Most of us have seen at least one advertisement claiming wool to be ‘sustainable’, ‘green’, or even ‘regenerative’. Yet, a recent analysis of a selection of these such advertisements found 72 percent to have no sources backing up their claims, regardless of the quality of the source. Most of these ads are green-washed, buzzwordy falsehoods.
I know this because I’ve spent seemingly endless hours researching these advertisements, compiling data on the wool industry’s impact, and co-authoring a newly released report called “Shear Destruction: Wool, Fashion and the Biodiversity Crisis” in which the aforementioned analysis was released.
What is biodiversity?
When we talk about biodiversity, we’re really speaking about all life on Earth. If we don’t have a diverse range of biological life on this planet, ecosystems collapse and die. Biodiversity can be seen in the complexity of a forest or bushland full of different tree species, some of which are covered by different mosses and lichens, others home to bird species. Their fallen leaves and branches are habitat to small mammals and colonies of insects, while reptiles slither through grasses amongst these fallen branches, and large birds of prey keep a watchful eye over these, just as larger mammals and herbivores tread over them as they go about their days. Under it all, mycelium connects fungi and even trees, allowing them to communicate.
You get the picture: biodiversity is life, and the wool industry would have you believe it’s a friend to biodiversity, even capable of nurturing, fostering, and strengthening it.
The argument is that sheep are animals, and so they are a part of a biodiverse ecosystem where their manure feeds the soil, their hooves tramble it and support carbon sequestration, and so on. But the argument for regenerative animal production is deeply flawed, best broken down in Oxford’s 300-source-strong “Grazed and Confused” report. In reality, should wool production rise, as advocates for the industry hope, more sheep, and more free-living, native animals will die.
Wool farming kills sheep and wildlife alike
Despite the common misconception that wool is not only sustainable but ethical, wool is indeed a slaughter industry. Sheep are mere commodities to those rearing them for wool and profit gained from it in a capitalist, colonial system, and so when a sheep’s wool production slows, or their wool thins and brittles, they are slaughtered. Often, this is about halfway into a sheep’s natural lifespan.
Similarly, land is a resource used by the wool industry and used in a way that is inefficient and destructive. Even if some agricultural operations producing wool are able to ensure a level of biodiversity greater than the industry’s norm—largely just one species of grass, a few trees here and there, very little support for the many insects, birds, and other life needed to foster a happy ecosystem, and one domesticated, introduced animal species—wool farming will never be the best way to produce sustainable, fashionable fibers. And this is because of how land inefficient it is.
Calculations released in Collective Fashion Justice and Center for Biological Diversity’s report, which we had verified by Faunalytics, tell us that to produce one bale of Australian wool rather than Australian cotton requires a whopping 367 times more land. This means that no matter what this massive amount of land was cleared for, it must be kept clear for the sake of wool production. If we were instead knitting with sustainably produced cotton (yes, it exists), hemp, or other plant-based fibers or recycled materials, an enormous amount of land would be allowed to remain wonderfully biodiverse, supporting indigenous life.
Where do we go from here?
Essentially, a transition to more efficient, non-animal agriculture would mean a significant amount of land which could be rewilded, with ecosystems being naturally rebuilt, supporting the native plants and animal life that would have been in abundance should the land have never been disturbed by human activity.
This would be great news for many native animal species—so often forgotten in discussions around animal-friendly fashion, who have suffered at the hands of the wool industry. For example, the many dingoes, kangaroos, native bighorn sheep, wolves, and even bears who are shot and poisoned across Australia and the United States for the sake of wool production. A transition away from inefficient wool production would also benefit the many native bird species in Australia who have seen population decline in prime wool production areas, like emus, hooded robins, speckled warblers, diamond firetails, and crested bellbirds, to name a few.
This isn’t a case of demonizing sheep. It’s not the fault of sheep that an industry which is built around their exploitation, mutilation, slaughter, and commodification also harms wild animals, but of recognizing the enormous, negative impact that rearing animals in a linear system has not only on that specific species, but on so many others.
It’s not to the benefit of sheep that in Australia’s primary wool-growing state of New South Wales, there are 22.9 million sheep. These aren’t free individuals, these are individuals who are still legally mulesed and tail docked without pain relief, who are controlled in their breeding, in their movement, and in their right to live. It’s also not to the benefit of the now as few as 30,000 koalas left in New South Wales, with populations having fallen so significantly due to habitat destruction that World Wildlife Fund estimates they may be extinct in some parts of Australia by 2050.
More ethics in fashion
We cannot continue to kill for the sake of fashion. This means moving away from any materials where slaughterhouses are a part of the supply chain, but it also means, as much as possible, moving away from systems that cause major habitat loss to free-living animals who don’t just relocate, but who die out.
While there’s no perfectly ethical and sustainable production system, there are those which are better than others, and which aren’t specifically rooted in harm. When we look to the wool industry, we can say with absolute certainty that this is an industry rooted in harm, and one we must justly transition away from, should we want to protect biodiversity, protect animals, and protect our shared planet.
Emma Håkansson is the founder and director of Collective Fashion Justice which seeks to create a total ethics fashion system that prioritizes the life and wellbeing of non-human and human animals, as well as the planet, before profit and production. She has written countless articles on ethics, sustainability, and fashion, and has two books due out over the next two years.