Inside the wool industry

The word ‘natural’ is often associated with products that are pure, better for us and have less impact on the environment. When it comes to natural fibres, this is often the case but not always. Natural knitwear still comes with its fair share of ethical and environmental issues. Natural fibres tend to be far more appealing to the touch than their synthetic counterparts and can often be the best ethical choice. However, you’d be wrong to assume that all natural fibres are ethically superior. With a little understanding of the industry, you can be sure to source the best ethical knitwear for yourself and your family.

Problems with wool production

The environmental footprint of the wool industry, on the whole, is significant. Commercial scale sheep-farming has led to the rise in greenhouse gases as well as creating monocultures which deplete the biodiversity of the soil and ecosystems. Less fertile soil, in turn, has a negative effect on food production. As with any livestock rearing, bulk fodder crop production is essential and now occupies 50% of the farmland globally.

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When sheep are sheared on commercial wool farms, they are sheared hastily without sufficient diligence. This can result in significant injuries to the animals, including tearing of the skin, tail and ears. In Australia, some merino sheep are subjected to a practice known as ‘mulesing’ where the wool-bearing skin from around the buttocks is surgically removed to prevent flystrike. Without painkillers or after care, this treatment is recognised as barbaric.

Ethical wool

If you are after ethical knitwear then mass production will never be the answer. In most cases, the best alternative is opting for native rare breeds on home soils. Labelling isn’t always clear. For instance, the “British Wool” label may offer some reassurance but in reality, a brand can use this label even if they still import 50% of their wool.

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If wool is sourced from the right place it can be delightfully ethical. It is hardy, natural and biodegradable. Buying ethical knitwear is not impossible, it just takes a little research. There are plenty of brands out there who are devoted to producing ethical knitwear. Though it is worth remembering that the fleece from a single Shetland sheep only produces one metre of cloth, so prices from ethically-sourced wool brands tend to be higher.

Identifying ethical fibres

When it comes to identifying a fibre as ethical, there is a lot to consider. You have to look at every stage of the process from production, through use and into disposal. You need to look for actual benchmarks of sustainability, eco-credentials and social impact. Check for genuine organic (GOTS) and Fair trade certifications. Alpaca and llama are a great choice and tend to be farmed more ethically. Alpacas are not overbred, their feet do not damage the ground and their way of grazing (by leaving the roots of a plant intact) helps to preserve the ecosystem they live in.

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Brands that have nothing to hide will share their ethics and philosophy on their website. It is worth taking the time to read the story and ethos behind a brand before investing in their products. While you’re there you can check certifications.

Wool blends (unless they are combined with another natural, organic fibre) should be avoided. Do your research as many garments that are labelled as wool blend actually contain acrylic, nylon or polyester.

The benefits of wool

Wool is a fabulous renewable and sustainable fibre. Its versatility makes it ideal for clothing. It provides great insulation, is hard-wearing and can absorb up to 30% of its own weight in moisture before feeling wet making it ideal for outdoor wear. Wool is flame resistant too and its dirt repellent and durable properties make it ideal for kids wear.

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Merino wool

Merino is one of the softest and most comfortable of yarns. Merino is beautifully fine and silky, giving it a coveted luxurious feel. It is also great for regulating body temperature, as well as absorbing moisture. Merino wool fibres are highly elastic making them the perfect choice for fitted garments. They will stretch to accentuate your shape before snapping back after wearing. This means there is less chance of sagging – resulting in a garment that lasts.

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Fast fashion

The best thing to do is look for brands that avoid fast fashion. Flock by Nature and Ally Bee are both brands who support slow fashion. They offer sustainable garments that look and feel fabulous, which are built to last. Flock By Nature offer complimentary repairs on all minor accidental damage after purchase, encouraging you to treasure your sweater or cardigan for many years to come.

This article first appeared in the November issue of Natural Mumma Magazine and was written by Holly Daffurn. 

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