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Are Sheepskins Sustainable?

Fake fur presents an apparent solution to the ethical issues with real fur. I cannot and will not defend the fur industry. But we are at a place in history where the reality of our situation must be acknowledged. We eat meat in the UK. This means we kill a lot of sheep, 15.5 million a year (PDF). Sadly, we destroy nearly all of the sheepskins – a madness only properly appreciated when considering the damage caused by the man made microfibers we create to replace them.

Our textile industries have responded to the public demand to ditch fur. A demand to end fur farms and needless slaughter. The trouble is we still want ‘fur’ and soft fabrics. People cleverer than this writer have created faux fur, which approximates that of animal origin but is made instead from plastic, derived from oil. Some of it is pretty good and feels authentic. Most doesn’t come close. All of it is damaging to life on earth.

Setting aside the serious global issues that we face because of oil, let’s look at the garment from the moment we first wear it.

As soon as you first put them on, your clothes start shedding fibers. This rate increases massively during each wash, Friends of the Earth claim that a single wash load can release up to seventeen million micro fibers. Micro fibers have entered the ecosystem, they’re in our food, in our water, and they are even in us.

Washing machines and wastewater treatment plants aren’t designed to trap the minute plastic fibres that our clothes shed during washing. Many of these fibres sneak into our waterways and ultimately the oceans. And lots are caught up in sludge at the treatment plants – which is then sprayed over our soils as fertiliser.

Friends of the Earth

Modern fake fur really came into being in the 50’s with the introduction of acrylic polymer fibers. These made man fabrics are easy to work with and can come close to feeling like fur. However, like all plastic, they have a useful lifespan. They also have a much longer decidedly not useful lifespan.

Microfibres have been found in air, rivers, soil, drinking water, beer and table salt.

Friends of the Earth

Broken artificial fibers join trillions of other tiny pieces of plastic that are literally entering the food chain. Man made garments take nearly a thousand years to degrade in landfill, or release damaging gasses when burned. Natural sheepskin simply biodegrades, happily we have on hand millions of sheepskins each year. Sadly, we destroy them.

99.55% of sheepskin is destroyed as a waste product of the meat industry. We then manufacture fake fur to replace what we have wasted.

Less than 1 in 200 sheepskins go through the tanning process, the rest are regarded as hazardous waste. If the public were to look at the issue of waste they might well grow more affectionate towards sheepskin.

Sheepskin has unique and valuable properties. It stops ice from melting and refreezing, for example, essential on Dartmoor at sub zero temperatures. It lets skin breathe and wicks moisture away. Its fibers are hollow, making them exothermic – they give out heat as they absorb moisture. All the while the structure of the crimped and curl fibers traps an insulating layer of air. Paradoxically, each fiber is also hydrophobic, making sheepskin easy to wash and dry (or to shake off picnic crumbs).

The shear waste is bad enough to make you wince, but to then manufacture a fake replacement for what you have wasted it is just plain wrong.

We are going to have to make different choices if we are going to make this life-on-earth thing work out. We are told our dietary choices need looking at too, with a reduction in meat. That is fine by me. But right now as at this moment we are manufacturing a plastic product to replace the natural one we are wasting in ridiculous quantities. Happily, the natural one is also better.

At the end of its useful life, wool can be returned to the soil, where it decomposes, releasing valuable nutrients into the ground. When a natural wool fibre is disposed of in soil, it takes a very short time to break down, whereas most synthetics are extremely slow to degrade.

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Are Sheepskins Ethical?

sheepskin laid on log

Are sheep slaughtered to make sheepskins?

Are sheepskins OK for the environment?

A sheepskin is a sheep’s skin and has come from an animal that has been slaughtered.

Most sheepskins are from animals that have been slaughtered for meat. Less than 1 in 200 sheepskins are tanned (0.045%), the rest are disposed of as hazardous meat-industry waste.

We eat well over 5 million sheep each year in the UK, yet we tan just 60,000 sheepskins. Instead of using this high quality biodegradable resource, we replace it with man made fibers, derived from oil.

Every second of every day a lorry load of plastic clothes is burned, or added to landfill. Every year, millions of sheepskins do the same. A sheepskin will last for many years, even if given the most basic care. At the end of its long and useful life, a sheepskin has the good grace to rot into the earth. It returns.

Friends of the Earth commissioned a study which found microfibers even in our own selves. From the report:

Washing machines and wastewater treatment plants aren’t designed to trap the minute plastic fibres that our clothes shed during washing. Many of these fibres sneak into our waterways and ultimately the oceans. And lots are caught up in sludge at the treatment plants – which is then sprayed over our soils as fertiliser.

Friends of the Earth

“In 2005 [we ate] 14.1million lambs (+ 2.2million ewes and rams) Only 60,000 UK skins p.a. are processed by the remaining UK tanning sector, less than 0.45% of the total”2015 Sheep Industry Report

Almost all British sheep live outdoors and receive the highest levels of animal welfare. Sheep raised on Dartmoor, for example, will see few fences in their entire lives.

Go back less than two decades and wool was the primary reason for sheep farming in Britain. Wool comes from living animals that have been shaved before the weather gets too hot. In 2001 the ratio changed in favour of meat – we currently keep (a lot) more sheep to eat. This is the source of our sheepskins.

We cannot address the needs of people who cannot live with such an overt animal product in their life. If that’s you, we hope there’s no hard feelings.

The art of creating soft, lasting hides has been passed down through generations. It’s a craft skill in an industry that slumped from an anti-fur sentiment. People concerned about animal welfare have legitimate concerns.

Barbed wire is not compatible with good sheepskin

The sheepskin industry can do little to improve sheep welfare, and buying sheepskin has zero effect on sheep lifespan. Almost all aspects of sheep husbandry are guided by the demands of the meat industry. All except one. The best sheepskin will come from sheep that have never torn their skin on barbed wire fences. We believe that sheep raised in an open landscape, like Dartmoor, produce the best fleece and live the best lives.

Our textile industries responded to the public demand to ditch fur. After Jeff Banks championed sheepskin on The Clothes Show on BBC 1 in the 80’s, Vivienne Westwood countered with a demand that fashion labels and consumers ditch fur. In a time of peak consumerism (and cheap oil) this was an obvious ethical choice. The trouble is we still wanted ‘fur’.

People cleverer than this writer created faux fur, which approximates that of animal origin but is made instead from plastic, derived from oil. Some of it is pretty good and feels authentic. Most doesn’t come close. None of it has the exothermic properties of wool. None of it degrades very quickly. All of it sheds microfibers in use, and particularly during washing and drying.

Sheepskin can be washed and dried much easier than you might think, using the same energy as a pair of jeans. During the wash, sheepskin sheds fewer hair fragments than polyester fabrics, and those that it does shed are harmless.

We urge you to again enjoy sheepskin, an otherwise waste product. Sheepskins do come from sheep that have been slaughtered, but we are currently, literally, throwing them away. Feel free to join our mailing list below, which comes with a 20% discount code “welcome20”, redeemable at the checkout.