If You Need It: Wool Sweaters

This I Wear | If You Need It: Wool Sweaters

It’s amazing how suddenly cooler temperatures have descended on the East Coast. My wardrobe is already transitioning to Fall and for me, this means cozy sweaters. And for most of us, cozy sweaters mean wool.

Wool is actually a pretty amazing fiber. It’s biodegradable, breathable, and a renewable resource since it grows right back on a healthy sheep.

Wool also doesn’t raise ethical flags for most people. While leather is often a byproduct of the meat industry, wool can be removed without killing the animal. Sheep and goats are sheared for their wool and then they hang around until the next shearing (though obviously living conditions can vary).

But there is one issue that I had never heard of until fairly recently, and I’m going to guess you haven’t either: mulesing. Merino sheep, specifically those raised in Australia, are prone to flystrike, when botflies burrow into the sheep’s “breech” (a nice way of saying, butt) to lay their eggs and the sheep die a slow painful death and…I won’t get into the details here. To protect the sheep from this terrible death, the farmers use the practice of mulesing in which they cut off a young sheep’s excess folds of skin around the rear. If that sounds like a nightmare-inducing lose-lose situation, it’s because it is.

PETA launched a campaign against mulesing several years ago, trying to get wool farmers to use alternative methods. Some options include breeding sheep that don’t have the folds and therefore aren’t as vulnerable to flystrike. At the very least, there is a plea for these farmers to use painkillers on the sheep during this practice. But also keep in mind that farmers don’t want their sheep to die from flystrike either – whether for ethical or financial reasons. From what I’ve learned, it’s a complex issue.

But there are ways to avoid the issue by purchasing mulesing-free wool.

First, companies can avoid sourcing merino wool from Australia, since its neighbor, New Zealand, does not practice mulesing. Ethical suppliers do exist in Australia, like NewMerino, which is based in Australia but certifies that their producers not only do not practice mulesing but also abide by other animal welfare standards. In addition, some companies, like Icebreaker, People Tree, Swedish brand Fjallraven, and even fast fashion brand Uniqlo, have publicly shared their commitment to sourcing mulesing-free wool, which makes it easy to know which sweaters are safe to buy.

In searching, I also discovered John Smedley, a UK brand founded in 1784 that has incorporated sustainability as one of its core values. The brand’s luxury merino wool sweaters are made of New Zealand merino wool to avoid mulesing and knit in the UK.

So if you’re shopping for sweaters this season, I recommend a great mulesing-free sweater from Uniqlo or John Smedley. And if you are out shopping, ask some questions if you see “merino wool” listed on the content label. I know this issue is not a happy one, but the more we ask, the more companies will make phasing out this practice a priority. And I’d like to think that happy sheep make cozier sweaters.

One important note: I recognize that I’m recommending a $30 sweater from Uniqlo in this post, which for many people may raise other questions related to ethics since it is a “fast fashion” company. But it’s also important to me to be super transparent with you, and I will say that (1) I hope this recommendation is helpful if this issue of mulesing is particularly important to you, (2) I’m offering this as a small step you can take to incorporate ethical decision-making into your clothing purchases, since 100% ethical clothing can still be difficult to find, and (3) I do occasionally buy basics from Uniqlo and they inexplicably last a very long time. That said, I welcome discussion on this!

[Images via John Smedley and Uniqlo.]

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2 comments

  1. Rebecca | Seven2Seven8

    I think the idea of “don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good” applies so perfectly to shopping more ethically. Every time we vote with our dollars for something “better”, it helps, and I’d rather see someone choose Uniqlo (a brand I’ve never personally tried, but may look into as an affordable option if they have some commendable practices — I don’t have to consume fashion quickly just because a brand favors hawking trends over timeless pieces…even Forever21 gets it right for the long haul on occasion, however accidentally). I appreciate your perspective in this post immensely. I can personally vouch for Icebreaker, and it’s my understanding that SmartWool and Ibex are ethical companies, too (toward the humans and sheep that keep them in business).

    • Rebecca

      Hi Rebecca, thanks for the call out of Smartwool and Ibex too – I will definitely check them out! I’m sure there are many other brands too and I can’t wait to discover them :)

      And yes, I don’t think perfect exists in ethical apparel just yet, although there are some groundbreaking companies and the secondhand option avoids a lot of these issues. What feels most important right now is helping people figure out what issues are important to them and giving them options to support that, regardless of price point. “Continuous improvement” really does seem to be the name of the game for now.

      I love hearing your perspective on these posts! Thanks for being such a great contributor here!

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