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EFF SOURCE Fashion business success without compromise

10 December 2012

Should we be sheepish about wool’s sustainability record?

Contributor Best Foot Forward (BFF): Expert Columnist

killa knits


SOURCE Expert Columnist, Nicola Jenkin from Best Foot Forward, explores wool production and processing in sustainability terms. She considers the entire wool supply chain from breeding and raising of the sheep right through to water and chemical use in its processing. Image: Fellowship 500 member, Killa Knits


As a textile, sheep’s wool is a bit of a staple, whether for luxury tweed or a basic jersey knit. It has been with us since the human species began to domesticate sheep.

As it carries such a sense of familiarity for most of us, especially during these cold damp wintery days, I wanted to delve a little deeper into the sustainability of wool. A recent review of wool’s environmental impact heightened my sense of interest and a generic Google search on wool and sustainability brought up almost 3 million results!

These are generally split into two camps:

1. Wool is fantastic, it comes from nature and is therefore sustainable.
2. Is wool sustainable?

The first answer is too simplistic, although there is some truth in it – I want to explore the second. With insights from my colleague Richard Sheane (an agricultural guru) who recently wrote a very thought-provoking piece on whether it’s appropriate to ban leather, I hope to consolidate some of the thinking and discussion taking place in the fashion industry around the use of sheep’s wool.

To start with, we need to identify the key issues associated with wool production and processing for the fashion industry – from a sustainability perspective.

These can generally be classified into three areas:

• The raising and breeding of sheep, which requires land and food;
• Water consumption by sheep and use during manufacture; and
• Use of chemicals in the production of wool, yarns and fabrics.

It’s not that easy to determine the environmental impact associated with the wool supply chain, as there is enormous diversity in wool production between and within countries. Measuring impact can be confusing when the meat, skin, wool and manure is all taken into account, instead of just the wool – this can skew results.

There is also limited data for wool farming, making it difficult to present an ‘average’ global representative assessment of the environmental impacts of wool. Having said that, there is still enough information out there to shed light on these three areas, and to draw some conclusions.

Wool is a wonderful fabric that we’re not going to stop using any time soon, and it compares quite well to other fabrics. However, it’s not perfect. For fashion designers who want to use the most sustainable wool, there are three key things you need to do:

1. Check your wool suppliers – make sure your sheep farmers aren’t contributing to desertification or involved in mule sing;

2. Think about your water use – get your wool from countries where there is plentiful water and where sheep farming is a good use of land; and

3. Work with your suppliers and manufacturers to reduce the impact of chemicals and dyes. Sign up to the REACH and Greenpeace industry schemes.

Let’s explore these a little further.

The raising and breeding of sheep

Sheep require land to graze. Fortunately, from a sustainability point of view, this grassland is often not suitable for other agricultural systems such as crops. However, there are issues associated with grazing, with one of them being overpopulation, which can exhaust grasslands.

This is an issue Patagonia Inc. has sought to resolve in Argentina, where they have set up a programme to reduce desertification due to overgrazing.

In addition, sheep also produce methane, and in countries such as New Zealand, it is estimated that 90% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions are from sheep. Not surprising when you discover the fact that New Zealand holds the current Guinness World Record for number of sheep owned by one man at almost 400,000!

One cannot write about sheep husbandry without mentioning the ethical issue associated with mulesing, which is an area of much contention. In the UK, the British Retail Consortium and its members have taken a tough stance against this practise, and in countries where it is commonly practised, such as Australia and South Africa, initiatives are in place to find alternatives.

Water use

Wool production uses significant amounts of water. Some suggestions estimate that over a million litres of water are required to manufacture one metric tonne of wool. From a water intensity perspective, Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index considers the water intensity associated with wool to be only slightly better than cotton, which is an incredibly thirsty crop. The Index places wool quite a bit behind silk and polyester fabrics, which use little water in production.

Chemical use

Greenpeace’s Toxic Threads report lists brands accused of using hazardous chemicals in high street fashion whilst, The Higg Index has recognised the importance of chemical use and uses a number of indicators to assess its impact, such as carcinogenicity.

Wool does not score well on this front – silk and hemp fabrics and leather from grass-fed cattle all do better. In fact of all the 44 materials listed in the Index, it is the fifth worst in terms of overall chemical impact, being slightly less toxic than leather (corn-fed). This may be down to the use of chrome dyes, which require a harmful mordant to fasten colour.

There are a number of compliance schemes and initiatives aimed at reducing the use of these chemicals, such as REACH and Greenpeace. By working with suppliers, manufacturers and brands can significantly reduce the impact and toxicity associated with the production of wool garments and non-apparel.

Wool is both old-fashioned and newly fashionable. It has been in decline since the introduction of synthetic alternatives in the late 1940’s but is now regaining its profile in the fashion industry. The Prince of Wales’ Campaign for Wool was launched a couple of years ago to encourage the use of wool and increase demand globally.

Let’s embrace the return to wool, but let’s also ensure better farming practices (both environmentally and ethically) and use fewer chemicals in processing so that wool becomes truly sustainable. By understanding where to reduce and make change, hopefully decisions on wool sourcing can become a little less woolly, and we can enjoy this comforting fabric without any guilt.

About Best Food Forward:

Best Foot Forward are world leaders in ecological footprinting, having used the methodology since 1997. BFF is a founding and active member of the Global Footprint Network and have worked with the European Commission to encourage states to adopt the ecological footprint indicator.
BFF has helped several hundred organisations to manage and reduce their environmental impact and to tell the world about their achievements.

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