In Need of Sustainable Outerwear? Consider These Vegan and Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Merino Wool

Bianca Piazza - Author

Nov. 25 2023, Published 8:22 a.m. ET

Photo of a natural fiber beige jacket hanging against a wall
Source: iStock
In this article

The warmth and chic allure of a classic double breasted wool coat becomes cold and bleak when the facade of gently shaving fluffy sheep comes crashing down, revealing a dark world of animal rights violations and environmental destruction.

Contrary to popular belief, sheep do not naturally need to be sheared — people (namely, the wool industry) have bred sheep to produce excess wool, and therefore "need" shearing.

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And to make matters worse, the wool industry is generally not concerned with the well-being of sheep. The shearing process is often rushed, leading frustrated shearers to punch the frightened sheep and aggressively pin them down. This causes broken limbs and gaping wounds, as reported by PETA.

Additionally, elastration castration, tail docking, and the gruesome "mulesing" process make the wool industry sinister, according to In Defense of Animals.

This is before we consider the industry's horrid environmental impact. PETA relayed that "sheep are only second to cows in the global production of methane." Plus, sheep manure and sheep "dip" — a toxic concoction (containing cypermethrin) intended to remove parasites from sheep — pollute the land and waterways.

Not so cozy, is it? Fear not, we're here to share a look into a few natural, vegan, and eco-friendly fabrics, all of which can be warm and comfortable alternatives to Merino wool.

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Close-up image of gloved hands cutting a hemp fabric covered panel
Source: iStock

Made from the stem of the hemp plant (Cannabis sativa L.), hemp fabric is one of the almighty bast fibers. Via growing, retting (dew retting is preferrable), extracting, combing, and spinning processes, a sustainable and durable fabric is produced.

Both the Textile Exchange and the Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibers have deemed organic hemp one of the most sustainable fibers available, as per the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

Used for fabric since at least the 5th millennium B.C. in China, hemp is a renewable fiber that is resistant to pests, adaptable, grows quickly, doesn't rely on chemical pesticides or fertilizers, and needs very little water. The CFDA wrote that hemp "produces 250 percent more fiber than cotton and 600 percent more fiber than flax on the same land."

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According to designer Mara Hoffman, hemp is considered a "sister plant," as it "replenishes the soil for the crops around it and is ideal for crop rotation." In terms of its quality as a clothing fabric, she said it softens with each wash and wear. It's also absorbent and invulnerable to UV light, mold, and mildew, according to the CFDA.

A major con of hemp production is that it's labor-intensive, so purchasing Fair Trade Certified hemp clothing is suggested.


Lyocell is a semi-synthetic fabric made of cellulose derived from wood pulp. According to clothing manufacturer sourcing platform Sewport, the fabric was developed by American Enka in 1972 and is a form of rayon.

The popular TENCEL brand lyocell fibers are proudly produced using a closed loop process, "which recovers water and 99.8 percent of the solvent, [transforming] wood pulp into cellulosic fibers with high resource efficiency and low environmental impact."

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The wood pulp is typically sourced from eucalyptus, bamboo, and beech, as per Make Fashion Better, all of which are fast growing plants that don't require irrigation or pesticides.

The "third-generation rayon" is strongest when combined with cotton or polyester. However, it is often used on its own for towels, dress shirts, and yes, coats!


Also called Chinese nettle, the Chinese silk plant, or China grass, ramie (Boehmeria nivea L.) is a flowering plant native to China, India, and Indonesia. The low-input, monoecious sub-shrub possesses no stinging hairs and is known for producing a strong textile. Fun fact: ramie was used for mummy cloths in ancient Egypt, as per the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Viewed as an exotic linen-like material, ramie is durable, breathable, dries quickly, and dyes well. Unfortunately, according to the Sartor Bohemia fabric company, ramie has a "lower abrasion resistance when dry." Because of this, it's known to pill and should be blended with another material, like cotton. So, if you're purchasing ramie outerwear, it's almost always a ramie blend.

Ramie is of course vegan, natural, and biodegradable, but it's worth noting that its production is considered energy-intensive and may include synthetic chemicals.

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