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Climate•5 min read
Marketed to consumers as "sustainable," this "climate-beneficial" wool is polluting the land and killing wildlife.
Words by Emma Hakansson
High on a Paiute desert plain, a rare sage grouse places the finishing touches on a small impression in the earth where she will lay her eggs. There were once countless nests like this here in Nevada’s Great Basin, sheltered among the tall wheatgrass and sagebrush.
Today, such security is scarce. This is the bird’s second attempt to nest — her first clutch robbed from its cradle, clearly visible among the short and ephemeral cheatgrass encroaching on the landscape. The once immense, roaming herds of bighorn sheep have been wiped out too — victims of a disease vectored by the same calamity that befell the native grasses and grouse: domestic sheep farming.
Across this arid landscape, a wool company called Estill Ranches is allotted large plots of public land by the U.S. government to rear thousands of sheep every year. The ranch has become a standard-bearer for sustainable wool — and a supplier to major brands like The North Face — yet the supply chain appears to be the complete opposite.
The sheep are shocked and gashed during shearing. The wool is rendered into textile by a long, pollution-intensive process of scouring, carding, grading and weaving. The garments carry slogans like “sustainable” and “climate-beneficial.” But scientists tell a different story.
“The [Estill] allotments are all either failing The Bureau of Land Management’s land health standards due to livestock or have not had a land health assessment,” explains Melissa Cain, a geographic information systems analyst at the Western Watersheds Project. Her digital maps overlay the imperiled species’ ranges with data collected by the same government agency that permits the corporation to graze these lands. The BLM assessments conclude that grazing activity is degrading the soil and native vegetation – draining its carbon reservoirs into the ocean and atmosphere.
Estill Ranches, whose flagship is called Bare Ranch and whose wool textile is branded Lani’s Lana, operates across four government grazing allotments in total, three of which are located at the Southern end of the Surprise Valley, spanning the California-Nevada border. All but one of these overlap with threatened populations of greater sage grouse.
While federal land managers blame the species’ decline on recovering juniper forests encroaching on sage brush – and destroy them with everything from bulldozers to napalm – the clear reason for the continued decline of sage grouse is ranching. The impacts of ranching not only disturb every step in the grouse’s life cycle, but also their entire ecosystem. By introducing flammable annuals like cheatgrass and degrading natural fire barriers like biotic soil crusts, ranching has gradually transformed sage brush systems across the West into frequent fire regimes.
However, the wildlife most impacted by Bare Ranch are likely the desert bighorn sheep, whose numbers have fallen by roughly 96 percent in the last two centuries. Ovine pneumonia – spread by contact with domestic sheep – is identified by biologists as the subspecies’ greatest threat.
In the 1980s, reintroduction efforts brought bighorns back from the brink of local extinction. But in 2007, the same year the Bureau of Land Management finalized new permissions allowing Estill Ranches to graze more than ten thousand domestic sheep in wild sheep habitat, a pneumonia outbreak tore through the adjacent population, “terminat[ing] the existence of bighorns in the Hays Canyon Range.” Subsequent research identified the Tuledad allotment, where Estill was licensed, as the most probable point of first contact.
To the nearby Pyramid Lake Paiute Nation, the desert bighorn have the same right to the landscape as humankind. In 2020, the tribe reintroduced twenty-two bighorn sheep to the shores of Pyramid Lake, where for a century, they only existed in petroglyphs.
Mervin Wright, Jr., a hydrologist and environmental manager for the Pyramid Lake Paiute, explains how dams for uses like pasture irrigation have afflicted his people and their ecosystem. For millennia, the Northern Paiute gathered on the shores of Pyramid Lake for the spawning of the Lahontan cutthroat trout and an ancient suckerfish called the cui-ui, which lives nowhere else on Earth.
Over his lifetime, Wright has watched as water diversions have “made it impossible for fish to get into the river to spawn naturally.” He calculates that to maintain the level of Pyramid Lake requires at least 300,000 acre-feet of water annually. Legal settlements allocate only ten percent of that quantity to the tribe. Some years, they only receive a fifth of that allocation. Furthermore, water adjudications allow the nation water for agricultural use only – leaving their extensive efforts to save the cui-ui, sage grouse, bighorns and the nation’s many visiting migratory birds high and dry.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government has drastically altered the Pyramid Lake watershed for agricultural withdrawals using an enormous canal, a series of dams and artificial diversions throughout the bordering grazing allotments, including the Blue Wing/Seven Troughs allotment licensed to Estill, which intersects the Lake’s watershed.
Estill Ranches is just one example in a global pattern of environmental exploitation for wool.
In Australia, the wool industry advocates for the mass killing of kangaroos to reduce grazing competition and is thought to be a leading cause in the extinction of the Tasmanian Tiger. In Chile, land enclosures for sheep ranching has led to the persecution of pumas. The United Kingdom was once a temperate rainforest archipelago, now clear-cut to create space for meat and wool farms. Indeed, wool has become such a large and powerful industry, it plays a part in the changing climate of our planet.
Critical discussions around emissions reduction in fashion often fail to consider the opportunities that come with combating methane. These enteric emissions, generated by the digestive systems of sheep, trap heat approximately 86 times as effectively as carbon dioxide over a twenty year time frame. As such, leading climatologists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have specifically emphasized the imperative to rapidly cut methane pollution.
However, policy recommendations for the garment sector remain vague, as independent environmental impact assessments of the fashion industry are sorely lacking. Even so, self-reported industry data indicate that a sweater knitted of merino wool generates twenty-seven times the emissions of one made from cotton, emitting more greenhouse gases than even petroleum fibers in the production phase.
It’s not just emissions, either. Wool production is incredibly land intensive, requiring nearly 250 times as much area to produce a sweater using wool than some cottons and nearly 1500 times as much land than plant-based wool alternatives like lyocell.
A 2021 report from Collective Fashion Justice and the Center for Biological Diversity (coauthored by one of these authors) used industry data to evaluate that wool farming occupies one fifth of agricultural land on the Australian continent, wiping out wildlife ranging from grazers to predators to scavengers to burrowers to pollinators. Emissions estimates also leave out pollution associated with land use, like soil erosion, vegetation degradation and biodiversity destruction.
What’s more, other industry documentation estimates a typical wool scouring facility – which removes grease to make sheep hair wearable – releases “an organic effluent load similar to that of the sewerage from a town of 30,000 people,” according to the Australian Wool Education Trust. Their figures suggest these scouring facilities recover just 30 percent of their effluent, releasing endocrine-disrupting surfactants like alkylphenol ethoxylates into aquatic ecosystems, not to mention deadly air pollutants like arsenic, chromium, and mercury into public airspace – issues explored in the recent fashion documentary SLAY.
While the wool production process has intensified, it hasn’t changed much over the years. The public relations strategy, however, has definitely benefited from a makeover. Estill Ranches didn’t always market itself as a climate warrior. Its branding turned a corner upon forming a partnership with a producer association called Fibershed, which touts the partnership, saying, “The North Face wasn’t just trying to find a way to offset its emissions, it saw this as an opportunity to have its supply chain make a difference.” Fibershed works with a consulting agency called the Carbon Cycle Institute to develop custom-tailored carbon plans for its clients.
The agency is part of the Marin Carbon Project, an entity contracted to develop carbon farming strategies for the Point Reyes National Seashore, federal land where cattle ranching has poisoned estuaries, desecrated Miwok burial grounds and killed off much of the endemic tule elk population. The Point Reyes ranching community has become a powerful media force in the effort to rebrand the industry as a climate solution.
The carbon plan for Bare Ranch recommends measures like introducing invasive grasses, fragmenting habitat with fences and converting extensive acreage to water-intensive alfalfa. The biggest carbon gains it projects come from importing wood pulp compost. But its calculations claiming negative emissions exclude downstream processes, relying heavily on conjecture, yet that doesn’t stop them from qualifying for USDA carbon credit calculators. And of course, none of this mitigates the emissions from the animals themselves, one of its biggest sources of pollution.
Estill Ranches and Fibershed did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Despite their questionable environmental records, Fibershed and the Carbon Cycle Institute recently received a cut of a $30 million federal grant to expand their operations as part of the USDA incentive program for climate-smart agriculture, which has drawn wide criticism from scientists. Fibershed affiliated farms span across the U.S., Canada and Europe, while similar marketing strategies are employed by brands like The North Face, Smartwool, Patagonia and REI. Competitors have sprung up from Ireland to New Zealand and even include corporations commercializing the capture and shearing of wild guanacos and vicuñas in South America.
From the ranch to the runway, the wool industry’s glamorous greenwashing belies supply chains of pollution, exploitation and extirpation. While fossil-fuel derived fabrics are facing a rightful reckoning, animal-derived materials like wool are getting away with murder. In an age of closed-loop cellulose, hemp and recycled yarns, it’s time that major fashion labels evolve beyond the practice of industrially shearing clothing material off of sheep.
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