Is wool eco-friendly? It’s complicated…

  • Date: May 13, 2022

With 2.2 million tons of wool produced globally every single year, it is safe to say that wool is a popular material. Its breathability, warmth and softness make it ideal for a lot of items from formal suits to cozy blankets. It is also claimed to be a great choice in terms of environmental impact (unsurprisingly) by wool producers and sellers. Here we take an impartial look at its ‘green’ credentials – is wool eco-friendly?

Let’s start with the good news…

Wool is biodegradable and can be composted

If an item can be broken down into its component parts by micro-organisms such as bacteria it is regarded as biodegradable. Wool is biodegradable and can, essentially, be returned to nature. Not everything that is biodegradable can be composted, but wool (unless heavily coated in chemicals) fits the bill. After a few months you will have nutrient-rich fertilizer and you will have diverted an item from landfill – everybody wins!

Composting a biodegradable item, such as wool, is much better than sending it to landfill. It is a common misconception that things biodegrade at the same rate in landfill as they would in nature. This is not the case – landfill does not provide optimal conditions for items to biodegrade. Items are compacted in there causing limited airflow and moisture.

Wool is renewable

Wool is a totally renewable resource. Sheep are sheared, typically, once a year and the fleece used to make wool. As well as providing wool, shearing sheep before summer also allows them to be a bit more comfortable in the warmer months. Their fleece then re-grows ready for next year.

Wool is durable – it can avoid landfill for a long time!

Wool products have a natural durability which makes them resistant to wear and tear. It is estimated that wool fibers can bend up to an incredible 20,000 times before they break. This is great news from an environmental point of view – items that can be used for a long time reduce waste which could, ultimately, end up in landfill.

There are some significant downsides with wool….

Water pollution associated with wool

Water pollution occurs both when rearing sheep and during the process of making wool from their fleece. Fecal matter (i.e., sheep poop) can find its way into waterways adjacent to farms rendering them unsafe for drinking and even recreational purposes. And water pollution associated with rearing sheep doesn’t end there. Sheep dipping is a common practice used by farmers. Essentially, sheep are ‘dipped’ in a toxic chemical bath to rid them of any parasites such as blowfly or ticks. In one study in Scotland, a mere cupful of sheep dip got into a river and killed over a thousand fish downstream.  

Water pollution is also an issue when processing the sheared fleece. When the fleece is shorn, it must be cleaned. This is done using harsh chemicals. These can, ultimately, end up in waterways, causing damaging to aquatic species.

Greenhouse gas emissions

When rearing any animal, greenhouse gas emissions need to be taken into consideration. Animal manure, as well as their wind, release methane into the atmosphere. Since these  gases contribute to climate change, the environmental impact is huge. In New Zealand, for example, 50% of their greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to the agricultural sector. Sheep being reared for wool are not the only factor here – but they contribute to the problem    

Lots of space needed for wool production

Sheep need space to live. Not only that, but the food they eat also needs space to grow. It is estimated that per bale, wool needs 367 more space than cotton. That’s a LOT of space! Rich biodiversity is lost to create space for the wool industry. There are also land damage issues associated with rearing sheep for wool. Soil is eroded due to land being constantly grazed by large numbers of sheep.

The bottom line

Like all materials, wool comes with positives and negatives when it comes to environmental impact. It is renewable and can be popped in the compost bin when it comes to the end of its usable life. Wool is far from perfect though – rearing any animal contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and takes up a lot of space. However, synthetic alternatives come with nasty environmental impacts too. Until a totally eco-friendly material is developed, we need to make difficult choices. In the meantime, reuse your wool items as much as possible – pass them on to others or donate them to charity after use.