There is a growing consensus that the only path to sustainably maintain current consumption levels in the future is through circularity. Wool is the tailor-made circular fiber.
With every new revelation of hazardous chemicals emitting from textiles factories, of plastic microfibers entering the food chain and unsold apparel piling up in a distant desert, the calls for the global fashion and textile industry to reform its wasteful linear model with a sustainable circular model grow a little bit louder. It is just a matter of time before these calls reach a tipping point.
While the details of a circular economy remain to be nailed down, it would have to be based on the use of renewable resources, for one, and would also need to design out waste and pollution. Preferably, it would also go beyond just maintaining our degraded planet and begin regenerating the natural systems all life depends upon.
On all points, few fibers are as suitable for the circular transition as wool.
200 years of wool recycling
One of wool’s greatest contributions to circularity is undoubtably its recyclability. And unlike many other fibers, this potential is not just theoretical. Wool has a 200-year-long history of commercial recycling, and has already demonstrated successful large-scale collection, sorting and recycling schemes on a broad geographical basis.
Here, impact reductions can be significant: A recent LCA study found that a recycled wool blend sweater can reduce impacts by 66-90% compared to a virgin pure wool sweater.
The antithesis of “take-make-waste”
Besides recyclability, wool offers other attributes that run directly against the “take-make-waste” mentality that sees garments designed for a total lifetime counted in days. Wool’s durability, repairability and reduced washing requirements can combine to produce a product that can stand the test of time. And the fact is that the longer a product remains in use, the lower its overall impact.
Yet while wool’s longevity characteristics put it in a class of its own, there is more to the story of what keeps wool garments in use for year after year or sees their disproportionate success at being resold in second-hand stores – the emotional attachment they tend to create with the consumer. This attachment is very far indeed from the goal of “planned obsolescence” the linear model is based on.
Today’s solution for a circular future
As the fight to claim the title of “most circular fiber” rages on, some have already awarded polyester the crown. This is incorrect. The great majority of recycled polyester is from plastic bottles rather than used polyester garments. This prevents further recycling into plastic bottles and converts the polyester into a more hazardous form that is likely to release microplastics.
We are still years from closing the loop at any meaningful level, but if wool fibers do fall out of the cycle along the way they are natural, biodegradable fibers. Moreover, sheep farms using regenerative principles can actually reverse the damage we have caused on our ecosystems.
Wool alone won’t bring fashion and textiles full circle, but it is certainly a good place to start.
The International Wool Textile Organisation is the global authority for standards in the wool textile industry. Since 1930, IWTO has represented the collected interests of the global wool trade.
IWTO’s members represent all stages of the wool textile pipeline, from farm to retail. Through scientific research, wool textile education and knowledge sharing, IWTO ensures a sustainable future for wool.
For more information visit iwto.org.
Photo: The Knitwit Stable