‘Tis the season to be warm and cozy. From shopping for new ski season base layers to gifting blankets, socks and holiday sweaters, what is the material you prefer most for soft, light-weight insulation? For many, including myself, it’s merino wool. The naturally antibacterial, odor-resistant, breathable, moisture-wicking material can even regulate body temperature, making it ideal for outdoor activities any season. Recently, while doing some product research on eco-friendly skiwear, I kept coming across the term ‘non-mulesed’ wool. Having never heard of this, I quickly learned the horrors of mulesing and found myself spiraling down a rabbit hole of companies that support humane, non-mulesed wool production. Before I get into the ethical wool brands for the outdoor enthusiast, let’s talk about sheep and this thing called mulesing.
Side note: I’m sharing my honest ignorance with you on this matter because I believe that perhaps it’s not as well-known as it should be. I am grateful to have learned about this practice before blindly purchasing wool base layers for the upcoming ski season from companies that don’t have any interest animal welfare or tracing where their wool comes from. I am relieved to learn that one of my favorites (Mons Royale) is one of the good guys, and I have also discovered an entirely local 100% source-verified USA company right here in Montana (Duckworth). **That said, if you read to the end of this article, I do feel obligated to highlight a challenge in genuinely knowing the conditions of what is truly ethical. It is an example of the past, and I am hopeful that the rising demand for non-mulesed wool is pushing for higher standards.
About Mulesing & Flystrike
Mulesing is a common, yet painful procedure in which large sections of the sheep’s buttocks are cut off (often with shears) without anesthetic or painkillers. This practice is commonly performed on merino sheep to reduce the risk of ‘flystrike.’ RSPCA.org/uk defines flystrike as “a painful, sometimes fatal, condition caused by flies laying eggs on another animal, which hatch into maggots and eat their hosts’ flesh.”
Merino sheep have naturally wrinkly skin. When a sheep “goes potty” (for lack of a better term), the wool around their bottoms becomes dirty, attracts flies, and the folds of the wrinkly skin in this area become prime maggot hatching and feeding grounds. It makes sense that sheep farmers want to avoid this disease, but there are more humane ways for prevention.
To learn more (and at your own stomach-churning risk) check out singer Pink’s video with Peta here.
Perhaps Pink’s advice to ban all wool products from Australia until they can sort out more humane practices is ideal. However, not all wool is created equally, and thus, completely eliminating wool from your wardrobe may be unnecessary. For instance, New Zealand has banned mulesing, and as mentioned above, there are some companies sourcing merino wool from farms with high ethical standards who also refuse to mutilate the sheep. Together we may be able to keep the demand rising for non-mulesing wool by purchasing from companies that are transparent in their sourcing and standards.
Hello, local! Duckworth offers merino wool that is 100% USA sourced and processed from non-mulesed sheep. A family-run operation raises sheep on Montana mountains (see their Under the Big Sky video here), and they process their wool in the Carolinas. They also do not use any chemicals to shrink-resist their wool. According to their website, their “Sheep to Shelf™ supply chain brings jobs back to small communities, keeps technical knowledge close to home and assures maximum life-cycle sustainability.” They also strive to make quality products that last, working against the fast-fashion lifestyle our society has become accustomed to. Check out Teton Gravity’s article for more on how they got started and about their annual Shear to Shred week. A week of hardcore shearing ending daily with massive family meals, great whiskey and beer, wrapped up with shredding Maverick Mountain? They are officially my new heroes.
Mons Royale sources ZQ Merino wool, which promises five freedoms to their free-range, non-mulesed sheep: they are free from disease, distress, discomfort, thirst and have the freedom to live naturally. They also vow never to transport their sheep, keep them in feedlots, or feed them GMOs. (Side note and just for fun, be sure to check out Mons Royale brand ambassador and spokesperson, Gus Rowley: The Farmer Who Skies.) This company does blend other materials with wool depending on the activity/performance they want to achieve, but they claim to blend with natural fiber whenever possible. However, if it says core-spun, it means the wool is combined with nylon which will make up 10% of the product.
Smartwool also partners with ZQ Merino wool, offering the same five freedoms listed above. Smartwool’s website claims: “The sheep producing the wool for your favorite Smartwool® socks or base layers are treated humanely, are well-fed, live natural and healthy lives, and are not subjected to harmful practices like mulesing.” Does this mean all of their products are equally ethical if we were to say, buy a different wool item? Well, maybe not yet, but they are making strides to re-evaluate their supply chain and incorporate recycled wool into their products.
Finisterre only sources non-mulesed wool and is very selective in the farmers with whom they partner. Check out this video of their British merino supply chain, “The Bowmont Project.” Finisterre is also committed to sustainable packaging, and because they “hate waste,” they build their products to last and offer repairs should you tear something.
Fjallraven sources non-mulesed wool but also recognize the challenges in creating a fully-traceable global wool supply chain (due to the way it is traded). Still, they worked to develop a pilot project right in their home country of Sweden as part of their commitment to traceable wool, learning much along the way and potentially kick-starting Sweden’s wool industry. While they can’t source all of their wool locally, nor change suppliers overnight, they are working to team up with the best and have made recent partnerships with farms in New Zealand, and as a result, they now offer traceable wool in their latest line of base layers.
Ortovox sources non-mulesed wool from sheep farmers in Tasmania, where they regularly visit and audit the farms to ensure best practices. They noted a few minor non-compliance issues regarding animal husbandry and nutrition but claim to be working on those issues. In addition to non-mulesing, they promise sustainable agricultural practices, personal relationships with their farmers and full transparency of product source. This brand may not be perfect, but at least they are honest enough to admit their shortcomings and continually visit and audit their farms for improvement. They also source Swisswool to insulate their products, from Swiss mountain sheep living the life.
Icebreaker, much like the first few companies listed, also guarantees the five freedoms for their flocks with partnerships through ZQ and offers transparency reports. Their 2018 Transparency Report noted that 35 of the 60 farms audited the previous season had issues, the majority of which have since been resolved and that of their 72 ZQ certified farms, eight were working to meet the latest standards. Their website also lists out the locations of their supply chain.
These are just a few companies that stuck out in my rabbit hole delve of ethically sourced merino wool. If any readers have other favorites, please leave your feedback in the comments section below. Also, please note that the research above is not by any means “investigative”. Back in 2015, Patagonia and Stella McCartney both ceased their relationship with supposedly humane Ovis 21 when PETA released an investigative video that proved the wool sourced was anything but humane. Please note this video has graphic content. We are continually striving to be good humans and would like to think of all the above companies working for change, as being Ideal-ish, just like us.
Featured image from Relaksohome