Q. Despite the fact that today’s economy is totally un-purchase-friendly, it’s that time of year when all I want to do is buy cozy, soft, wooly things and curl up with a book to wait out winter. Are there any types of wools that are more sustainable or animal-friendly than others? – Lynn, CT

A. Unfortunately, one of the most common types of wool is also the one you really want to avoid: Australian merino wool. Before we get into the why of it all, you’ll want to set down any snack or food item you might happen to be eating. 

Ready? Okay, one of the reasons PETA is vehemently anti-wool is a gruesome wool shearing technique called mulesing. It’s a hide-trimming technique (we’ll ease you into this with euphemisms) that came into practice in Australia when farmers realized that cutting excess flesh from their animas’ loose hides nearly eliminated the risk of flystrike—an illness that results when flies nest in the folds of an animal’s skin. Matt Prescott, PETA head of corporate affairs, put it this way in an email:

“The cruelest type of wool is merino wool from Australia, where farmers painfully carve or clip chunks of flesh from lambs’ backsides.”

The good news is that mulesing is practiced exclusively in Australia, so it’s possible to avoid wools that came from animals subjected to mulesing. Next time you shop for any wool item, check the label or ask a salesperson where the wool came from. American Eagle Outfitters, Abercrombie & Fitch, Timberland, Aéropostale, and Limited Brands are several retailers that have pledged not to use Australian merino wools until the practice is eliminated. Which is to say that the 99.9% of tween girls nationwide who wear nothing but Abercrombie & Fitch clothes can feel morally superior in their merino wool sweaters (never mind the company’s quasi-pornographic advertisements).

You won’t be surprised to learn, however, that PETA wants you to do more than just avoid Australian merino wool. “In wool production worldwide,” says Prescott, “animals are sheared by careless workers who are often paid by volume rather than hour, so work quickly, often resulting in animals suffering painful gashes and cuts.” What are your alternatives? PETA suggests you make the full switch from animal-derived materials to plant-derived fabrics like cotton, cotton flannel, polyester fleece, synthetic shearling, tencel, and polartec (a fleece made from soda bottles). Can you do it? Can you go as vegan as Natalie Portman?

Lastly, don’t forget that farmers’ markets often offer hand sheared and died wool yarns. As with most items you’ll find at any farmers’ market, you can rest assured that these have come from healthy, happy animals that were given much more TLC (and space to roam) than your average sheep.

Story by Tobin Hack. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008