What Is Regenerative Wool? And Is It Ethical?

What is regenerative wool? And is it ethical? We’ve dug deep into this controversial topic in fashion

By Diane Small

Our relationship with animals is complicated. For example, here at Eluxe, we don’t believe in killing them for fashion or food. Ever. But what about using them for food or fashion?

Well, after witnessing firsthand the cruelty behind dairy, I’m all for a vegan diet. I mean, ripping calves away from their moms is stressful enough. For both mama and baby. But keeping cows’ levels of hormones high so they produce more and more milk, to the point where their udders are constantly painful? Um, no. And don’t even get me started on what happens to those baby cows who were unfortunate enough to be born male!

I personally have friends who keep chickens, and don’t even know what to do with all their eggs. So occasionally, yep, I’ll eat one. Or use it in a cake. But the egg industry? It’s hideous. It burns off chicken’s beaks so they don’t peck others to death. It keeps them in cages nearly no bigger than the bird itself. And those male baby chicks? Ground up alive into ‘poultry byproducts.’ How cruel can you get?

But now let’s talk fashion.

The role of animals in soil health

Even before we humans became farmers, animals played an important role in soil health. Their manure can increase soil organic matter over medium and long term applications. In fact, manure contributes to reducing soil bulk density and compaction, as well as increasing soil aggregate stability, water infiltration and retention. But that’s not all!

The carbon content of manure is vital to the health of our soil. It helps increase microbial biomass and soil respiration rates by acting as a feed source for native soil microorganisms. By adding manure to your garden, the diversity of bacterial populations in the soil increases. These organisms play a key role in nutrient cycling, making nutrients more readily available for the plants and improving soil physical properties.

In short, and without getting too technical, animal poop plays a fundamental role in making soils healthier. This allows us to reduce our dependence on artificial fertilisers.

So when it comes to the issue of raising sheep, alpaca and goats for regenerative wool, there are plenty of matters to consider.

Responsible wool

what is regenerative wool

Making wool responsibly has become a hot topic in the world of fashion. First of all, responsible wool means sheep are raised outdoors in pastures, not in industrial warehouses. Secondly, PETA has pointed out how cruelly some sheep are shorn. They’re handled brutally, are cut and harmed in the process, and obviously, they’re stressed out by the whole operation.

So no wonder ethical fashion brands and consumers are ditching traditional wool! However, we should point out that there are some wool – and even angora – producers who are gathering wool ethically. One example is Stella McCartney. This life-long vegetarian has her own wool farms and is very strict about ensuring her sheep are gently and lovingly shorn.

So, what’s the difference between responsible wool and regenerative wool, then? And is it ethical?

What is regenerative wool?

Regenerative wool can mean two different things. The first meaning is the one you’re probably most familiar with. Basically, it’s recycled wool. In other words, wool made from the scraps of recycled clothing. The result is a fabric made from post-consumer textile waste, holding the same qualities as new wool fabric.

But the second definition is one that’s lesser known, but equally important. In this case, regenerative wool means wool that is produced on farms that practice regenerative land management.

This refers to sheep farmers who are actively contribute to the preservation of the environment.

Sheep are key to good soil health. Including animals in farming systems can reduce the need for fertilisers and implementing rotational grazing techniques ensures that grass is trimmed regularly. This allows it to regrow, store more carbon in its roots and support biodiversity in and above the soil.

Other benefits of regenerative wool are that it:

  • Returns nutrients to the soil to increase microbial health and diversity
  • Encourages and support flora and fauna species co-habitation
  • Improves water cycles by repairing erosion and reducing and removing water pollution
  • Supports bio-sequestration by increasing dry matter compost and soil structure to lock carbon back into the soil
  • Builds resilience to weather changes through better ground cover and water storage capacity
  • Improves root tree systems and soil vitality

The counter arguments

Not everyone is on board with the notion of regenerative wool. And I must admit that I was fed some misinformation about this too! Namely, we are taught that animal farts are a major cause of climate change. Frankly, there is absolutely zero evidence to prove that’s true. Zero!

Then, we’re told that forests are cut down to graze cows and sheep. This is 100% true. However, any sheep grazed on former forest ground cannot be considered ‘regenerative’ or even ‘sustainable’. That’s not the kind of wool we’re talking about.

Finally, there’s the Higg Materials Sustainability Index. This is often cited by ethical fashionistas to measure a material’s impact on the planet. In fact, I believe I’ve even read this as a source at some point in Eluxe! However, when you really look at it, it’s nonsense.

Specifically, it claims that clothing made with plastic or synthetics has a lower impact on our planet than wool. For anyone with half a brain, that doesn’t even make sense. Are they seriously trying to tell us that polyester and nylon are better for the planet than sheep and alpaca wool? Given that the former two are made from petroleum byproducts, that’s just impossible.

Consider the impact of extracting the oil, refining it, converting it into something with a chemical structure that can be made into fibres, and transporting it. How does that have less of an impact than shearing an animal’s hair? And don’t even get me started on the damage done by washing synthetic clothing. The microparticles of plastic on our ecosystems are devastating! And let’s not forget that unlike wool, those clothes take centuries to biodegrade.

A balance with nature

All the vegans out there might be saying that there are better plant based alternatives for fabrics. These could include linen, organic cotton, and hemp, for example. And I agree! Those are great options, and they’re biodegradable. But like pastures for grazing sheep, these plants all require land. Lots of it. And unless they’re organically grown, they deplete the soil.

Plus, in some areas, such as the Andean highlands or Himalayas, there’s simply not enough water to grow those crops. So to make a living, the local people graze sheep and alpacas. That’s how they make their living, and it’s also how they keep dry land at altitude fertile. It’s all about balancing life and production with nature.

Brands on board

Regenerative wool hasn’t just caught my attention. It’s also attracted from several ethical fashion brands. Here are a few that are using regenerative wool in their fashions.

1. Reformation

Our favourite Cali based fashion brand always considers the social and environmental impacts of their fabrics. So no wonder they’re into regenerative wool! Not only do they use plenty of recycled wool fabrics, but all their alpaca wool comes from ranches that regenerate grasslands. This saves a great amount of resources compared to conventional wool. Around 400 pounds of CO2 and 1,500 gallons of water, in fact!

2. Eileen Fisher

This popular sustainable fashion brand kicked off their efforts by sourcing verified regenerative merino wool from OVIS XXI, a mill based in Argentina. Eileen Fisher’s Sustainable Materials and Transparency Manager spoke on this collaboration, saying, “By sourcing wool from ranchers practicing holistic and regenerative land management, we’re supporting more than just a sustainable fiber, we’re supporting whole ecosystem health.”

3. The North Face

The iconic outerwear brand now uses Climate Beneficial wool for their Cali Wool Collection. This wool is produced through regenerative agriculture methods, and has a “net negative impact” at the ranching stage in the production process.

What do you think about regenerative wool? Let us know in the comments, below!

Image credits here.

Diane Small
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