A natural fiber with characteristics synthetics still can’t match, properly sourced wool’s sustainability credentials can make it a true wonder material – if it can reduce its climate impacts.
What is wool and where exactly does it come from?
Wool is a textile fiber typically made from an animal’s fur, or fleece. This animal is most often sheep, though it may come from several others including goats (cashmere and mohair), alpaca, llama, yak, buffalo and even common cattle. After shearing the wool from the animal, the fleece undergoes a cleaning process, is spun into yarn and then is treated with various finishes and dyes. Wool primarily comes from sheep in Australia, China, the US, and New Zealand.
What are wool’s sustainability benefits?
Wool is a natural fiber that has properties that synthetics still struggle to emulate. Fabric woven from wool yarn is, for example, elastic and has exceptional thermal properties that can both retain heat and cool. It is durable and its natural antibacterial properties also mean fewer washes which, together with proper care, can lead to a long lifespan. It is additionally a rapidly renewable fiber that can be produced using organic animal husbandry practices and it is easy to recycle – and is currently done so on a large scale. Finally, depending on finishing treatments, wool is biodegradable and does not contribute to long-lasting microfiber pollution.
What are wool’s impacts on the environment and animal welfare?
Animal rights organizations have repeatedly raised concerns regarding wool’s impacts on animal welfare. In Australia, the global leader in wool production, the practice of mulesing sheep is particularly controversial whereby strips of flesh are cut from live animals to prevent “flystrike,” a common parasitic infection. Shearing, otherwise necessary to the welfare of the sheep, can stress the animal and lead to injuries if performed incorrectly.
Conventional sheep farms also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions through the emission of methane. Methane is a digestive by-product of the sheep with a global warming potential 28 times higher than CO2 on a 100-year time scale. Finally, the land use per kilogram of wool produced is large compared to other fibers, and any land deliberately cleared of trees for grazing further adds to wool’s climate impact and also leads to increased soil salinity and erosion as well as a decrease in biodiversity.
Can these impacts be lessened?
In terms of land use and climate impact, recent research offers evidence that properly managed grazing lands using regenerative practices can have positive land use impacts through improved soil health and drainage and can even mitigate greenhouse gas emissions through carbon sequestration to become net carbon negative. When compared to other fibers, standards with strong auditing and inspection procedures carried out by independent third-party certification bodies are particularly important for wool. By supporting traceability, best land management practices, and animal wellbeing, such standards can promote practices that are better for people, sheep and ecosystems.
THE RESPONSIBLE WOOL STANDARD
The Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) is a voluntary global standard developed by Textile Exchange that addresses the welfare of sheep and of the land they graze on. The RWS prohibits mulesing and takes a holistic approach to animal welfare. Progressive methods of land management are practiced on RWS farms, protecting soil health, biodiversity and native species. The standard also addresses the use of pesticides and fertilizers. Throughout production, certification ensures that wool for certified farms is properly identified and tracked.
Illustration: Kiki Fjell