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Sustainability spotlight: merino wool standards 

What are merino wool standards and how can we make sense of the different certifications?

BY : MARK COHEN • Sustainability • 23.11.2022

Organic? Recycled? Sustainable? Natural? When we think about merino wool production, we’d like to think that one or all of the above words apply. But with different wool standards and certifications used for products by different brands, it can be hard to separate the good from the not so great. 

“The certification space has become very dynamic,” explains Victor Massonneau, ODLO’s sustainability lead. “If you look at the word natural as one example of the language the industry uses, natural doesn’t always mean sustainable, and sustainable doesn’t mean it’s natural. Cotton is a natural fibre, but it needs so much water, you can’t say it’s sustainable. That’s where certifications come in. But it’s important to understand what each one means.”

To help clarify, Victor takes the time to answer a couple commonly asked questions about our merino wool standards.

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What are the most important merino wool standards?

Most merino wool certification covers ethical sourcing and, more specifically, whether the wool comes from mulesed or non-mulesed sources. This distinction is important.

Mulesing is a sometimes painful process where areas of skin are removed from merino sheep (without anaesthetic) to limit chances of infection. While most merino is produced without mulesing, it’s still a common practice in some parts of the world. The two different kinds of merino should be clearly marked so customers understand what they’re buying and how it was produced.

For several years, ODLO’s entire merino wool range has been non-mulesed certified. We communicate that both online and on our products with a happy sheep icon.

The certification is passed on from our audited suppliers who verify their own non-mulesed compliance. You might pay a little more for this fibre type, but it’s a lot more ethical as a sourcing practice.

What other certifications are significant?

The most respected merino wool standard is likely the Responsible Wool Standard, administered by an organisation called the Textile Exchange. RWS certification addresses holistic animal welfare. Like many outdoor brands, we’re pushing for RWS certification internally, as it’s quickly becoming the best way to communicate that wool has truly been ethically sourced.

At a minimum, if you’re in the market for merino, you’ll want to look for a non-mulesed certification. Anything beyond that, like RWS, means an even higher, more ethical standard of merino wool production.

Another certification body with whom we work more broadly across general clothing production is the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which unites key opinion leaders and experts to cultivate change in the apparel industry.

ODLO has worked with this coalition for a few years; we’re actually in the midst of having our 500-question self-assessment audited by the SAC, who will then assign the company a social impact score. This level of scrutiny gives consumers a much clearer picture as to how responsibly their clothing is made.

B-Corp Certification is another fast growing movement. Their mandate is to better integrate broad social and environmental change into business, and it’s definitely something we’ve got our eye on.

Is merino actually sustainable?

ODLO often uses the word natural to talk about merino wool products, which is true. It is indeed a natural fibre that’s antibacterial and boasts intrinsic performance properties like thermoregulation. But remember, natural doesn’t always mean sustainable.

When it comes to sustainability, if you’re talking about animal welfare, certifications ensure that brands have oversight on their supply chains, which we do. However, garment care is often where the largest environmental product impact occurs, so if you can limit washing and use merino as intended – by airing it out, hanging it when wet and wearing it several times between washes – it is actually more sustainable than most other fabrics.  

Will wool always have its own unique certification standards?

There’s a push right now to make general certifications simpler. Clearer language, standardised icons, ways to simplify how product impact is communicated. I see that in the industry. 

Some certifications, however, like the ones for merino wool, might be too specific to be lumped together. For that reason, I anticipate they’ll be stand-alone for the time being unless they become part of an organisation’s overall scorecard so that consumers can single them out as one part of the supply chain.

All of the merino wool in our Natural and Performance Wool products comes from non-mulesed sources. You can see our full range of merino products here.  

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