Is Merino Wool Vegan?

I

The short answer is no, merino wool, and any other type of wool is not vegan.

Background: Merino is just a breed of sheep, known for their fine and soft wool.

In theory, sheep’s don’t need to get hurt during the sheering process. But like many things, reality differs a lot from theory.

How Sheep Suffer During Sheering

Here are the main forms of animal cruelty during the shearing process:

  1. Mulesing – When sheep get infections, one particularly barbaric form of “treatment”  is to carve a chunk of skin and flesh from the affected area (without painkillers). It’s still practiced in Australia, where a lot of merino wool comes from. It was supposed to be phased out by 2010, but that promise by the wool industry was delayed. It’s still practiced in 2018.
  2. Abuse – I can’t bear to watch another video of sheep being pushed, punched, kicked, and stepped on. Shearers get paid for their production, which encourages rough animal interaction. Sheep get bloody, and suffer wide arrays of injuries on a regular basis.
  3. What happens after the wool? – Like cow’s dairy production, a sheep’s wool production declines after a period of time, long before dying of natural causes. These sheep are sent to be slaughtered for meat.

While it’s heartbreaking to watch, I think everyone should see firsthand what goes into the wool they buy and wear.

Earthling Ed has a well made video on this topic that’s fairly short and to the point, with video examples:

But Isn’t Sheering Necessary?

This point is brought up often.

It’s true that many modern breeds of sheep need to be sheered or else their wool grows so long that it causes health issues.

There are basically 2 things to consider here:

  1. These types of sheep only have health problems from excess wool because we bred them to overproduce wool. The kindest thing to do here would be to let these certain breeds naturally become extinct. But when you buy wool and support the wool industry, they will continue to breed these sheep.
  2. Sheep can be sheered without having their wool sold. As soon as you bring profit into the equation, you can be sure that the greed of some people will exploit any resource like wool to make a profit. They hire the cheapest labor who don’t treat the sheep well, and keep sheep in poor (i.e. cheap) conditions.

So while there’s a small window of opportunity of “ethical” wool, I really don’t buy it unless you can go visit the farm as well. Then there are other questions like, what happens to the sheep if they get sick or start to produce less wool?

Merino Wool Alternatives

So what do you do now for warm winter clothing now that merino wool isn’t an option?

The most common alternatives are clothes made from:

  • Polyester
  • Bamboo
  • Acrylic
  • Cotton
  • Nylon

All of these materials are vegan and fairly commonly used in warm clothing.

I’m in the process of putting together vegan guides to specific types of clothing alternatives that usually use wool.

  1. Vegan alternatives to wool socks
  2. Vegan alternatives to wool hats
  3. Vegan alternatives to wool blankets

About the author

Dale Cudmore

Your friendly neighborhood vegan from Toronto. Chemical engineer turned semi-professional soccer player and freelance nutrition writer. I've been vegan for years and try to make life easier for others by sharing what I've learned.

8 comments

  • Hi, I’d love to find a non-synthetic alternative to wool that is warm when wet. Synthetic fiber fabric is horrible for the environment, and no plant-based fabric retains heat when wet. I like to do outdoor activities in winter, so cotton and bamboo are eliminated. Nylon, polyester, all synthetic fabrics are simply terrible for the environment, maybe they don’t hurt sheep specifically, but they hurt everything else, animals and plants, so that’s not a good option. So what is the alternative to wool? Also, it is possible to get wool clothing from companies that source their wool ethically, from farms that don’t practice the nasty things you mention above.

    Unless you know of some plant-based fabric that retains heat when cold and wet, ethically sourced wool seems like the most environmentally friendly option.

    Any ideas?

    Thanks,
    Zack

    • More reading into it, bamboo rayon is pretty toxic for the environment also. I believe there are some methods of making fabric from bamboo that are not so toxic as rayon. It still doesn’t stay warm when wet though or have the same properties as wool. I think the most eco-friendly fabric as a whole is still wool, it just needs to come from farms who treat their sheep ethically and humanely. I feel that we don’t have to avoid using animal products altogether, we just have to make damn sure that we treat animals with love, respect, and gratitude if we are going to ask them to make materials for us. This RESPECT is sadly lacking in most of our modern farming culture.

      But using products that are produced in a very non-eco friendly way – such as cotton or bamboo -, or that pollute the environment, such as synthetics, seem like a poor alternative than just using animal fibers but BEING NICE TO THE ANIMALS and Respecting and caring for them.