Wool Is Not Sustainable

Wool is a natural material. It does biodegrade. 

Biodegradability is important for sustainability. But just because wool biodegrades, does that in itself mean it is eco-friendly? 

The Global Fashion Agenda, in their 2017 Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report, found that all virgin synthetic materials are less environmentally impactful than wool.

The report also showed that in terms of global warming impact, wool was the second most impactful material, only second to silk.  

The sustainable fashion movement would never speak on virgin synthetics as though they were sustainable - so why do we see this happen so often with wool?

 

 

A large amount of green washing exists in the sustainablity movement, and this is led by the industry profiting off of wool having a good and green name. Below, Willow will address the many different parts of sheep farming and wool production which are of great environmental concern.

 

Breeding and Rearing Sheep:

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the combined exhaust from all transportation, including planes. Even without fossil fuels, we will exceed our 565 gigatonnesCO2 limit by 2030, all from raising animals.

Methane is considered to be roughly 30 times more potent than CO2 as a heat trapping gas, which is clearly alarming for global warming concerns. Manure generated from livestock has significantly contributed to the increase in atmospheric greenhouse gasses we all are aware of today. 

‘Enteric fermentation’, essentially animals passing gas and burping, accounts for around one quarter of annual agricultural methane emissions. In New Zealand, enteric methane from sheep make up one third of the entire nation’s green house gas emissions. NZ has 27.34 million sheep, whereas Australia has over 70 million.

 

Land Clearing

Nearly 60% of the Australian continent is grazed by animals raised for human consumption. This is in addition to the land that is cleared and used for the production of hay and other food for animals (often used during drought seasons when consumable grass is scarce).

Clearing results in the removal of vegetative cover, the single most critical factor in preventing erosion, as well as a loss of topsoil, critical for ecological productivity.

The below graph shows the land in Australia which as been disturbed and cleared, and which industry is the cause of it.

 

 

Clearing of forests and bush land for animal industries results in habitat loss throughout Australia. This is the major cause of wildlife species becoming threatened, endangered and extinct.Australia has 86 animal species who are critically endangered.

Mining, which accounts for 50-60% of Australia’s exports, appear non existent compared to land used for farmed animal grazing:

 

 

Land Damage

In the first half of the 20th century, Patagonia, Argentina was second to Australia in wool production. But when local sheep farmers scaled their operations too large, to meet demand, their operations outgrew the ability of the land to sustain them. Domestic animals, particularly sheep, inflict far more damage on grasses as they graze than do native herbivores.

‘Rampant overgrazing had left the area vulnerable to wind erosion and eventual desertification, a process that has already affected approximately 30% of Patagonia.’ – Patagonia Park

‘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.’ - Patagonia Park

 

Grazing land in Woolen, WA, was ‘destocked’ of animals due to serious land degradation. The re-establishment of the vegetation “progressed much better than expected". 

A multitude of plants re-appeared. This regrowth occurred because cattle were no longer grazing and despite a long drought.  Some plants returned to areas where they were never expected to grow.  Plant and animal species threatened with extinction also began to return. This kind of regeneration should be expected from the destocking of sheep too - as shown in Patagonia.

 

 

Water Wastage

Animal agriculture’s water consumption ranges from 34-76 trillion gallons annually.

To get a grasp of how much water animal agricultural industries use, 9% of water consumed in Australia is by private homes. In contrast, over 67% of water is consumed in animal agricultural industries.

The below graph speaks in terms of diet. It is relevant however, as the meat and wool industries are interconnected, with sheep 'raised for wool' being described as 'dual-purpose' breeds by Meat and Livestock Australia, The Woolmark Company and Australian Wool Innovation. This is because sheep raised for wool are slaughtered for meat when their wool is no longer profitable enough.

 

 

 

Fecal matter contaminates waterways in areas where sheep are farmed. A case study conducted by the New Zealand government on two medium sized farms found fecal contamination in the water that ‘exceeded levels suitable for drinking and safe recreational use in virtually every reading since 1994’

Sheep ‘dip’, which is a toxic chemical used to rid sheep of parasites, presents disposal problems and can harm the environment. A Scottish study of 795 sheep-dip facilities found an incident in which a cupful of spent dip, full of a highly toxic synthetic called pyrethroidcypermethrin, killed 1,200 fish downstream from where it was dumped into the river.

 

 

Wool Scouring (Cleaning)

Greasy wool is the term for wool which comes straight off the back of a sheep. There are many processes which turn  this wool into the wool used in garments.

Most wool is not organic, it must be treated and washed, which involves harmful chemicals. To clean wool, the fiber is washed in a series of baths with chemical detergents.

Even before discussing the additional chemicals used in scouring, the liquid waste from wool scouring (cleaning) baths are concerning. These chemical levels represent a significant pollution load: the organic effluent from a typical wool-scouring plant is similar to that of the sewage from a town of 30,000 people.

 

 

The surface of wool fibers are covered by small barbed scales. Which make the fabric itchy. To prevent this itching a lot of wool is scaled, which also ‘shrink proofs’ it. 

This process is often done with a pretreatment of chlorine, resulting in waste water with unacceptably high levels of absorbable organohalogens(AOX) – toxins created when chlorine reacts with available carbon-based compounds. Dioxins, a group of AOX, are one of the most toxic known substances.

Because waste water from the wool chlorination process contains chemicals of environmental concern, in the US, this waste water is not accepted by water treatment facilities. All chlorinated wool is processed in other countries, then imported. This adds another level of environmental impact.

A deeply concerning detergent used in wool scouring are alkylphenolethoxylates (APEOs). APEOs are endocrine disruptors, meaning they interfere with the body’s endocrine system. They are known to be toxic for aquatic life, causing feminisationof male fish. The use of APEOs in wool scouring is standard and researchers have frequently written on their harm to the environment and wildilfe.

 

 

As well as water pollution, there is air pollution that comes from wool scouring, too.

The below substances can be emitted into the air from this process, include substances known to be carcinogens, and highly toxic.

 

 

Wool and Plastic

Some wool is even ‘superwashed’ so it won’t ‘felt’ when a garment is washed.

Super washing is exposing wool to a chlorine gas, which erodes the ‘scales’ of a fibre. The fibre is then covered in a type of plastic called Hercosett125. This polymer is made up of toxic chemicals. This process also means that wool is no longer completely biodegradable, as it is part synthetic.

 

 

With all the above in mind, it is incredbily important that we reframe our understanding of wool. 

A natural material does not equate to a sustainable material. In fact, it could be suggested wool is not truly a natural material, not only because of the unnatural processes which it must go through to become usable as a fashion textile, but because animal agriculture and the farming of sheep is not natural. Sheep are not native to Australia or to many of the places in which we breed them, yet they are there, taking land and resources from native animals who are already suffering under the climate crisis - created largely by animal agriculture. 

So what's next? There are sustainable alternatives.

Even when virgin synthetics have been found to be less environmentally impactful than wool, they are certainly not the solution.

We ought to be focussing our attention, resources and finances towards supporting sustianable alternatives like organic cotton, recycled cotton, hemp, Tencel and bamboo.

Learn more about thse alternative materials, and more, through Willow's presentation on wool.

References:

Wool versus synthetics

Global Fashion Agenda

Wool cleaning concerns

The Journal of the Textile Institute

Afirm Group Chemical Information Document

General and Comparative Endocrinology

Science Direct1

Science Direct 2

Wool Wise

National Pollution Inventory

Water Wastage

Cowspiracy

Veg Vic

Water pollution

Peta

Sustainable Textiles

Wool and plastic

Woolful

What’s Wrong With Washable Wool

Science Direct

Methane

Animal Production Science Report

Beef and Lamb NZ via NZ Herald

Australian Wool Innovation Limited

Gas

Cowspiracy

New York Times

One Green Planet

Princeton

Land clearing

Veg Vic

Export.gov

Australian Geographic

Land damage

Patagonia Park Org

World Blaze

Vegan Australia