animal agriculture (remember, wool has the same problem meat does, the animals need to be fed so its very resource intensive, not to mention thats a lot of poop!)

    But nothing beats reducing and recycling. You can get yarns that are make from recylced materials, or you can DIY. Unthread old sweaters, and make your own yarn out of plastic bags, old t-shirts, newspapers, whatever you can!

  31. […] we advocate solely for veganism? Another personally riveting conversation came out of our recent Wool may be Natural—but it’s Cruel post over on […]

  32. Timmy Mac says:

    I'm an avid backpacker. Can anyone recommend a fabric or fiber that I can use to stay dry and warm other than wool? Seems like the choices are animal cruelty or earth-raping petroleum derivatives. What should I replace my wool socks with to fight off hypothermia?

  33. Lina says:

    In Lithuania, the dog hair socks are terribly popular!! they say it heals rheumatism, etc… However, my USA friends were rather skeptical!! It's a dog-smelling, but an alternative!!

  34. My sense is that as a human culture, it's time to look at the underlying roots of all the unconsciousness/greed/cruelty in the world – whether that be in the name of consumerism, land, beliefs…

    …because it's overwhelming to think of all the ways in which we have to personally be conscious and vigilant (though I know we all are doing our best in every way – eating and buying local, organic, fair-trade, humane – not to mention making and growing our own!… 😉

    So of course we keep walking the talk, coming down to earth in our everyday, seeing thru the glamourous illusion of the world and its fear-driven need to fill some empty hole…

    But above all, perhaps we can approach our human follies with a bit of compassion… And curiosity.

    Love, Ariana

  35. Laurie says:

    Who ever wrote this article has no clue as to raising sheep! Sheep DO NOT naturally shed their winter wool. It has to be shorn off or they will become infested with bugs which will make them very sick and eventually die. There are so many cruel free farms out there that do sell wool it would surprise you. Myself, I have 54 sheep and it is NOT cruel to shear them. It is actually opposite-it is cruel NOT TO SHEAR them.

  36. Lynn says:

    We are wool processors- working hand in hand with shepherds of sheep and alpaca , among other animals. These animals supply such a wonderful fiber and to boycott natural fibers is crazy. Find yourself people who are small animal raisers and support their efforts to continue to supply us with yarns and fibers to make felt with. The animals grown this wool and need to be sheared every spring or they will die! We have many shepherd friends- all you need to do is look at the coats of these animals every spring to know- they NEED a haircut!!! Please get facts right before posting – and please do not go off on tangents that are based on emotion and not fact!

  37. Laurie says:

    I have raises sheep for over 20 years and have NOT slaughtered nor shipped any to market! Yes there are those of use out here that do care for our animals and provide a very nice WOOL for spinner, knitters and even weavers.

  38. Laurie says:

    There are some of us that do not slaughter our animals. By the way, the itchy scratchy is not from the wool itself, but the chemicals they use when carbonizing wool to clean it. My wool has never nor never will be carbonized. It weakens the wool to begin with because it is an acid!

  39. Tim says:

    @Lynn and @Laurie: The root of the problem is that you have no right to keep animals to create profit. They are on this earth for their own purposes, not to serve you and put money in your pocket.

  40. Russ Martin says:

    It doesn't seem fair to boycott the entire wool industry because some large scale producers are inflicting pain on animals. There are many small family owned farms and wool producers who treat their animals humanely. I suggest that the boycotts be targeted toward those producers who are treating their animals in inhumane ways.

  41. Laurie says:

    Let me tell you something mister! I loose money on my animals every year so where is the profit? I spend more money feeding my animal than I do my own family! We won't even mention that they eat before I do! I think you better get your facts straight before you start shooting your mouth off!!!!! MOST SHEEP DO NOT SHED!!! SHEARING IS NOT CRUEL!

  42. Jared says:

    oh won't someone please think of the children….

  43. Jared says:

    Keeping dogs as pets is inhumane, it is not their natural environment. Combing and collecting their fiber for your own use? How could you…

  44. Jared says:

    Thank you Lynn for a little common sense here, and some actual facts. I find myself unable to be as wonderfully logical as you in the face of this level of intentional ignorance, and tend to fly off the handle with sarcasm. You rock.

  45. Jared says:

    Tim, you have no idea what you are talking about.

  46. Jared says:

    Anyway, since we are on the animal cruelty bandwagon here, lets have a look at this: http://www.petakillsanimals.com/ Turns out in 2008, in Virginia alone PETA personally killed well over 2000 cats and dogs. Oh, and found homes for less than 10. Theres a great thread on this site that covers an animal cruelty trial of a couple of PETA employees, for killing and dumping bodies. Homes for less than 10…

  47. Laurie, if you'd like to publish something representing middle path—being kind and working in harmony with your sheep friends—I'll be honored to post and share. This is not a black and white situation, clearly. I think Gary's post, above, is mainly directed toward "conventional" wool—unfortunately 99% of the supply, that 99% of us don't know is cruel.

  48. Via http://www.facebook.com/elephantjournal

    This is one of those articles that needs to be circulated ever more widely. I knew in theory that wool was less than humane, but this article clearly and concisely explains the process and cruelty involved – my stomach clenched as I read it.

    so sad…

    I am one of the few naive people who thought shearing sheep was beneficial for them. Now I just feel disgusted.

    Like that you are sharing this!

    Ronnie, me too. I was surprised when Gary told me in a comment on our site, I think it was, and asked him to write up. He did a great, non-sensational job of it.

    i disagree- this article is taking one admittedly very large facet of a commodity and its produciton and treating it as completely representative of the whole.

    this isn't mature journalism, and by not including information about responsible and ethical natural fiber production which is available internationally, you're hurting the solution to the problem. it's irresponsible journalism based on indignation rather than complete information. you can buy artisan handspun wool and roving at the boulder farmer's market from a flock of less that 10 heritage shetland sheep that live less than 20 miles away- the wool is being spun in front of you on a zero emission human-powered antique wood spinning wheel.

    you can support microloan recipents and heavily impoverished communities and women's cooperatives in the andes who hand shear their alpacas and sheep and hand spin their fiber and wouldn't dream of slaughtering an animal when it's productivity dropped a bit, simply b/c they cannot afford a replacement…. See More

    i encourage you to reseach and post a follow-up article that devotes as much time and energy to all of the positive, amazing, and socially-uplifting things that are going on in the natural fiber communities world-wide that your readers can be proud to support and proud to be part of- let us participate in ethical, responsible alternatives that make the worl a better place, rather than just telling us how awful some of it is and representing that as the entire picture.

    please pardon the typographical errors, but frankly, we need to recognize and support the people who are trying to provide ethical and compassionate alternatives to industrialization, commodification, and cruelty to animals. i have 2 friends on facebook who have heritage breed, pasture-raised sheep that they lovingly tend, name, and post pictures of- including the ewes who are over 10 years old. one sells fleeces on his web site and links each fleece to the picture of the ewe or lamb it came from, year after year.

    i just don't feel like sensationalism is a productive way to educate others and improve the world.

    Amen! We'd love to hear from your friends. I said in comments on the post, if you read it, that we were looking for alternatives. Someone suggested IBEX. Leave other good fair-minded non-cruel wool alternatives in Comments on the post. Gary?

    Waylon Lewis
    grrrreat comment on our Page. Thanks for that, I'll contact Gary. If you look at my comments on the Post, I too was asking for fair-minded alternative sources for non-cruel wool.

    Gary I'm sure will be happy to better research or explore non-cruel solutions, he's passionate on the subject. I still think his basic gist—that conventional wool (99% of the supply) is cruel—is news to 99% of us. It was to me.

  49. Andrew A. says:

    So, back to the question that initiated this particular thread, which clothing manufacturers (and retailers) does this translate to? There would clearly be a community that would support an ethical, humane wool operation, EJ can be a conduit to help get the word out.

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