Merino sheep in New Zealand

For a long time, like so many millennials, I was not into the idea of wool. It brought to mind itchy, heavy sweaters and uncomfortable suits. And I don’t wear suits.

But something began to change a few years ago, when I discovered the sustainable performance brand Icebreaker. This New Zealand brand makes bras, t-shirts, leggings, and all other types of athletic wear, all with merino wool. The new sustainable brand Allbirds makes their tennis shoes out of merino wool as well.

Wait, wool yoga pants and tennis shoes?

Yes. In fact, in the past few years, wool has become a favorite textile of mine. Here’s why:

1. Wool can be super soft.

Specifically merino wool, a type of wool that is super fine and soft, and can be woven into a slightly stretchy, 100% natural, soft and breathable textile.

“Merino wool is a breed of sheep that produces a softer, more fine wool. It has a very high microfiber content. The finer it is, the higher quality and the less likely it is to be itchy,” says Ashley Denisov of the L.A. brand 1×1. She uses sustainable American wool in her slow fashion brand’s sweaters.

2. Wool is a better performance textile than polyester.

“Something that is really amazing about the fiber of wool: It’s very breathable, but simultaneously insulated,” Denisov says.

It’s also the best fiber for managing body odor – way better than polyester. Polyester, as I was told by a textile scientist, does repel sweat and and the chemicals that cause B.O., but then they tend to sit on top of the fiber, stinking up all day and even clinging to the fiber after you put it in the wash. (Go smell some of your “clean” polyester sports bras and leggings. Yup.)

A natural, hollow fiber, wool absorbs and traps your sweat and B.O., then releases it completely and quickly as it dries, leaving you stink-free within the half hour. It also washes well and completely in water and simple laundry detergent. All this makes wool perfect for the sustainable gal who likes to work up a sweat, whether in a boutique fitness class or on the hiking trail.

And, of course, it’s still always perfect for sweaters. Hello, autumn!

3. Wool is not just less bad for the environment, it can be good for the environment.

Wool is a natural fiber that doesn’t shed plastic microfibers into the water the way polyester does. And it is compostable.

But even better, wool may be the key to making our fashion “climate beneficial.” That’s right, instead of producing carbon, wool (if raised correctly) actually helps sequester carbon from our atmosphere into the soil.

“Climate beneficial is a term that we’ve developed at Fibershed and the Carbon Cycle Institute to describe landscapes where grazing is occurring,” says Rebecca Burgess, executive director of Fibershed, a nonprofit that develops regional, sustainable fiber systems on behalf of independent producers. “Wild animals have been helping ecosystems for 40, 50, 60 millennia.”

About 40 million years ago, the earth went through a cooling period, which a 2016 study in the journal Soil and Water Conservation Society attributes to a preponderance of large herds moving across North America, Central Asia, and Africa. These herds would gently prune the grasses, which promotes growth, churn soil with their hooves, and fertilize it with their poop before moving on to another area, spurred on by predators. The grasslands would rest, grow, and quickly suck carbon out of the atmosphere as they built up the topsoil. “Soil is the second largest carbon pool on the planet,” Burgess says. “If you change your management of soil ever so slightly, you can have a massive effect on the atmosphere.”

That’s why organizations are so keen on spreading bison back across North America, introducing a close approximation of the extinct Auroch to Europe, and getting something like a wooly mammoth back to Siberia. Could wool-producing sheep also help?

“It’s not a given that wool will come from a natural system that is climate beneficial,” Burgess cautions. As soon as humans started throwing up fences to hem in their private property, livestock lost their benefits to the environment, overgrazing on the same patch until the grass completely disappeared. Then, humans started growing grain to feed their livestock, and putting all the waste from concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs) in toxic pits. That’s where we are today for most red meat.

But if you move free-range, grazing animals around from paddock to paddock, mimicking their ancient cycle in something called “holistic management,” “biomimetic grazing,” or “adaptive grazing,” then you can claim that the wool you shear off the sheep is climate beneficial. And in a healthy system, there is actually methane-digesting bacteria in the soil. So that scary fact about cows producing the potent greenhouse gas methane? Handled. “There’s not as much off gassing in a healthy system,” Burgess says.

And there’s even more that ranchers can do. Planting willows, shrub oak, and other trees along the creek in a ranch (they way they naturally grew before ranchers cut them down) also draws down carbon. Plus, farmers can and do put windmills on their property to generate clean energy.

Finally, when you buy climate positive wool, you’re supporting a family farm. “In North America, a lot of these farms are the last holdout before a mall, a golf course, or a McMansion development comes in,” Burgess says.

4. Wool can be kind.

What about animal rights? This is where wool made in America is pretty great. Mulesing, the notorious practice of cutting the folded skin off of of the backs of merino sheep, is done to protect them from blowflies laying eggs in their skin, which can actually be fatal to the sheep. But this is only done in Australia, where blowflies are a menace. American merino wool doesn’t require that, making it an excellent choice for the conscious consumer. (Italian wool mills still source mostly from Australia, so be cautious about Italian wool.)

Plus (and this should be obvious, but it must be said) sheep are not killed for their wool. Skilled shearers carefully sheer the wool off, then let the sheep go back to doing their thing, munching on grass, growing more wool. There are nicks sometimes, of course. “When you shave your legs, sometimes you’re going to nick your legs,” Burgess points out. And if your leg was squirming around, then you would probably do so more often. “Sheep are so valuable. I have never seen a shearer ever go in and massacre a sheep. It would make no sense, economically.”

(PETA begs to differ, but I’ve repeatedly found in my research on animal fashion topics that PETA tends to exaggerate and falsify in order to get their base riled up and garner donations.)

“We can’t meet our goals to avert catastrophic climate change unless we engage in net negative emissions, which can happen in agriculture. We have farms already doing this. We have many farms excited to do it because it increases their productivity. We’ve shown that it’s possible and it can be profitable.”

Where to Buy Climate Positive Wool

In this case, it actually really does have a direct impact on the climate to go shopping, and even regular wool is a better option than virgin synthetics. “I recommend wool as a whole right now if it’s unblended with fossil-fuel fibers. It will show brands that the public is interested in compostable shirts and a pants,” Burgess says.

Look for some combination of the below:

  • 100% wool
  • Mulesing-free wool
  • Merino wool
  • American wool
  • Sustainably raised wool

The North Face is the first company to commit to buy wool from a family farm called Bare Ranch, whose farming practices are expected to sequester 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, equal to the emissions from 850 passenger vehicles. If their special, climate positive beanie, which launched this summer, sells out, The North Face will go back and commit to buying more wool, which will set up that farm nicely and reward their investments in environmental initiatives.

Theory has always been a brand with deep roots in sustainability, born of the idea that clothes should last and last. In October, the brand introduced Good Wool, which is made from a soft, featherweight and breathable wool sourced from a family-owned farm in Tasmania, Australia renowned for making the world’s most ethically grown wool and spun at an environmentally-minded mill and manufacturing facility in Italy. Extending beyond the fabric, this colorful collection of men’s and women’s suiting separates is finished with buttons made from nuts, biodegradable lining, and recycled paper hang-tags.

The slow fashion brand 1×1 gets its sustainable wool from Imperial Stock Ranch in Oregon, then makes the sweaters in L.A. “The reason I was so drawn to work with them, is because they utilize sustainable farming practices,” says Denisov. “The sheep wander the land completely free. They hand shear the sheep seasonally by people who have sheared the sheep for decades. They rely on the sheep to balance the ecosystem.  The land is renewed annually. They said that after they implemented sustainable farming, it improved wildlife and fish populations.”

Zady created a completely traceable, made-in-America sweater last year, and some sizes are still available.

Super sustainable and luxury sweater brand Tempest + Bentley (who I’ve profiled before) sources its wool from a sustainable Oregon farm.

And Swedish brand Filippa K. sources mulesing-free merino wool for its sweaters.

Going Beyond Shopping

Want to be more of a conscious citizen than conscious consumer? Here are some things you can do to push regenerative farming forward:

1. Pick up a copy of Eric Toensmier’s book, The Carbon Farming Solution, to learn more about this type of agriculture.

2. Become a member of Fibershed.

3. Donate to the Carbon Cycle Institute 

4. Email or tweet your favorite brand and ask them if their wool is climate positive. And if not, when are they going to switch to climate positive, American-raised wool?

Sheep Photo credit: flyingkiwigirl via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND