What Does "Organic Wool" Really Mean?

What does “organic wool” really mean?

“Organic” products of any kind are commonly considered to be more environmentally friendly and healthier to use. But what does it really mean to grow/purchase organic wool? This inquisitive knitter is here to investigate.

Although wool is a naturally occurring fiber (and could be considered organic at face value), the means of harvesting this wool often involves pesticides, insecticides, growth stimulating agents, and a harsh chemical cleaning process. At each stage of wool production, more potentially harmful chemicals are added during mass production that are avoided by the organic wool farmer. It should be noted that government requirements in the US for organic wool growth only extend through the growth phase to achieve organic certification. There are no consistent global industry standards for what qualifies as “organic” wool processing. Each country will have their own laws regarding what is necessary for wool to be considered “organic” so read up on the legislature in your area. It is also important to note that “organic” and “eco-friendly” are not interchangeable. “Eco-friendly” does not involve the same intense certification that is necessary to be classified as organic.

Wool production undergoes four major stages: growth, processing, spinning, and dyeing. During the growth stage, larger facilities will use synthetic stimulants to encourage wool growth in unnatural climates. Not only is this potentially damaging to the fiber, but it suggests that the animals are not in an environment that is most suited to their needs. To achieve the industry standard for organic wool growth, farmers must use preventative measures or non-synthetic repellents to handle pests, ensure that herds do not overcrowd the land, provide their livestock with organic feedstuffs, and use natural de-wormers to control internal parasites. The major problem with organic certification comes from the difficulty in controlling internal parasites and the high initial costs. Sheep are extremely susceptible to internal parasitic infections and many farmers are unwilling to sacrifice the health of their animals for the sake of organic certification. Mortality rates are definitely higher amongst organic sheep herds. Sheep that are battling internal infections will also produce a lower quality of wool which would not meet the high standards expected of most wool sheep.

Producing organic wool generally costs the average farmer thousands of dollars annually to maintain certification standards and cope with higher mortality rates within herds. There are also added costs in purchasing organic feed which is more expensive and gets moldy more quickly than conventional feedstuffs. The inability to use antibiotics or hormones can also have major consequences on animal welfare and many farmers are not willing to take that risk. I spoke with Natalie Brock, a student of Veterinary Medicine at The Ohio State University who shared concern amongst veterinarians about organic producers ignoring disease due to their inability to treat with antibiotics. These diseases can severely impact animal welfare if left untreated and often the all-natural methods of treatment are not sufficient.

The major takeaway from this information about wool growth is that supporting small farms, whether or not they have attained “organic” certification, is always preferable.
Moving on to the processing stage, this step involves the most environmentally hazardous practices. The major area of concern in processing is the “scouring” step where the wool is washed and prepared for spinning. Organic wool facilities will only treat the wool with water and an environmentally friendly detergent. Organic wool processing also prevents carbonization, the process of soaking the wool in acid to remove unwanted plant material. Washing wool can require massive quantities of water and many popular detergents include a vast array of harmful chemicals (ex: alkylphenol ethoxylates, sodium chloride, sodium sulphate). Scouring plants can be modified to prevent these chemicals from entering the water supply, but if left untreated, these scouring plants can produce pollution equivalent to that produced by 300,000 people. In recent years, larger facilities have started treating wool in the processing stage to make it softer, machine washable, and moth-resistant. Unfortunately, while convenient, these chemical treatments have lasting effects on the fiber and also have unforeseen consequences on human health. The process of softening and pre-shrinking wool involves soaking it in a chlorine solution, resulting in the production of organohalogens that contaminate the wastewater. Due to the high toxicity of certain adsorbable organohalogens to humans, this type of wastewater is not permitted in the United States. This means that all chlorine-treated wool is processed in other countries and then imported back to the US. 

The spinning and dyeing practices are generally quite environmentally friendly when done on a small scale. The most problematic aspect is the large quantity of water necessary to soak and rinse wool during the dyeing process. Acid dyes are relatively harmless in solution (assuming the dye baths are fully exhausted)  and simply require small concentrations of acid (citric acid or vinegar – acetic acid are most commonly used) to bind to the wool fiber. Natural dyes can require more toxic mordants to successfully bind to the fiber, but most of these harmful agents have been removed from circulation, especially amongst small indie dyers. If you are looking to purchase naturally-dyed wool, check the type of mordant used by that dyer. Alum is commonly used and is harmless but chrome has been widely used in the past and can be extremely toxic.
The conclusion to this post is probably quite obvious, but it’s nice to have facts to back our opinions. Organic wool is not necessarily substantially better than any other wool depending on its origin. The problems all come from buying from big businesses. Even those that claim organic certification can bypass environmental regulations by outsourcing the more hazardous processes. The take-home message: shop local, shop small business. 
Much love,

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