How Sustainable Are Alpaca Wool Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

How Sustainable Are Alpaca Wool Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

By
Quynh Nguyen

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Alpaca is often considered one of the finest animal wools. Its resistance to odor helps reduce the washing frequency, saving energy and water. Yet, the growing demand for alpaca wool raises ecological and animal-right concerns, not unlike the sheep and goat wool industries. So, we had to ask: How sustainable are alpaca wool fabrics? 

Alpaca wool is generally considered sustainable. It’s made with alpaca fleece, a renewable resource. Alpaca wool can be washed sparsely, saving water and energy. At the end of its life, pure alpaca wool is fully biodegradable. However, the alpaca wool industry has some ethical problems.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of alpaca wool fabrics used for clothes and accessories. Then, we will evaluate its sustainability, potential, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable products made with alpaca wool fabrics.

Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Alpaca Wool Fabrics

Alpaca wool is generally considered a sustainable textile material. It is a biodegradable fabric made with renewable fleeces from alpacas—a species in the camel family. Alpaca wool clothes are breathable and durable, which are the telltale signs of sustainability in usage. 

However, it is important to take note of the cruel treatment of alpacas in some industrial settings, which questions the ethics of using some alpaca wool products. 

“Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”

Oxford Dictionary

To understand the sustainability of alpaca wool fabrics, we must assess their life-cycle and each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method for evaluating the environmental impacts of products and materials. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. So, let’s have a look at the LCA of alpaca wool fabrics!

In this article, we’ll use the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA, examining the five stages of the life-cycle of clothing items and accessories made with alpaca wool fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments

The life-cycle stages of alpaca wool fabricsEach stage’s sustainability
Sourcing of alpaca wool fabricsThe sourcing of alpaca fleeces as the raw material for alpaca wool fabrics is generally sustainable. Alpaca wool fibers are considered a renewable resource. The adverse environmental impacts of raising alpacas are relatively lower than wool-producing ruminants like sheep and goats, largely because of the biological differences between camelids and ruminants. 
Manufacturing of alpaca wool fabricsManufacturing alpaca wool fabrics is typically not very sustainable. It starts with collecting alpaca fleece. The processes that come after fiber collection are mostly mechanical. These processes often require a significant amount of energy and water. 
Transporting of alpaca wool fabricsTransporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of clothing items made with alpaca wool fabrics due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Alpaca wool fabrics typically travel from pasture lands, where the alpaca’s fleeces are collected, to processing and finishing factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. 
Usage of alpaca wool fabricsThe usage of alpaca wool is generally sustainable. Alpaca wool requires less frequent washes because it is a breathable, odor-resistant, and somewhat stain-resistant material. 
End-of-life of alpaca wool fabricsThe end-of-life stage for alpaca wool is generally sustainable because untreated alpaca wool is fully biodegradable and compostable. 

Overall, we can say alpaca wool fabrics are fairly sustainable. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, whether a pair of gloves or a sweater, depends on more specific factors, including: 

  • the sourcing of alpaca fibers
  • the manufacturing process
  • the distance and mode of transportation 

Let’s dive deeper into each life-cycle stage and find out how you can buy alpaca wool fabrics more sustainably. 

How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Raw Materials for Alpaca Wool Fabrics

The sourcing of alpaca fleeces as the raw material for alpaca wool fabrics is generally sustainable. Alpaca wool fibers are considered a renewable resource. The adverse environmental impacts of raising alpacas are relatively lower than wool-producing ruminants like sheep and goats, largely because of the biological differences between camelids and ruminants. 

What Raw Materials Are Used for Alpaca Wool Fabrics

Alpaca wool is made with the fleece of an alpaca, a domesticated South American member of the camel family, Camelidae. They are also known as camelids. Llama, camel, and vicuña are other camelids kept and used for their hairy fleeces. 

There are two breeds of alpaca: Huacaya and Suri. 

  • The wool from Huacaya breeds has a natural crimp, giving Huacaya wool fabrics a wavy, bulky texture. 
  • The wool from Suri alpacas is much finer and straighter than that derived from Huacaya alpacas. Suri wool is prized for its incredible softness and breathability.

How Do the Raw Materials Sourced for Alpaca Wool Fabrics Impact the Environment

Alpaca wool fabrics are made with alpaca fleeces—a renewable resource. The environmental impacts of keeping alpacas for their wooly fibers, especially regarding global warming, are relatively low compared to farming sheep and goats for the same purpose. 

Alpaca Fibers Can Be Considered a Renewable Resource 

A well-bred alpaca produces about 5–7 lbs (around 2–3 kg) of wool annually. The fleece can be shorn once a year during the lifespan of the alpaca, which can be between 20 to 25 years. In comparison, an average sheep lives 10 to 12 years

The repeated harvest and relatively long lifespan make it possible to consider alpaca wool fibers a renewable resource.

Raising Alpacas Has Relatively Low Methane Emission 

The sourcing stage—raising alpacas for their fleece—contributes to an elevated carbon footprint of alpaca wool fabrics. It could be higher than other fabrics made with plant-based fibers like cotton, hemp, or linen

Camelids, alpacas included, belch enteric methane (CH4) as they digest their food. This is similar to ruminant animals—sheep and goats—which are also farmed for their fleeces to make wool. 

According to a study, camelids—alpacas included—generally produce less methane than ruminants of comparable body size. This is due to the former group’s generally lower relative food intake. 

Raising Alpacas Has Relatively Low Land Usage and Causes Relatively Less Land Degradation 

Most alpacas live free-range in their native habitat in the Andes Mountains, grazing on grass and other foliage. Because of their slow metabolism, they have relatively low food intake and, thus, need less land than sheep, which are also farmed for wool. 

Furthermore, land degradation caused by alpaca rearing is much less significant compared to sheep and goat farming. This is thanks to the alpaca’s padded feet, which don’t damage vegetation’s root systems in the same way as goat’s and sheep’s hooves do when they feed.

Where Are the Raw Materials for Alpaca Wool Fabrics Usually Sourced From 

Alpacas have been kept by Indigenous South Americans around the Andes Mountains for thousands of years. Today, the majority of the world’s alpacas are found in Peru, mostly in the form of small herds of under 50 animals each. 

Because of the increasing popularity of alpaca wool, herds of alpacas are also found in the US, Australia, New Zealand, and some other countries.

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Alpaca Wool Fabrics

Manufacturing alpaca wool fabrics is typically not very sustainable. It starts with collecting alpaca fleece. The processes that come after fiber collection are mostly mechanical. These processes often require a significant amount of energy and water. 

How Sustainably Are Alpaca Wool Fabrics Generally Manufactured

Here are the standard steps in manufacturing alpaca wool fabrics

  1. Collecting the fleece of the alpaca: This can be done by shearing (almost) the whole fleece of the animal. Shearing often happens once a year when the hair reaches a certain length depending on the breed. Some farmers use scissors; others adopt electric shearing devices.
  2. Wash: The raw wool is cleaned to remove dirt and impurities. It’s important to note that alpaca fiber does not contain the similar lanolin oil or grease as found in sheep wool; therefore, it is easy to wash without intensive detergents or chemicals. 
  3. Carding: Wool fibers are sorted into grades and combed into long, thin strings. 
  4. Spinning: The carded fibers are fed into a spinning machine, which twists the wool fibers to form yarn. 
  5. Weaving or knitting: The alpaca wool yarn is woven or knitted into fabric. 
  6. Finishing and post-treatment: The alpaca wool fabric is occasionally dyed and subject to chemical treatments for bleaching. 

The manufacturing process of alpaca wool fabrics is relatively standard for textiles made with natural fibers. In most cases, alpaca manufacturing doesn’t involve toxic synthetic chemicals. However, mechanical processes require energy and water resources. 

Alpaca Wool Manufacturing Is Energy-Intensive

Energy is needed to heat water for cleaning and to produce the electricity needed to run machinery (spinning, weaving, or knitting). And if fossil fuels are the main source of electricity, it will increase the manufacturing carbon footprint. 

Alpaca Wool Manufacturing Might Cause Wastewater Pollution 

Washing and dyeing are the key processes causing wastewater pollution. 

Washing removes pesticides and organic matter (including feces) from the fleece. It requires a significant amount of water. As alpaca wool doesn’t contain lanolin oil like sheep wool, the washing step is, thus, less polluting—no need for intensive chemicals as well as high heat. 

Nevertheless, after washing, some chemicals and organic matter may become suspended in the wastewater. If not treated properly, they contaminate the freshwater supply. 

Also, the dyeing process can contaminate surface water with heavy metals like chrome. Using natural dyes will avoid this contamination though these expensive dyes aren’t always opted for by alpaca fabric producers. 

Where Are Alpaca Wool Fabrics Usually Manufactured

Peru is the world’s largest alpaca fiber producer, accounting for 90% of the world’s traded alpaca wool. Bolivia and Chile are other big alpaca wool producers from the Andes Mountains region. 

Peruvian people have been making and wearing alpaca fiber for hundreds of years. In more traditional settings, alpacas graze free-range in relatively small herds. They are kept and shorn with care. However, with the rising interest in alpaca wool, more industrial alpaca farms appear where cruel treatment of the alpacas during shearing has been reported. 

Another key issue with manufacturing location is the share of renewable energy used in the rather energy-intensive production of alpaca wool. The good news is that Peru has a relatively high share of renewable energy in primary energy (27.74%). This percentage is much higher than, for example, that of China (14.95%) and India (9.31%), where most of the world’s textile materials are made. 

Because manufacturing alpaca wool is energy-intensive, using renewable energy (solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass) would significantly reduce carbon emissions at this stage. 

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Alpaca Wool Fabrics

Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of clothing items made with alpaca wool fabrics due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Alpaca wool fabrics typically travel from pasture lands, where the alpaca’s fleeces are collected, to processing and finishing factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. 

In the life-cycle of alpaca wool clothing items, transportation typically occurs: 

  • from grasslands, where the alpaca’s fleeces are collected, to fiber factories, 
  • from fiber factories to textile manufacturers, 
  • from textile manufacturers to sorting centers/physical shops, 
  • from sorting centers/physical shops to the consumer’s house, 
  • and from the consumer’s house to the centers for recycling/disposal.
Traveling Distances of Alpaca Wool Fabrics Vary Depending on the Supply Chain

It is not uncommon for alpaca wool fabrics to have their supply chain spreading globally, meaning that animal farming, yarn processing, and finishing might happen in various towns, countries, or even continents. 

Here are some scenarios for transporting alpaca wool fabrics: 

  • Alpaca wool manufacturers can source the fleece from Peru and turn the fiber into alpaca yarn in nearby factories. The yarn is then transported to various fabric-making locations in Asia to be turned into garments to be sold worldwide. 
  • The fleece is collected from alpaca in the US, processed, and sold locally. 
  • Alpaca wool manufacturers source fibers in Chile, ship them to China to be scoured, in Vietnam to be spun, in Cambodia for garment-making, and across the Pacific for US consumers.

You can reduce the transporting carbon footprint by choosing alpaca wool fabrics that travel shorter distances.

The Carbon Footprint of Transporting Alpaca Wool Fabrics Depends Largely on the Vehicle of Transportation 

During its life-cycle, a piece of alpaca wool clothing can be transported using various types of vehicles, including: 

  • large container ships 
  • planes 
  • freight trains 
  • long-distance trucks 
  • short-distance delivering vans 

And these various types of transportation vehicles have different carbon footprint impacts: 

For example, as a consumer, you can choose not to pick the fast delivery option when ordering alpaca wool clothing items and accessories to reduce the carbon footprint of your order. 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Alpaca Wool Fabrics

The usage of alpaca wool is generally sustainable. Alpaca wool requires less frequent washes because it is a breathable, odor-resistant, and somewhat stain-resistant material. 

Due to washing, drying, and ironing, the usage phase is a main source of energy consumption in the life cycle of clothing. Compared to many other textile materials, using alpaca wool fabrics would be more sustainable because of the less frequent need for washing, low washing temperature requirements, and suitability for air drying practices

Alpaca wool fabrics are odor-resistant and somewhat stain-resistant. Thus, alpaca wool clothing requires fewer washes than many other textile materials. (Also, the fabrics are supposed to wash in cold water, further saving energy for heating.) 

Additionally, alpaca wool fabrics are resistant to wrinkling and recover from wrinkles well, so very little ironing is required, which further saves energy during the usage stage. 

As a consumer, you can reduce your usage’s environmental impact by maximizing the wear between washes and avoiding unnecessary hot machine washes or machining drying. Also, you can prevent full washing by airing and spot-cleaning alpaca garments. 

The longer you use a piece of clothing, the lesser the environmental impact will be for each wear. 

How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Alpaca Wool Fabrics

The end-of-life stage for alpaca wool is generally sustainable because untreated alpaca wool is fully biodegradable and compostable. 

As a natural textile material, alpaca wool can be left to degrade naturally in a landfill or be composted. Decomposing time depends on many environmental factors and if the fabrics are treated and blended. 

Untreated alpaca fiber is completely biodegradable and will start to break down after about a year. Note that alpaca wool fabrics are made with animal-derived fibers, so they tend to take longer to degrade than plant-based fabric such as jute, hemp, or cotton. Plant-based fibers often start to break down after a few months. 

Alpaca wool’s biodegradability reduces due to dye, toxic chemicals, blended fibers, and trims that might be used in manufacturing processes. 

How Circular Are Products Made of Alpaca Wool Fabrics

In the textile industry, a circular economy is designed to keep products and materials in use for as long as possible, especially through reusing and recycling. It also covers regenerating natural systems that support the industry and reducing polluted waste released into such systems.

“The circular economy is a systems solution framework that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution.”

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

As a whole, the textile industry is almost linear: 97% of the input is new resource.

Recycling alpaca wool fabrics involves putting alpaca wool waste, both pre- and post-consumer, back into the supply chain, either as standalone garments or materials serving other purposes. 

It reduces the drain on natural resources, leading to stabilized flock numbers, diminishing methane emissions, and lessening the grazing pressure on lands so they can regenerate. 

How Can You Buy Alpaca Wool Fabrics More Sustainably

The key to sustainably buying alpaca wool products is to check on relevant environmental and original certifications. 

  • USDA ORGANIC: This certificate is applied to growing the crop (raw material), ensuring natural agricultural products are produced that can be certified as “organic.” 
  • Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): A globally-recognized certification system that ensures a certain threshold of organic content has been met. It covers manufacturing, packaging, labeling, transportation, and distribution (but not what happens in the grasslands where alpacas are raised). 
  • Recycled Claim Standard (RCS): The Textile Exchange RCS was originally developed as an international, voluntary standard that sets requirements for third-party certification of Recycled input and chain of custody. (For recycled alpaca wool fabrics) 
  • The Global Recycled Standard (GRS): The Global Recycled Standard (GRS) is an international, voluntary, full product standard that sets requirements for third-party certification of Recycled Content, chain of custody, social and environmental practices, and chemical restrictions. It can be used for any product with more than 20% recycled material.(For recycled alpaca wool fabrics) 
  • OEKO-TEX® Standard 100: OEKO-TEX® labels aim to ensure that products pose no risk to human health (i.e. containing banned chemicals). 
  • Fairtrade International: A Fair Trade certification includes social, economic, and environmental standards that apply to the full supply chain from the farmers and workers to the traders and companies bringing the final product to market. 
  • FAIR TRADE USA: Fair Trade USA works closely on the ground with producers and certifies transactions between companies and their suppliers to ensure that the people making Fair Trade Certified goods work in safe conditions, protect the environment, build sustainable livelihoods, and earn additional money to empower and uplift their communities. Unlike Fairtrade, they will certify just one part of the supply chain, which is properly labeled on the consumer-facing label. 

Some certifications are signaling brands’ efforts toward lowered environmental impacts and a circular economy are: 

  • B Corp Certification: The label B Corp is a certification reserved for for-profit companies. Certified holders are assessed on their social and environmental impacts. 
  • Cradle2Cradle certification: Cradle2Cradle provides a standardized approach to material circularity. It assesses whether products have been suitably designed and made with the circular economy in mind covering five critical categories: material health, material reuse, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.

Where to Buy Sustainable Alpaca Wool Fabrics 

Throughout the life-cycle assessment, we have established that alpaca wool fabrics are generally sustainable. However, there remain issues of climate change and unethical practices in the supply chain of alpaca wool fabrics. 

Some alpaca wool producers and clothing manufacturers address the above challenges by: 

  • sourcing recycled alpaca fibers to reduce the strain on natural resources,
  • opting for using renewable energy in production, and/or
  • using natural dyes to finish alpaca wool fabrics. 

Here, we compile for you a list of such sustainable brands selling (recycled) alpaca wool fabrics (in alphabetic order): 

Why Is It Important to Buy Products Made of More Sustainable Fabrics

It is important to buy products made of more sustainable fabrics because a sustainable textile industry has a lower carbon footprint, helps save natural resources, and is better for forests, animals, and humans. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Your Carbon Footprint 

The production of clothing and footwear is estimated to contribute 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions—more than all international flights and shipping combined. If the fashion industry were a country, it would be the fourth largest emitter of carbon dioxide

One way to reduce the carbon footprint of the clothes you buy is to opt for sustainable fabrics. Sustainable fabrics, which are often made with natural or recycled fibers, have relatively low carbon footprints compared to petroleum-based fabrics. For example, organic cotton made in the US has a carbon footprint of 2.35 kg CO2 (per ton of spun fiber)—a quarter of polyester’s carbon footprint

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Demand For Natural Resources and Waste Management

The textile industry uses water and land to grow cotton and other fibers. It is estimated that 79 billion cubic meters of water were used for the sector worldwide in 2015. For example, producing a single cotton t-shirt requires as much water as one person drinks for 2.5 years (2,700 liters of fresh water).

Worse yet, the textile economy is vastly more linear than circular: the largest amount of resources used in clothes ended up in landfill (instead of being recycled to remake clothes). According to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation,

  • Less than 3% of materials used in the textile economy in 2015 came from recycled sources.
  • In other words, more than 97% of resources used in making clothes are newly extracted. 

When clothing items are disposed of within a short period of time—under a year in the case of half of the fast fashion clothes—the natural systems that provide raw materials for fabrics don’t have enough time to recover and regenerate, which could lead to ecological breakdown. 

Sustainable fabrics are made with less water and emissions while lasting longer:

  • Because they are durable, you don’t need to buy new clothes too often. 
  • Thus, you help reduce the pressure to extract more resources for making new items. 

Similarly, making and consuming sustainable fabrics made with recycled materials reduces the demand for virgin materials while helping tackle waste management. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Sustainable Management of Forests

Sustainable plant-based fabrics are made with raw materials from forests and plantations that are sustainably managed, such as complying with FSC standards

When you buy sustainable plant-based fabrics, you discourage unsustainable forestry practices like illegal logging. You can help reduce deforestation, biodiversity loss, and the effect of climate change. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Animals 

The fashion industry is rife with animal mistreatment when it comes to making animal-based fabrics like alpaca wool or alpaca wool. Every year, billions of animals suffer and die for clothing and accessories.

Buying sustainable vegan alternatives can help to reduce the pressure on raising more and more animals to meet the demand for animal-based fabrics while sacrificing their well-being and lives. 

Suppose you have to buy fabrics made with, for example, alpaca wool or wool; make sure you only choose brands committed to cruelty-free products. In that case, you help advocate better treatments for animals raised within the textile industry. 

Using Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Textile Workers 

Recent statistics from UNICEF estimated as many as 170 million child labors worldwide, many of whom were engaged in some form of work in the textile industry. They don’t get paid minimum wages and often work long hours. 

When you buy sustainable fabrics from brands transparent about the working conditions at their factories, you discourage the use of child labor and help promote better working conditions for textile workers.

Final Thoughts

Alpaca wool fabrics are generally considered sustainable, although there are some ethical concerns in certain alpaca farms as the popularity of this material increases. 

Alpaca wool is a biodegradable and renewable material. Fabrics made with this material are breathable and odor-resistant, leading to a low-impact usage phase. 

Also, it is possible to produce alpaca wool sustainably and ethically, with controlled grazing, animal well-being considerations, and less fossil fuel dependency. 

To make it even more sustainable, follow these steps:

  1. Buy second-hand, recycled, or upcycled alpaca wool clothing items and accessories.
  2. While using alpaca wool products, maximize the number of wear between washes, and keep the items as long as possible.
  3. At the end-of-life of alpaca wool products, upcycle the material to extend its usage, and arrange for it to be recycled or properly disposed of. 

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