Responsible Wool- What is it?

We all know that sheep's wool is an amazing natural fiber that humans have been using to make garments and other items for thousands of years. A good wool sweater can last you a lifetime, or more, if properly cared for. But with all the environmental/ethical concerns about raising sheep for wool, I think now would be a good time to look at the new certification being used called the Responsible Wool Standard or RWS. 

So, what are these standards?

I'm glad you asked but first, a little history. The idea of the RWS began in 2014 when H&M approached the Textile Exchange (a global nonprofit focused on making textiles more sustainable) to figure out a way to improve the sustainability of their wool supply. (I know, H&M, right? The epitome of fast fashion. But I think that shows how big a deal sustainability has become when a retailer such as H&M wants to utilize ecofriendly products.) 

Out of that came the Responsible Wool Standards (RWS) which began certification in 2016. So, as to your previous question, what are these standards?, there are three main categories. 

Animal Welfare

Land Health 

Supply Chain Traceability 

Those are the main three (although they have a few others such as good communication and stuff like that which don't focus so much on the wool but how the standard is done). Each standard has a number of components that have to be observed for the wool producer to get the certification. 

Animal Welfare 

The creators of this certification have decided that all sheep deserve 5 freedoms

"The Five Freedoms of sheep are protected at all times: freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury or disease, freedom to express normal behavior, and freedom from fear and distress." - RWS Guidebook, page 7. 

 So basically they want happy sheep that get to do what sheep do. There is a special guidebook for farmers which goes into great detail about how to manage their sheep. They even cover things such as fencing that will allow wildlife to move through the land, appropriate shelters and how to handle the sheep. (You can find the four different guidebooks here.)

Land Health 

"Progressive methods of land management are practiced on RWS farms, protecting soil health, biodiversity and native species." -RWS Guidebook, page 7

The farmer's guide goes on to give instructions and directs to resources to learn what cover crops to plant, how to lesson soil erosion and improve biodiversity on the land. Having previously read about some new land management techniques that can greatly improve soil quality I am happy to see this is part of the standard. I love that the sheep are treated well but it really makes me happy that farmers can actually use sheep (and other animals) to improve the land rather than constantly degrading it. This is a big step in creating environmentally friendly fibers. 

Supply Chain Traceability 

"The identify of the RWS wool is maintained at all times: from the farm to the final product. Consumers can have full confidence that the wool in a product carrying the RWS logo comes from responsibly managed farms." -RWS Guidebook, page 7

If you have gone to all the trouble to make sure your sheep are happy and the land is properly managed then you want to make sure that your certified wool isn't getting mixed up with wool from some poorly managed farm. Therefore, being able to trace the wool through each step of the supply chain is really important.

I think this traceability could also be used to highlight manufacturing process that use sustainable energy or nontoxic dyes but that is currently just my own fantasy and not part of the certification. 

Where can I get this wool?

Right now there are only a few suppliers but I am sure that number will grow. (The guides came out less than a year ago so we can't expect everyone to be certified overnight.) Currently the only US supplier is Imperial Stock Ranch in Shaniko, OR. They don't sell from their website but I have seen their brand in some of my local yarn shops so just ask if your shop carries it.  I think other Northwest sheep farmers will jump on this bandwagon fast. At least I hope they do. 

So keep your eyes peeled for this logo:


What about Organic? 

Organic wool is a thing but the standards are a little bit different. To get certified organic wool in the US the farmer has to adhere to the same practices as if they were raising organic meat. This mostly means that the food the animal is give is grown without pesticides, whether it be grazing grass or purchased feed. (Requirements may be different in other countries and we still import a great deal of our wool yarn.) 

Being certified organic would be a step higher than this RWS certification. In the guidelines I read there were no specifications for animals to consume an organic diet, however, if the farm is using good land health practices they are, more than likely, following an organic model. 

In an ideal world everything would be organic and abundant and happy but that is just not realistic. The RWS certification does provide consumers with the knowledge that the animals are treated well and the farmers are trying to maintain a healthy natural environment. It is a step up from wool that has no certification but is perhaps not the creme de la creme as organic wool would be. Personally, I would be very happy to buy RWS wool and know that there are some very good standards being met. Perhaps in time the RWS certification will become a stepping stone for farms to become organic if that is a possibility for them. 

A Few Glitches

As keen as I am on this new standard I wished it would also cover other fiber animals such as alpaca and goats. Maybe they are working on that, I don't know, but I think all animals and pastures should be managed humanely and with biodiversity in mind. 

Another issue I have is with the labeling. As it is set now, only items with 100% RWS wool can bear the seal. So if it is 95% RWS wool and 5% silk it can't have the certified label so consumers still don't know if their blended wool yarn is RWS or not. And since blends are the most popular form of yarn this seems like a great disadvantage. Maybe they could have a slightly different logo that denotes that the wool in the blend is RWS. 

These are issues that may be addressed later. As I mentioned, this is a very new certifications so some of the kinks have to be worked out and I am very eager to see how it goes. 

Don't Forget to Shop Small

One last thing I would like to point out is that many small family farms already treat their animals well and work towards healthy land. They may not have a certification but they still work hard to offer the best product they can. Local and independent fiber mills also strive to showcase specialty fibers from small farms. And it is through purchasing local yarn and fibers that we support these business and hopefully help them get these certifications. 

If you know of a wool farm in your area or an independent fiber mill then leave the name in the comments so the rest of us can know about it too. And if you know a sheep farmer then let them know about this certification. Spread the world and help the wool community.

Here's to happy sheep!