Getting to Know Wool
One of the seasonal changes we eagerly welcome as the last days of summer fade into the first few of fall is the opportunity to greet the chill in the air with a warm sweater. Since there’s a good chance that sweater will be made of wool, it’s time we got better acquainted with this warm winter fiber.
What is wool?
Wool is an animal-based natural fiber that comes from the fleece of sheep. In 2013, global wool output was 1.2 million tons, accounting for 3% of the world’s production of natural fibers  and 1.3% of the global fiber market.  Wool is produced in roughly 100 countries around the world from population of over 1 billion sheep. Most of the world’s sheep live in China (185 million), Australia, and India (75 million each). 
Sheep and the environment
There two environmental issues associated with sheep farming: overgrazing and methane emissions.
Along with cows and goats (among other animals, like deer and giraffe) sheep are ruminant animals, which survive by eating, or grazing, on grasses. Grasses play a critical role in the world’s pastureland, because they provide nutrients to the soil and give the soil structure and strength, allowing it to retain water and exchange carbon with the atmosphere. Grazing animals also play a vital role in the world’s ecosystems by serving two functions. First, they improve the health of the soil through their release of nutrient-rich waste. Second, they control weeds and keep pastures in balance.  Through these two functions, grazing animals like sheep can provide an alternative to synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, reducing agricultural reliance on these chemicals. 
There are clear benefits to controlled grazing, but when sheep grazing is not well managed this gives rise to overgrazing, which is a major environmental problem. Overgrazing happens when pastures are grazed so heavily that the land cannot recover its vegetation in a reasonable period of time. The loss of vegetation depletes nutrients and microorganisms in the soil. Weak soil becomes vulnerable to erosion and desertification, which is the transformation of healthy land into land that is too compromised to host plant life. While sheep are gentler on the land than goats, they are still capable of causing environmental damage associated with overgrazing.
One example of sheep overgrazing is in the Patagonia region of Chile and Argentina, where severe desertification affects 30% of the region.  In this area, overgrazing by sheep is “assigned as the main cause of desertification” because it has contributed to the removal of grasses and erosion of soil.  How did sheep end up overgrazing Patagonia? As is often the case, human mismanagement plays a big role. Almost 90% of the grassland in southern Argentina is privately owned and most of it is used for grazing sheep,  which in Patagonia are raised primarily for their wool. In 1952, Patagonia was home to more than 21 million sheep, which vastly exceeded the capacity of the land. As with cashmere production in Mongolia, sheep in Patagonia were eating the grassland faster than it could grow back. As a result, more than 90% of the landmass in Patagonia is marked by some degree of deteriorated soil quality.
Moving along to methane emissions. Ruminant livestock have bacteria in their stomachs that produce methane, a gas that has 25 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.  Cattle farming is by far the world’s principle source of methane, accounting for 65% of total livestock emissions.  While sheep play a less significant role, in New Zealand, which has long had one of the highest sheep per-capita ratios in the world,  livestock emissions (from 45 million sheep and 10 million cattle) contribute to 90% of total national methane emissions. 
Animal welfare and wool
One of the most important considerations surrounding animal fibers involves the way animals are treated. Let’s look at the main ethical issues involved in wool production: the shearing process and a procedure known as mulesing.
Shearing is a procedure in which a sheep’s fleece is removed, or cut off. Shearing is controversial from an animal welfare perspective for two reasons. The first involves the question of whether sheep need to be sheared naturally or not. Wild sheep generally do not need to be sheared, because they grow an appropriate amount of wool to keep them warm and can naturally shed this fleece each season. However, most of the world’s sheep are domesticated. Over time, domesticated sheep have been bred for thicker and more plentiful fleeces that grow continuously over the course of the year. These thicker fleeces can reduce a sheep’s ability to control its own temperature, and can result in a dirty fleece that makes sheep vulnerable to disease and infection. So particularly in the case of domesticated sheep, while shearing is important for the farmer, who benefits from the production of wool, it is also important for the health of the sheep, which benefits from improved temperature control and a clean fleece.
Sheep are usually sheared once a year, but some can be sheared multiple times per year if their fleece grows quickly. The second ethical concern around shearing is that often, shearers aren’t skilled in removing the sheep’s fleece without cutting its skin or inflicting pain to the sheep. In 2014, PETA released video documenting horrible animal rights abuses against sheep in shearing operations in the US and Australia.
Mulesing is, unfortunately, similarly unpleasant to think about. Mulesing involves Merino sheep primarily grown in Australia, but also grown in New Zealand. Merino sheep are prized for their thick, soft wool. Merino’s thick fleece grows as a result of deep wrinkles in their skin. While these wrinkles produce the thick, soft wool that Merino sheep are prized for, they also make the sheep vulnerable to a parasite that lays its eggs in the damp wool around the tail area. This parasite, known as the Australian blowfly, is a serious threat that, if left untreated, would eventually lead to a sheep’s death.
To prevent this parasitic infection, sheep undergo a procedure known as mulesing, which involves removing strips of skin around the breech of a sheep to prevent wool from growing near the tail and buttocks. After sheep are mulesed, wool no longer grows around their tail, so they are less vulnerable to infection. While estimates vary, according to the Australian Wool Exchange, only 6% of Australian sheep were not mulesed in 2014. 
One of the reasons that mulesing is so widespread is that the alternatives for controlling this dangerous parasite are not easy. One option is to breed sheep with fewer wrinkles, and/or a bare spot around the tail region. While this is the best long-term solution, it will take a long time to alter the gene pool among affected Merino sheep. Other options include determining optimal times for shearing and the application of chemicals to repel flies. While these approaches are more accessible to farmers and can be implemented in a shorter timespan, increasing dependence on chemicals can pose a threat to environmental, human, and animal health.
Of course, you can be sure our .08 The Wool Coat, was made using certified non-mulesed wool.
- Natural Fibres and the World Economy
- The Global Fiber Market in 2014
- Sheep Industry Information
- The Canadian Sheep Federation: Grazing
- R.F. Pywell, M.J. Hayes, J.B. Tallowin, K.J. Walker, W.R. Meek, C. Carvell, L. A. Warman and J. M. Bullock. Minimizing environmental impacts of grassland weed management: can Cirsium arvense be controlled without herbicides? Grass and Forage Science doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2494.2010.00735.x
- Overgrazing and Desertification
- Casanova, M., Salazar, O., Seguel, O., & Luzio, W. (2013). The soils of Chile. Springer Science & Business Media. p.149
- Preserving Patagonian Grasslands and Gauchos
- Overview of Greenhouse Gases
- By the numbers: GHG emissions by livestock
- The ratio of person to sheep in New Zealand has dropped
- New Zealand Tries to Cap Gaseous Sheep Burps
- Non-mulesed wool supply