Sunday, February 5, 2023

The Complicated Ethics of Wool: It Might Be Cozy, But It’s Hurting the Planet


Humans have been using sheep’s wool to keep warm since, roughly, the 10th millennium. It’s perfect for keeping cozy, as the pockets of air in the fibers trap heat, making it an effective insulator in the colder months. But there is a darker side to the material.

Nowadays, most wool doesn’t come from free-roaming sheep, who spend their days out on vast green fields. Many of the millions of sheep raised for wool around the world live on industrialized factory farms. These facilities subject the animals to cramped and dirty conditions, but they’re also terrible for the environment. And this is why PETA is trying to change the wool industry forever.

In November, the animal rights organization launched a $1 million vegan wool prize fund. It will award the money to any individual or small business that is able to develop a functional, sophisticated, sustainable, warm, animal-free alternative to wool for use in the fashion industry. The fabric will also need to be scalable and appealing to designers. In fact, according to PETA, one vital part of the criteria is convincing at least one major global clothing retailer to sell the wool alternative by the end of next year. 

The challenge is no mean feat. But it’s never been more important. Here are some of the biggest environmental issues associated with today’s wool industry.

Is wool bad for the planet?

Sheep are hungry animals. They consume around one kilogram of grass dry matter every day. When they’re not asleep, they’re usually eating. This is fair enough for the sheep, but it’s not that great for the planet. This is because, like cows, sheep are ruminant animals, and this means they have a fore-stomach full of microbes called methanogens. So, when sheep belch, they produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas with 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide.

Sheep raised for their wool are driving climate change. Courtesy Georgi Kalaydzhiev | Unsplash

On average, one sheep will emit around 13 kilograms of methane per year. And when you consider there are more than 1 billion of them on the planet, mostly farmed for meat or wool, this all adds up to a catastrophic amount of emissions.

Water pollution

But greenhouse gases aren’t the only environmental issue associated with sheep farming. In New Zealand, which is one of the world’s biggest wool producers, 99 percent of the rivers running through urban and farm areas are heavily polluted. A lot of this is due to dairy farming, but according to Wool Facts, a resource run by PETA Australia, much of the blame can also be attributed to sheep. 

This is because sheep feces contain high amounts of E.coli, a strain of bacteria that, in some cases, can cause disease. This means that rivers near farms are not safe to drink from or swim in. In 2019, one poll conducted on behalf of Fish & Game New Zealand found that water pollution was a top concern for more than 80 percent of New Zealanders. 

Factory farming is a leading producer of wastewater. Courtesy Masaaki Komori | Unsplash

“Kiwis are extremely worried that they are losing their ability to swim, fish, and gather food from their rivers, lakes, and streams,” said Martin Taylor, chief executive of Fish & Game New Zealand. “People see those activities as their birthright but over the last 20 years, that right is being lost because the level of pollution in waterways has increased as farming intensifies.”

But this isn’t the only water-related issue with farming. Animal agriculture is also linked to an increase in ocean dead zones. These occur when fertilizers and nutrients run off into waterways, causing algae, which dies off and depletes the ocean of its oxygen. This creates large areas of the ocean where nothing can survive. Industrial activities are also linked with dead zones, and there are currently more than 400 around the world.

Creating a sustainable, vegan future of wool

It’s vital that the future of fashion doesn’t continue to wreck the planet. And changing the way we produce wool is a key part of that. The truth is, warm, cozy fibers don’t have to come from sheep. In 2018, PETA awarded a group of Colombian students for creating Woocoa, a bio-based hemp and coconut wool. That year, the challenge was sponsored by the luxury vegetarian brand Stella McCartney.

Next year, the animal rights group wants individuals and small businesses (entrants must have an annual revenue of less than $30 million to be considered) to expand on 2018’s result. 

woman in sweater
PETA will pay $1 million to vegan wool producers. Courtesy Mikhail Nilov | Pexels

The vegan wool has to be submitted to PETA by the end of July, it also has to be market ready and most importantly, bio-based, bio-engineered, biodegradable, or recyclable. This is because many existing vegan wool options on the market are made with synthetic yarns. But while they are relatively warm, as they are plastic-based and nonbiodegradable, they are not a sustainable alternative. 

PETA’s executive vice president Tracy Reiman has confidence in today’s designers’ abilities to produce a sustainable, ethical, scalable alternative to wool. She said: “From apples and hemp to kombucha tea and cacti, there seems to be no limit to what designers can use to create wonderful, animal-free clothing and accessories. PETA is delighted to offer innovative minds a big boost that will protect sheep, push fashion forward and help stop the environmental degradation caused by animal agriculture.”

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