While most people think organic is best, when it comes to wool the answer isn't so easy. After speaking with several wool growers and woolen mills, getting sheep certified is not a top priority for growers in a fiercely competitive industry. Because the organic bedding industry relies on the many benefits of wool for mattresses, pillows, toppers, etc., it's an important question to answer.
The Certification Process
Because sheep are "grazing" animals, it is hard to control where and what they eat. Sheep enjoy grazing outdoors on large tracks of land while they are young, but then need to be brought in from pasture later on. Most sheep feed on grasses that are free from pesticides and would be deemed organic with a simple soil test. However, when they are moved into a controlled area, the availability of "organic" feed is extremely limited and incredibly expensive. Then, of course, the growers cannot give any antibiotics or growth hormones in order to be certified. In my investigation, most growers don't use antibiotics or hormones on their flock unless it's absolutely necessary. In which case, those sheep are sick and removed from the flock. Consequently, the domestic growers are limited by the cost of certification and the cost/availability of organic feed. Some growers bring their sheep to neighboring crops and have their sheep feed on nutritious vegetation after the farmers have harvested them. Isn't this what natural farming is all about? Keeping waste to a minimum. Alas, these U.S. growers wouldn't qualify for organic status, but offer excellent wool to our industry.
Domestic Natural vs. Imported Organic
Since organic certification is so hard for our domestic growers, then where does it come from? Well, it comes from the other side of the planet - New Zealand, mostly. It begs the question, which is better - domestic natural or imported organic? Considering that New Zealand is one of the largest producers of wool - the joke is that there are more sheep than people, then it is also going to have the most organic producers as well. However, once the freshly shorn wool bats comes to America, what's the difference. Not a whole lot, actually. The de-greasing, scouring, and carding process is done in the exact same facilities to the same standards. If it is specified to be natural and chemical free, the same factories are used to finish both natural and organic. Simply the sheep have not been certified, so the wool may not be certified. Since there is no regulation for the term "natural", no claims can officially be made on it.
It's a tough call – bring raw goods from far away for the organic label or support our local growers. It's no secret that the wool business is dying in the United States; woolen mills are closing across the country. The few that are left have to downsized. What will you choose the next time you buy a wool product?