THERE'S WOOL PULLED OVER OUR EYES!
Article written by Emma Håkansson, Founder and Director of Willow Creative Co
Wool is marketed as being an incredibly sustainable material: natural, biodegradable and renewable. While wool is indeed these three things, to call it sustainable based on that alone, without considering the full impact of wool is irresponsible. It also displays a lack of nuance, which we fortunately do see elsewhere in the discussion of sustainable fashion, when we will look further into what makes for an eco-material.
So is wool unsustainable? In 2017, the Global Fashion Agenda published findings in their Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report that showed the cradle to gate environmental impact of wool to be greater than all synthetics, with wool being the second most impactful material, only after silk, in terms of global warming potential. How can we celebrate a material as eco-friendly when it is the second most greenhouse gas emitting on the market? No one in the sustainable fashion world is singing the praises of polyester, so why wool, shown to be significantly more harmful to produce?
Synthetics are more harmful in their afterlife, that’s true. They shed microfibres, they don’t decompose or give back to nature. This article is not one to promote virgin synthetics in place of wool. But the way in which these materials are compared, is intriguing. It’s likely that we think eco-friendly when we hear that wool material is natural, but is this wholly true? And does natural mean sustainable? Wool is natural in that it comes from an animal, but that’s where the naturality of the fibre and it’s production ends.
Sheep as we see them today are a species we created through selective breeding: they did not naturally exist before human intervention and it is thought that Mouflon were the ‘original sheep’. Sheep have been introduced to countries where they are farmed like Australia, where their population has been bred to reach around 70 million. That’s 280 million hooves trampling on, and 70 million mouths grazing on native land. The impact of this can be shown best in the case of Patagonia, Argentina. Argentina previously was second to Australia in wool production. Patagonia Park’s official website speaks on their move away from heavy domesticated animal farming, stating ‘rampant overgrazing had left the area vulnerable to wind erosion and eventual desertification, a process that has already affected approximately 30% of Patagonia; since the removal of the Estancia’s vast sheep and cattle herds, we have seen new life return to the region in an ecological blink of an eye.’
The farming of sheep also requires a large amount of land clearing. In fact, 36% of all Australian land disturbance has been found to be due to the farming of sheep raised for their wool and meat. More land is used for animal grazing in Australia than anything else. This leaves native animals fighting for resources, as their homes are invaded. The amount of land needed to grow plant fibres is substantially smaller than the land needed to rear animals.
Sheep are ruminant animals, and through enteric fermentation (essentially passing gas) sheep produce an astounding amount of methane. The scale of this can be understood best by looking to New Zealand: The countries 27.34 million sheep make up one third of the nation’s entire greenhouse gas emissions. Methane is considered to be 30 times more potent than CO2 as a heat trapping gas. In a time where sustainably minded people are calling on a carbon tax, calling on the end of fossil fuel use (which is a ‘natural resource’ too – natural certainly does not mean sustainable), where is the call for a tax on animal products from an industry which are responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions? Where is the refusal to support their use? Where is that same energy and outrage?
When it comes to the treatment of wool, the ‘natural’ claim wool comes with gets seriously stretched. ‘Greasy wool’ (wool straight off the back of a sheep) is scoured (cleaned), which means being put through a series of detergent baths to become usable as a fashion fibre. A wool scouring plant can highly pollute both water and air, and the process is full of chemicals. A deeply concerning chemical used in wool scouring detergents is alkylphenolethxylates (APEOs). APEOs are endocrine disruptors and have been found to feminise male fish when these chemicals run into waterways, leading to population decline of these species. The common air emissions from a wool scouring plant include substances like Arsenic, Lead, Mercury and Chromium. It’s quite clear from this brief look into wool scouring that the labelling of wool clothing as totally natural is misleading.
The surface of wool fibres are covered by small barbed scales which can make wool itchy, and so a chlorine treatment is often used. If wool is able to be put in a washing machine without shrinking, it may be ‘super-washed wool’, which is coated in Hercosett 125, a type of plastic. While organic wool does exist, it is incredibly rare.
So what do we wear instead?
This material uses no pesticides or herbicides, which means no soil or air pollution like that of conventional cotton. Organic cotton also uses 91% less water than conventional, and being a plant that hasn’t been treated with chemicals, is totally biodegradable and feeds the earth when it goes back to it. Organic cotton can also be knitted into ‘woolly jumpers’, and turned into woven textiles.
Tackling the textile waste problem and limiting the amount of resources we take from the Earth, recycled cotton can be used much the same way organic cotton can. However, it may not be organic.
A naturally strong, breathable and comfortable fibre, hemp is highly pest resistant so does not require chemical pesticides. Hemp is compostable and the growth of it can actually assist with soil regeneration.
Hemp can be knitted into ‘woolly jumpers’, and turned into woven textiles. Hemp is often combined with organic cotton for softness.
A cellulosic fibre derived from the pulp of responsibly logged Eucalyptus trees, created with the use of renewable energy in a closed loop system. Closed loop means no (non toxic) solvents or water used in this process of wood to wood cellulose go to waste, as they are recycled and used again. Tencel can be turned into yarn and knitted, and can be woven into textiles. Tencel is, like wool, able to be both cooling and warming.
Naturally fast growing and easily renewable, bamboo generally does not require pesticide use. Bamboo can be made into a cellulosic fiber like Tencel can, and is also able to be made in a closed loop.
Bamboo can be used much in the same way Tencel can.
There are plenty of truly sustainable materials available to use instead of wool which are plant-based, and so are not tied up in one of the most environmentally harmful industries that exists: animal agriculture. They are also free from animal harm.