Let's talk about vegans, wool, and whether or not it is cruel.
There is currently a meme going around on social media that makes my blood boil:
People who are not in the fiber world, for example, might actually believe that sheep are killed for their wool. There have been PETA ads in the past which showed a fake lamb practically skinned "for its wool" which were equally obnoxious and inaccurate.
I'd like to set the record straight and talk about this a little bit.
First let's recognize that there are three main categories of sheep here in the USA (I'm exuding milk breeds since that's not really common in this part of the world): Wool breeds, meat breeds, and duel-purpose breeds. For the sake of my post, I am only going to be talking about wool breeds and duel purpose breeds who are raised by small farmers.
Now, let's talk about the facts.
Sheep are not killed, or even harmed, for their wool.
Sheep raised for wool are typically treated very, very well. As any shepherd knows, a stressed or unhappy sheep will not produce good wool. Therefore, these sheep are kept healthy, happy, and often spoiled in order to produce the best quality wool possible. Any ad or meme that says otherwise is flat our lying - either blatantly, or, more likely, out of genuine ignorance. Does getting your hair cut hurt? No. Shearing can be a bit awkward for the sheep. They have something buzzing all over their body and afterwards look naked and pink. It's embarrassing for them, I'm sure. That being said, no one is harmed in the shearing process aside from the occasional accidental nick - nothing worse than I get from shaving my own legs.
Wool breeds of sheep live like kings
Raising sheep will not make anyone rich
Any shepherd will tell you that raising sheep is not a way to get rich quick, or even get rich ever. It's hard work, and often involves a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. People who raise sheep for a living do it for one reason: because they love their sheep. These animals quite often become pets to their shepherd, and they are mourned just like other family pets when the time comes for them to cross the rainbow bridge.
I have hundreds of friends who raise their own animals, and most of them allow their older sheep to retire to the senior citizens area of their pasture, where they finish their lives in peace (and away from horny rams who just want to get their baby-makers some action). People like me and my husband, who couldn't stand the idea of killing a sheep just because it's a boy, have their extra males wethered and kept as fiber producing pets, just like the females. Typically lambs grow the finest, softest wool. However, it is not uncommon to still have perfectly usable wool from older sheep. I have never heard of a shepherd offing one of their old sheep just because its wool isn't as soft as it used to be... that just doesn't tend to happen.
Mutualism is not exploitation
The most common vegan argument I see is this: animals should not be exploited, therefore any use of an animal that benefits the human should be forbidden.
Here is a thought: anyone who has a pet is, by that definition, exploiting it. I keep two rescue parrots and two dogs, as well as two spoiled cats. I enjoy all of their company, and keep them because I love them and cherish them. I exploit them for their company. But they also gain something from me and my husband -- our love and devotion, safety, security, healthcare (we come with benefits!), food, toys, etc. Yes. I own my animals. But they own me too.
If you believe that you shouldn't raise any animal just for your own enjoyment, then you could almost use the same argument to say that a person shouldn't have children if all they are going to do is enjoy having children. Sheep are sheared once, sometimes twice a year. Saying that they "work for us, the humans" is a bit silly... since their "work" is simply them being alive. Enjoying life, grazing, romping, playing, etc --- and yes, once or twice a year having an embarrassing session of hair trimming which leaves them naked and ridiculous looking.
They aren't chained up or breaking rocks all day for us -- they aren't our slaves. They "get paid" to look pretty and stuff their faces with grass. They benefit from their shepherds keeping them safe and alive, and the shepherd benefits from the wool reaped in the shearing process.
Here's another thought: Symbiosis: Mutualistic relationships exist all throughout nature - not just between humans and farm animals. Examples include bees and flowers, clown fish and their anemone, rhinos and zebras and oxpeckers. All of these creatures use one another to mutually benefit.
Yes. Some farmers eat their sheep (particularly in duel purpose and meat breeds). Do I like it? No. But I'd rather see that than see them buy meat from the grocery store and support the absolute horror that is the meat industry here in the USA. Obviously, in my perfect world, no one would eat meat and even animals wouldn't kill each other for food. But that simply isn't reality. The best we can ask for is that people who do choose to eat meat eat meat from animals who were raised with respect, free-ranged, and in a humane way (as a reminder, both my husband and I do not eat meat).
Remember that the wool industry is not the meat industry, and supporting one does not mean you are necessarily supporting the other.
Sheep need to be sheared for health reasons
There are a few rare breeds out there that still shed their wool naturally, but the majority of the sheep that exist today have been bred to require shearing. Whether or not you agree with the fact that sheep have been bred for this purpose, the fact remains that if modern sheep are not sheared, they will suffer greatly. Most people have heard about Shrek the Merino sheep, who escaped shearing for 6 years and ended up having over 60lbs of wool on his body. There was another sheep named Chris who had 89lbs of wool sheared off of him.
Sheep who are not sheared regularly can develop a variety of health problems, including fly strike, maggots on their skin, not being able to get up, and over-heating. Not to mention the extra weight from the wool. To not shear a sheep is animal cruelty, and once the wool is off of their body, to throw it out would be a tremendous waste. The wool is going to be sheared off of the sheep whether or not a human uses it.
Wool is one of the most eco-friendly things in the world
I majored in Environmental Science in college, and spent many years looking into ways to improve the earth, reduce my carbon footprint, and live as self-sustaining as possible. I had a particular focus on eco-friendly textiles, and I learned quite a bit about the different options out there. Many people do not realize this, but the acrylic yarn that you can buy from most hobby stores is a petroleum byproduct, and is incredibly bad for the earth. While we do sell some synthetic fiber in our shop, it is mostly recycled, and we stock it in moderation.
Many vegans turn to other fibers that are cellulose based, and that also causes a problem.
Cotton, for example, is incredibly bad for the environment and takes an absolute ton of pesticides and water to keep alive. If you choose to buy cotton, you need to be very careful to purchase it from organic growers only (the cotton in our store is organic and does meet this requirement).
Viscose and rayon fibers are another go-to for vegans, and are often marketed as "vegan silk". These fibers are typically made in China, and are created by liquefying plant material by immersing it in chemicals, then spinning it into a fiber using mechanical spinnerets and cutting each fiber to the proper length. The majority of the fibers on the market are made with harmful chemicals, with a couple of rare exceptions (we also try to focus on carrying the good stuff in our store and not the bad stuff).
Tencel, Lyocel, Seacell, and Rose Fiber are all made with a closed loop process which does not utilize harmful chemicals and recycles the chemical bath, thus making them truly eco-friendly fibers which do not harm the earth. The benefit of these fibers is that they are made with renewable resources such as beech trees, and are easily harvested then re-planted. Bast bamboo, banana fiber, and hemp are other examples of fibers that are harvested by hand and made without the use of chemicals (these fibers tend to be a lot coarser than the previously mentioned fiber, and are primarily used in things like necklace cord and rags and tote bags or outer wear... no one wants a hemp bikini).
Out of all of the animal-free alternatives, only a couple options exist which don't harm the earth.
Wool, on the other hand, makes so much more sense, as it is truly eco-friendly and is wasted once sheared off the sheep. The sheep are happy to donate it when they don't' need it, and it gives people an excuse to keep these animals for uses other than meat.
Other animal-based options are referred to as "fiber" (hence our business name) and include alpaca, which is also very eco-friendly (almost no one in the USA eats alpacas, and they have an even smaller carbon footprint on pastures than sheep do), goats, angora rabbits, and peace silk (where the moth is allowed to emerge unharmed from the cocoon before the cocoon is harvested for silk). I have friends who also raise Tibetan Yaks here in the USA (and yes, they are kept as pets) as well as camels.
Buying wool helps the sheep
I recently had a friend on facebook post that her wool sales had declined this year. So much so, that she had to send several of her sheep to the butcher block just to stay afloat. She was devastated, and I was devastated for her.
As I have said before, no one raises sheep to get rich. Many people who do this for a living just make enough to scrape by and do it because it's better than working in a call center or 9 to 5 job. These people love the lifestyle that comes from keeping sheep.
I have several farmers I regularly buy wool from each year, and they have told me that the money I give them goes directly toward feed and veterinary care for the sheep. Continuing to buy from them allows them to continue keeping their sheep happy and healthy. Many of the extremist vegan groups out there would rather all sheep be set free into the wild than have humans raise them for wool. The result of that would be dead sheep, or sheep suffering greatly and unable to move. Boycotting small farmers hurts the farmers, but also greatly hurts the sheep as well.
On the other hand, paying for wool on a regular basis can mean the difference between life and death for many duel breed sheep. If their fleeces don't sell, they become meat. If their fleeces sell, they are able to continue producing wool each year. Most of the time when I see friends have to butcher their sheep, they do it out of necessity when wool sales are low and they have no other options.
Not all wool is cruelty free, but most really is.
The world is not black and white, and there are, of course, some exceptions to any rule.
Not everyone in the wool industry is compassionate and cruelty free. I have seen the PETA video of an undercover Australian wool operation, and it was horrific. I also recognize that it is not the norm, and there are evil people in every industry. For example, there are a lot of people who abuse their dogs, but that doesn't mean that I don't think anyone should own a dog. I think the true difference here is large corporation vs. individual. Just like with factory farms, once a corporation gets too big, they look at their animals as merchandise rather than living, sentient beings, and that's where the trouble starts.
They key is to be responsible and know who you are buying from. Here at Blue Barn Fiber, we are very careful about which farmers we purchase wool from, and we do not support any farmers or companies that perform mulesing on sheep. We prefer to support small shepherds here in the US and in the Europe who put the welfare and happiness of their animals first. Believe me when I say that there are a lot of amazing shepherds and farmers out there who fit into this category.
When you purchase wool from us, you can rest assured that you are buying from a truly cruelty-free source. I know that there are some people out there who sell wool and really don't care where it comes from, but we do. I love animals more than anything, and I would never condone an industry (or make my entire life and business around a world) that profits from harming animals.
For vegans out there, ask yourself why you are vegan. If it is truly to benefit the animals and to be eco-friendly, they you may want to re-consider using wool. It is so much better for the environment, and is honestly better for the sheep in general. Support small businesses like ours, and you can wear wool without any guilt or second guessing. The sheep (and their shepherd family) will thank you for it.