A 'woolly' debate
Updated: Oct 5, 2020
It is said that there are always two sides to every story, and I definitely feel that is the case when it comes to wool.
A recent break away to the country got me back to nature, something I don’t get to do very often living and working in London.
One thing that I have come to love about the UK, is the availability of their ‘public rights of way’ that allow access to the British countryside. A hike along a national trail in Broadway, in the picturesque Cotwolds region, allowed me to get up close and personal with some of our beloved woolly friends. However, during the trip back to our cottage I found myself questioning the ethics associated with our woolly apparel. I must admit, I am not a huge owner, or for that matter, wearer of wool, but as someone who has made the choice to consume ethically and sustainably as best I can, I thought I better do some digging.
Those woolly statistics
Wool is a natural, protein fibre (similar to that of human hair), which grows naturally on sheep. In general, one sheep can provide 4.5kg of wool a year, which equates to over 10 metres of fabric, or for some further perspective, that is enough for six jumpers. The finest wool is considered to come from the Merino breed, and the finest of that from the Superfine Merino.
As an Australian I was surprised to hear that in 2015 there were 75 million sheep in Australia, which is less than half that of 1970, which recorded a high of 180 million . Australia produces around 90% of the worlds fine apparel wool, however consumes less than 1% of the finished product . Only China has a larger population of sheep than Australia, however it produces less wool.
Sure, wool has its positives…
Wool is a RENEWABLE fibre source, meaning that as long as grass is available for sheep to graze on, they will continue to produce a new fleece.
Wool is BIODEGRADABLE, therefore at the end of it's life (which can be surprisingly long), if returned to the soil it decomposes (quickly), releasing valuable nutrients back into the earth.
New research has also indicated that wool has the ability to biodegrade in the ocean and water in general. This spells good news considering that most synthetics are incredibly slow to degrade, and only contribute to the problem of microfibre and plastic pollution.
Wool is actually EASY TO CARE for. Wool fibres have a protective wax coating which makes wool products naturally stain resistant, anti-static and therefore less likely to attract dust. Today, being made of wool also doesn’t necessarily mean ‘hand-wash only’, with many products being machine washable and able to be tumble dried (last resort, please!).
Wool acts as a NATURAL INSULATOR. Wool is comprised of millions of tiny pockets of air that are created by its highly packed crimped fibres, allowing it to absorb, retain and release moisture, while still maintaining its thermal efficiency.
Wools ability to absorb moisture vapour (up to 30% of its own weight) next to the skin (eg. perspiration from the wearer), also makes it incredibly BREATHABLE.
Wool is extremely DURABLE, RESILIENT and ELASTIC. Natural fibres are inherently strong and age well. Wool fibres are able to bend back on themselves over 20,000 times without breaking, therefore being highly resistant to tearing. The crimped structure of the fibres, not only make it naturally elastic, but contribute to its stretch and comfort, as it has the ability to return to its natural shape. Additionally, this structure, means wool is wrinkle and sag resistant, only lengthening its life.
But what about wools negative impact on the environment?
Lucy Siegle, a British journalist on social and environmental justice, reported that “in 2009 less than 0.1% of the 1.1 million tonnes of the global wool clip was classified as organic”.
Furthermore, on the issue of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions contributing to climate change, signifiant quantities of methane can be emitted as a by-product of the natural digestive process of sheep (and other ruminant animals).
...and those ethics?
Sheep are particularly susceptible to a condition known as flystrike. Wrinkly folds in their skin collect moisture and dirt, which attract blowflies. These blowflies lay their eggs in the wet wool, which hatch into maggots and feed on the skin and flesh of the sheep. Sadly if left untreated, most sheep with slowly die.
The process of 'mulesing’, which is controversial to say the least, involves removing these skin folds from the backside of the sheep to stop the flies from laying their eggs in the wool. This process can undoubtedly be extremely painful for the sheep, and if done incorrectly is extremely cruel and can cause the animal to suffer. There is also no guarantee that the process will prevent future flystrike.
Sadly, inhumane practices have also been shown (and recently) to extend to handling, shearing techniques and the general behaviour shown towards sheep. The RSPCA and PETA investigated shearing sheds across the United States, Australia, and British farms, revealing horrific cruelty and abuse.
Help is out there!
There are of course organisations and initiatives out there helping to regulate the industry and set standards.
The International Wool and Textile Organisation (IWTO) is a recognised international body responsible for setting standards in the wool textile industry. They are centred on five husbandry principles that meet the physiological and behavioural needs of sheep; environment, nutrition, health, behaviour, and handling.
The Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) was developed as the global standard for growing wool, managing the welfare of sheep, and the land they graze on. The RWS implements best practice, ensuring that sheep are provided with; freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury and disease; freedom to express normal patterns of behaviour; and freedom from fear and distress.
The Campaign for Wool, and its global patron, His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, intends to “reboot” the British wool industry, spreading awareness and educating individuals about its unique, natural, renewable and biodegradable benefits.
The structure of the wool fibre (as mentioned above) contributes to its potential to be in circulation for a surprisingly long time. Research conducted by Textile Materials and Technology at Leeds University suggests that "wool products have the potential for two or more uses or ‘lives’ and a total ‘active life’ of 20-30 years”. Therefore our woolly apparel is perfectly suited to the vintage, second-hand, and recycled clothing market.
Stephen Russell, a Professor at Leeds University, reports that wool is one of the most re-used of all fibres, accounting for up to 5% (by weight) of the total amount of clothing donated for recycling and re-use. Interesting, given that wool is reported to only have a 1.3% market share of the virgin fibre supply.
The long life of woollen products (if cared for appropriately) opens up a plethora of research opportunities:
How do we get more individuals to donate and swap their unwanted woollen apparel, given that a 2016 survey revealed that 75% of UK consumers throw away used garments, instead of reselling or recycling them?
How do we get more individuals mending?
Are we considering the second, and third life at the idea conception and design stages?
These brands have definitely raised the ‘baa’
Surf brand FINISTERRE source their Merino wool from New Zealand certified non-mulesed farms, being transparent in their traceability right back to the farm. All farms in Finisterre’s supply chain must also comply with the RWS’s five freedoms (previously outlined).
Designer Isobel Davis rescued a herd of 500 rare-breed sheep from slaughter for her label IZZY LANE, using the wool from these beautiful animals. Izzy Lane shows how a brand can produce sustainable and ethical wool products.
Megan Meiklejohn, the Sustainable Materials and Transparency Manager at EILEEN FISHER, says that “Responsible wool means that we know exactly what farms produce our wool and how the animals and the land were managed”. Eileen Fisher was also among the first brands to introduce RWS certified wool.
My take home points from the research I have done (and I have only skimmed the surface):
Fashion undoubtedly shares a deep connection with the environment. A relationship, that as demonstrated in this post, can be both symbiotic, yet harmful.
Transparency at every step of the wool textile production, beginning with the farm, is paramount.
Let's look for pre-loved, and recycled wool apparel and prolong their life even longer.
If buying new, do your research, and try to only buy from ethical and sustainable brands, just like the ones mentioned above (there are plenty more out there, you just have to look).
Why not give the much loved craft of knitting go yourself. Wool and the Gang are “bringing back knitting as a viable means of production for generations to come”, working with fashion factories to repurpose their fashion waste into new yarns to reduce landfill.