How Sustainable Are Recycled Wool Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
Impactful Ninja is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.
Hey fellow impactful ninja ? You may have noticed that Impactful Ninja is all about providing helpful information to make a positive impact on the world and society. And that we love to link back to where we found all the information for each of our posts. Most of these links are informational-based for you to check out their primary sources with one click. But some of these links are so-called "affiliate links" to products that we recommend. First and foremost, because we believe that they add value to you. For example, when we wrote a post about the environmental impact of long showers, we came across an EPA recommendation to use WaterSense showerheads. So we linked to where you can find them. Or, for many of our posts, we also link to our favorite books on that topic so that you can get a much more holistic overview than one single blog post could provide. And when there is an affiliate program for these products, we sign up for it. For example, as Amazon Associates, we earn from qualifying purchases. First, and most importantly, we still only recommend products that we believe add value for you. When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission - but at no additional costs to you. And when you buy something through a link that is not an affiliate link, we won’t receive any commission but we’ll still be happy to have helped you. When we find products that we believe add value to you and the seller has an affiliate program, we sign up for it. When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission (at no extra costs to you). And at this point in time, all money is reinvested in sharing the most helpful content with you. This includes all operating costs for running this site and the content creation itself. You may have noticed by the way Impactful Ninja is operated that money is not the driving factor behind it. It is a passion project of mine and I love to share helpful information with you to make a positive impact on the world and society. However, it's a project in that I invest a lot of time and also quite some money. Eventually, my dream is to one day turn this passion project into my full-time job and provide even more helpful information. But that's still a long time to go. Stay impactful,
Why do we add these product links?
What do these affiliate links mean for you?
What do these affiliate links mean for us?
What does this mean for me personally?
Hey fellow impactful ninja ?
You may have noticed that Impactful Ninja is all about providing helpful information to make a positive impact on the world and society. And that we love to link back to where we found all the information for each of our posts.
Most of these links are informational-based for you to check out their primary sources with one click.
But some of these links are so-called "affiliate links" to products that we recommend.
First and foremost, because we believe that they add value to you. For example, when we wrote a post about the environmental impact of long showers, we came across an EPA recommendation to use WaterSense showerheads. So we linked to where you can find them. Or, for many of our posts, we also link to our favorite books on that topic so that you can get a much more holistic overview than one single blog post could provide.
And when there is an affiliate program for these products, we sign up for it. For example, as Amazon Associates, we earn from qualifying purchases.
First, and most importantly, we still only recommend products that we believe add value for you.
When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission - but at no additional costs to you.
And when you buy something through a link that is not an affiliate link, we won’t receive any commission but we’ll still be happy to have helped you.
When we find products that we believe add value to you and the seller has an affiliate program, we sign up for it.
When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission (at no extra costs to you).
And at this point in time, all money is reinvested in sharing the most helpful content with you. This includes all operating costs for running this site and the content creation itself.
You may have noticed by the way Impactful Ninja is operated that money is not the driving factor behind it. It is a passion project of mine and I love to share helpful information with you to make a positive impact on the world and society. However, it's a project in that I invest a lot of time and also quite some money.
Eventually, my dream is to one day turn this passion project into my full-time job and provide even more helpful information. But that's still a long time to go.
Producing virgin wool has significant environmental impacts associated with the land and water use for rearing more animals to collect their hair or fleece. Considering that wool is readily recyclable, reusing this material is a logical step up the sustainability ladder. Yet, we had to ask: How sustainable are recycled wool fabrics?
Recycled wool is generally a sustainable fabric. Utilizing readily recyclable wool fibers instead of producing virgin wool saves a lot of land and water resources. Recycled wool also averts CO2 additional emissions from ruminant animals, such as sheep or goats, that are raised for wool.
In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of recycled wool fabrics used for clothes and household items. Then, we evaluate its sustainability, potential, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable products made with recycled wool fabrics.
Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Recycled Wool Fabrics
Recycled wool fabrics are among the more sustainable textile materials. Recycling wool reduces the pressure on land and water – the main resources needed to farm more animals for their hair or fleece. It leads to recycled wool generally being a lower-impact fabric, especially compared to conventional wool.
“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 recycled wool fabrics, we must assess their life-cycle and each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate 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 recycled 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 clothes and household items made with recycled wool fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments.
|The life-cycle stages of recycled wool fabrics
|Each stage’s sustainability
|Sourcing of recycled wool fabrics
|Sourcing wool fibers from discarded wool fabrics for making recycled wool is generally sustainable. It utilizes wool waste instead of rearing more animals for their hair or fleece – an activity often requires big swaths of land for animal grazing. Also, conventional animal farming has a high risk of environmental contamination and exacerbates climate change with elevated greenhouse gas emissions, in the common case of sheep and goat farming. Sourcing wool waste is even more sustainable if the original wool comes from organic farms.
|Manufacturing of recycled wool fabrics
|Recycled wool fabrics are made in a series of mechanical processes where discarded wool waste is first turned into its raw fiber state and then put back together to create new products. Energy demand for manufacturing is high and can lead to elevated global warming impact if fossil fuels are the main sources of energy. Manufacturing is one of the hotspots for environmental impacts and the sustainability of recycled wool fabrics.
|Transporting of recycled wool fabrics
|The transportation of recycled wool fabrics might have a significant carbon footprint because of the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Discarded wool fabrics typically travel from various locations to collection hubs, processing factories, sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfills.
|Usage of recycled wool fabrics
|The usage of wool fabrics, including the recycled variety, is generally sustainable. Wooly sweaters, socks, and scarves require less frequent washes at lower temperatures. Also, wool fabrics dry on the line instead of electricity-powered driers.
However, fabrics made with 100% recycled wool fibers are often not as durable (and long-lasting) as virgin wool materials because the former have lower-strength shorter fibers. Blending recycling wool with other fibers can increase durability and other desirable properties.
|End-of-life of recycled wool fabrics
|The end-of-life stage for wool fabrics, including the recycled variety, is generally sustainable because untreated wool is fully biodegradable and compostable.
Overall, recycled wool fabrics are among the more sustainable textile materials. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, be it a sweater or a pair of gloves, depends on more specific factors, including the sourcing of recycled wool fibers, the type of energy used in manufacturing and usage, and the distance and mode of transportation.
Let’s dive deeper into each life-cycle stage and find out how you can buy recycled wool fabrics more sustainably.
How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Cotton Fibers for Recycled Wool Fabrics
Sourcing wool fibers from discarded wool fabrics for making recycled wool is generally sustainable. It utilizes wool waste instead of rearing more animals for their hair or fleece – an activity often requires big swaths of land for animal grazing.
Also, conventional animal farming has a high risk of environmental contamination and exacerbates climate change with elevated greenhouse gas emissions, in the common case of sheep and goat farming.
Sourcing wool waste is even more sustainable if the original wool comes from organic farms.
What Raw Materials Are Used for Recycled Wool Fabrics
Recycled wool fabrics can be made using only recycled wool fibers, but other natural or synthetic fibers are often added for strength and desired properties.
Depending on the recycled wool fabrics, the fiber pool could include the following:
- Recycled wool fibers from discarded wool fabrics (both pre-consumer and post-consumer)
- Virgin wool fibers from the hair or fleece of animals, including ruminants (sheep and goats), camelids (camels, llamas, alpacas, and vicuna), and several other species
- Plant fibers (such as cotton, bamboo, etc.)
- Synthetic fibers (such as nylon, polyester, etc.)
How Do the Raw Materials Sourced for Recycled Wool Fabrics Impact the Environment
Sourcing discarded wool fabrics to make recycled wool blends is generally sustainable. Recycling helps reduce waste. And the more recycled content is used in the new wool blends, the lesser the pressure on the resources that farming animals, such as sheep, goats, or alpacas, requires.
It is more sustainable to source both recycled and virgin wool fibers when the animals have been organically farmed, thanks to the strict control of toxic (synthetic) chemical usage.
Sourcing Discarded Wool Fabrics Instead of Virgin Sheep and Goat Wool Fabrics Avoids Emissions of Methane – A Potent Greenhouse Gas
Using fibers from discarded wool fabrics instead of virgin sheep and/or goat wool can reduce the global warming potential of the materials significantly because sheep and goat farming emits a potent greenhouse gas.
- Ruminant animals such as sheep and goats belch enteric methane (CH4) as they digest their food.
- Methane is the second most significant contributor to the climate crisis, following carbon dioxide. It traps more heat than carbon dioxide, so it is considered a more potent greenhouse gas, especially in the immediate future.
- Methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a period of 20 years.
- On a 100-year timescale, methane has 28 times greater global warming potential than carbon dioxide.
Sourcing Discarded Wool Fabrics for Recycled Wool Clothing Reduces the Land Pressure From Animal Farming
Utilizing fibers from discarded wool fabrics instead of virgin wool fiber means no extra animal farming is involved. It helps reduce pressure on natural resources, especially land.
Animal farming uses up a lot of space, especially compared with growing plants for fiber crops.
For example, considering the stocking rate in Australia, 109 acres (44.04 hectares) of land are needed for sheep rearing to get enough fleeces for one bale of sheep wool. That is 367 times more land than would be required for a bale of cotton – a plant fiber.
Also, some animal-raising systems cause land degradation, turning biodiverse grasslands into barren deserts.
For example, cashmere goats are reared in increasingly large herds to provide the raw material for cashmere wool fabrics. However, cashmere goats can turn biodiverse lands into deserts when overpopulating grasslands. It is due to the goats’ physics and eating habits.
Recycled Discarded Wool Fabrics Reduce Waste
Globally, a truck-full load of used clothes is dumped into a landfill site every second. That is a lot of waste, considering all the resources used in making those clothes.
Recycling discarded fabrics and turning them into new materials, such as recycled wool blends, is a good way to reduce waste. There is much room for recycling because the current recycling rate of used clothes is rather low.
In brief, sourcing wool waste, especially organic wool waste, for recycled wool blends helps reduce the pressures on virgin resources, especially land. Replacing first-produced sheep and goat wool fibers with recycled wool fibers saves the emissions of methane – a potent greenhouse gas.
Where Are the Raw Materials for Recycled Wool Fabrics Usually Sourced From
In this section, we will focus on one main content of recycled wool (blend) fabrics: recycled wool fibers. The sourcing locations of other fibers in the mix, such as virgin wool, can be found in their separate articles of this series.
Where Are Discarded Wool Fabrics for Recycled Wool Fabrics Usually Sourced From
Wool fabric waste can be collected before or after being used by a consumer.
The former type of waste (pre-consumer textile waste) can occur at any point during manufacturing and selling. Some examples of these discarded wool fabrics are:
- Woven selvage
- Discarded yarn of shorter lengths during spinning
- Cutting scraps during tailoring
- Semi-finished clothing products during tailoring
- Returned clothing products during retailing
The advantage of using pre-consumer discards is that it is more straightforward to collect and classify into groups with the same material, color, and mixing ratios.
The latter type of waste (post-consumer textile waste) is generated at the home of consumers. Some examples of these discarded cotton fabrics are:
- Clothes and accessories
- Bedding and other household items
Post-consumer waste is usually more challenging to recycle due to wearing and washing. This type of waste can become contaminated, weaker in strength, and shorter in fiber length.
Discarded wool fabrics can be collected around the world. The main challenges with using these as raw materials are the labor regarding sorting the material and the carbon footprint for transporting them to manufacturing facilities. (We will discuss transporting footprint in more detail during the third life-cycle stage.)
How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Recycled Wool Fabrics
Recycled wool fabrics are made in a series of mechanical processes where discarded wool waste is first turned into its raw fiber state and then put back together to create new products. Energy demand for manufacturing is high and can lead to elevated global warming impact if fossil fuels are the main sources of energy. Manufacturing is one of the hotspots for environmental impacts and the sustainability of recycled wool fabrics.
How Sustainably Is Recycled Wool Fabrics Generally Manufactured
Recycled wool fabrics are made with recycled wool fibers. After being retrieved from discarded wool waste, these fibers are often knitted or woven and, in some cases, blended with other fibers to produce new products.
Note that discarded wool waste can also be used as the basis for a new, usually industrial product such as insulation or mattress padding (the open-loop system) or re-engineered into new products. Both of these recycling pathways don’t involve breaking down the discarded fabrics into the raw fiber state.
In this article, we will look at the mechanical recycling of wool fibers or the so-called closed-loop system.
In a closed-loop system, the manufacturing process of recycling wool fibers typically follows these three steps:
- Collecting fabrics and sorting by color and composition: The various sources for collection are:
- Clothing factories
- Garment manufacturers
- Used clothing donation spots
- Remove non-recyclable elements: When recycling used clothes (post-consumer waste), items such as labels or lining made of different (synthetic) materials or zippers and buttons are non-recyclable and, thus, being removed.
- Reprocess fibers: Turn the fabrics back into their raw fiber state using one of the following two methods:
- Shredding: Wetted fabric waste is fed into a machine with teeth and blades.
- Fraying: Dry fabric waste is fed into a machine composed of several cylinders with sharp points.
- Create color for the new fabric: This can be done by mixing different fibers originally dyed in various shades of colors in specific percentages. This color creation technique is circular, chemical-free, and dyes-free.
- Spin the fibers into yarn using a spinning machine.
- Warping the recycled wool yarns: Prepare the yarn to be woven by putting them into two main sets:
- Warp yarns go across the length of the fabric
- Weft yarns go across the width of the fabric
- Weave recycled wool yarn into recycled wool fabrics
- Finish the fabrics: The newly woven recycled wool fabric undergoes treatments such as fulling, tumbler washing, fulling, or brushing to create the final look and properties.
The main sustainability issue with manufacturing recycled wool fabrics is the energy demand. Energy is needed to run machinery for shredding or fraying, spinning, weaving or knitting, and finishing.
Energy usage can be reduced by opting for less energy-intensive processes. For example, shredding requires a significantly higher amount of energy than fraying. Thus, the latter would be a lower-impact option.
If fossil fuels are the main sources of energy, it will increase the manufacturing carbon footprint.
For example, the manufacturing carbon footprint of a recycled wool blend (89.5% recycled wool and 10.5% polyester terephthalate fibers) is 0.027 kg CO₂ eq per wear. This calculation is from a life-cycle assessment of recycled wool made and used in Europe. The number of wears is 109, including both first and second-hand users.
In this assessment, recycled wool manufacturing accounts for the highest shares in greenhouse gas emissions (54%) and fossil energy demand (58%) in the entire life-cycle from the cradle to the grave.
However, compared with virgin wool, manufacturing impacts were lower for the recycled wool blend garment, according to the same assessment. The main reason is that processes such as scouring and shrink-resistance were only required for wool produced for the first time. Also, procedures like over-dyeing are needed to a lesser degree in manufacturing recycled wool.
Where Are Recycled Wool Fabrics Usually Manufactured
The beginning of industrial-scale mechanical wool recycling can be traced back to the early 19th century in West Yorkshire, UK.
- Recycling wool in Italy benefits from the relatively high share of renewable energy in primary energy.
- According to Our World in Data, the renewable energy share in primary energy in Italy is 18.36%, higher than, for example, China and India – two of the world’s largest textile producers.
Because of the energy-intensive processes, using renewable energy (solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass) significantly reduces carbon emissions while manufacturing recycled wool fabrics.
How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Recycled Wool Fabrics
The transportation of recycled wool fabrics might have a significant carbon footprint because of the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Discarded wool fabrics typically travel from various locations to collection hubs, processing factories, sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfills.
In the life-cycle of recycled wool clothes, transportation typically occurs as below:
- From places where discarded fabrics are collected, including factories or warehouses (for pre-consumer waste) and donation centers or special containers fused garments (for post-consumer waste), to the fiber manufacturing locations
- From the recycled wool fabrics manufacturing location to the clothing manufacturing location
- From the clothing manufacturing location to sorting centers/physical shops
- From sorting centers/physical shops to the consumer’s house
- From the consumer’s house to the centers for recycling/ disposing of
However, the actual transportation of a specific product varies, depending on the supply chain and transporting vehicles.
Traveling Distances of Recycled Wool Fabrics Vary Depending on the Supply Chain
It is not uncommon for natural cellulose fabrics like recycled wool to have their supply chain spreading globally. The original point of collection, recycled fiber production, fabric spinning, and clothes manufacturing might happen in various towns, countries, or continents.
Here are some scenarios for transporting recycled wool fabrics:
- Fabric producers might collect cotton waste from factories in Pakistan, transport the waste first to sorting centers in India, then to processing factories in China, and finally to consumer markets in the US.
- Used cotton garments are collected in the US and Europe to be sent to India to be sorted by color and blending ratio after removing non-recyclable items. Shorted wool fabrics are then sent to Italy for manufacturing new recycled wool blends. Finished recycled wool clothes are finally transported around the world, including back to the US, to sell to consumers.
Depending on the supply chain, transporting carbon emissions might account for a significant percentage of recycled wool fabrics’ total carbon emissions.
A life-cycle assessment of recycled wool sweaters made from pre and post-consumer wool waste shows that transportation is an environmental hotspot from the cradle to the factory gate. In this study, post-consumer waste is transported using small lorries locally and container ships (transoceanic), resulting in high environmental impacts, including climate change, fossil fuel demand, ozone depletion, and acidification.
Specifically, the transportation stage in the life-cycle of an average recycled sweater made with 15% pre-consumer waste and 85% post-consumer waste accounts for high shares in several impact categories.
- Transportation accounts for around 69% of cradle-to-factory-gate climate change impact.
- Transportation accounts for about 71% of cradle-to-factory-gate fossil fuel demand.
- Transportation accounts for approximately 82% of cradle-to-factory-gate ozone depletion impact.
- Transportation accounts for 91% of cradle-to-factory-gate acidification impact.
The same life-cycle assessment highlights that using pre-consumer textile waste to manufacture recycled wool always shows lower impacts than using post-consumer garments. This result is mainly due to the longer distances post-consumer garments must cover.
The Carbon Footprint of Transporting Recycled Wool Fabrics Depends Largely on the Vehicle of Transportation
During its life-cycle, a piece of recycled wool clothing can be transported using various types of vehicles, including:
- Large container ships
- Freight trains
- Long-distance trucks
- Short-distance delivering vans
And these various types of transportation vehicles have different carbon footprint impacts:
- Large container ships are generally the most carbon-efficient option for international transportation of goods, while planes are the heaviest carbon emitter.
Large container ships emit, per unit of weight and distance, half as much carbon dioxide as a train and one-fifth and one-fiftieth as much as a truck and a plane (respectively).
- Deliveries made by planes – for example, to fulfill fast shipping options for clothing – are the mode of transportation with the highest carbon footprint.
For example, you as a consumer can choose not to pick the fast delivery option when ordering recycled wool clothes to reduce the carbon footprint of your recycled wool items.
According to a cradle-to-factory gate life-cycle assessment, the environmental impacts of recycled wool sweaters vary depending on sourcing raw materials (aka pre or post-consumer waste) and manufacturing techniques (shredding or fraying). Yet the impact of recycled wool sweaters on climate change is generally much smaller than virgin wool sweaters of the same weight.
Specifically, as climate change is concerned, 1 kg of recycled wool has a carbon footprint varying from 0.1 to 0.9 kg CO2 eq, while producing virgin fibers releases from 10 to 103 kg CO2 eq. The difference is 10 to 1000 times, with recycled wool having a much lower climate change impact.
Even when factoring the possible decay in quality typically affecting recycled fibers – the Circular Footprint Formula (CFF) – recycled wool clothes still tend to have lower environmental impacts on many categories: only about 40% of the impacts of virgin wool fibers regarding resource uses (water, land, fossil fuels), acidification, ozone depletion, and climate change, according to the same life-cycle assessment.
How Sustainable Is the Usage of Recycled Wool Fabrics
The usage of wool fabrics, including the recycled variety, is generally sustainable. Wooly sweaters, socks, and scarves require less frequent washes at lower temperatures. Also, wool fabrics dry on the line instead of electricity-powered driers.
However, fabrics made with 100% recycled wool fibers are often not as durable (and long-lasting) as virgin wool materials because the former have lower-strength shorter fibers. Blending recycling wool with other fibers can increase durability and other desirable properties.
The usage phase is a main source of energy consumption in the life cycle of clothing, due to washing, drying, and ironing. Compared to many other textile materials, using wool fabrics would be more sustainable because of the less frequent need for washing, low washing temperature requirements, and suitability for air drying practices.
- Wool fabrics are odor-resistance. Thus, wool clothing requires fewer washes than many other textile materials. Typically, woolen socks can be worn 2.5 times per wash and woolen sweaters can be worn 10 times per wash. In comparison, cotton socks and cotton sweaters are generally washed after 1,5 and 5 wears, respectively.
- Washing instructions for wool clothes often ask for 30°C instead of 40°C or higher. Low-temperature washes use less energy.
- Wool fabrics should be left to dry on the line because the mechanical friction of a tumble dryer is not good for the fibers. This property helps further reduce energy requirements, either for running drying appliances or heating the drying space.
As a consumer, you can reduce the environmental impact of your usage by maximizing the number of wears between washes, avoid unnecessary hot washes or machining drying. You can avoid full washing with airing and spot-cleaning wool garments.
Also, the longer you use a piece of clothing, the lesser the environmental impact of each wear.
- Wool garments thrown out after only 15 wears were responsible for nearly six times the amount of pollution than garments with just over 100 lifetime wears.
- On top of that, if the garment lifetime were to increase to 400-lifetime wears, it would reduce total emissions by 49 – 68%.
In fact, the best practice use and care of a recycled wool blend sweater can reduce the environmental impacts by two or three times, according to a life-cycle assessment.
Mechanically recycling fibers tend to shorten the fiber lengths, reducing the strength and durability of the recycled fabrics. Thus, a common practice in manufacturing recycled wool clothes is blending the recycled fibers with either virgin wool or synthetic fibers to increase desirable physical properties. However, mixing with synthetic fibers can hinder recyclability.
How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Recycled Wool Fabrics
The end-of-life stage for wool fabrics, including the recycled variety, is generally sustainable because untreated wool is fully biodegradable and compostable.
As a natural textile material, 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.
For example, according to a study by researchers in New Zealand, merino sheep wool fabrics degrade at a quick rate when buried in the soil.
- After two months, wool fabrics would lose around 36% of their mass
- After nine months, wool fabrics would almost completely degrade (99% of their mass).
In comparison, a polyester knitted fabric did not degrade at all after the nine-month burial period.
Wool is made up of keratin – the same protein in human hair. Bacteria and fungi break down this protein and return essential plant nutrients, including nitrogen, magnesium, and sulfur, back into the soil. Thus, wool makes a great garden compost.
Wool has also been found to readily biodegrade in a marine environment, whereas synthetic fibers do not.
Another study comparing the biodegradability rate of untreated and machine-washable wool with nylon, polyester, and polypropylene in a marine environment pointed out the outstanding rate at which wool degrades.
Following are the specific rate of biodegradability for all four materials:
- Wool: 67.3%
- Polyester: 6.3%
- Polypropylene: 1.8%
- Nylon: 0.8%
It is important to note that the common practice of blending recycled wool fibers with synthetic fibers (for durability and performance) would normally hinder biodegradability and the opportunities for recycling.
According to a cradle-to-grave life-cycle assessment, the greenhouse gas emissions and freshwater consumption associated with a recycled sheep wool blend sweater were more than three times lower than the impacts of a virgin pure sheep wool sweater.
The main reasons for the reductions in environmental impacts are:
- Recycling wool fabrics means no additional animal farming, which is resource-intensive and can have a high carbon footprint (due to enteric methane emissions from the sheep or goats).
- Manufacturing recycled wool fabrics has lower environmental impacts (as discussed in the manufacturing stage above).
How Circular Are Products Made of 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
Specifically, recycling wool reduces the drain on natural resources, leading to stabilized flock numbers, diminishing methane emissions, and lessening the grazing pressure on pasture lands so they can regenerate.
Wool is the most reused and recyclable fiber in all textile materials, according to Woolmark. Still, the rate of recycling wool is lower than it used to be and what the industry is capable of.
There are three established ways of recycling wool:
- The closed loop system: a mechanical process that returns garments to the raw fiber state and turns the fiber into yarn again to produce recycled wool clothes. The new fabrics can be woven or nonwoven (like Cloudwool).
- The open loop system: the wool from a previous product is used (mostly as it is) for a new product, such as insulation or mattress padding.
- Re-engineering: to make a new product from a used woolen product like a jacket.
There are also emerging chemical recycling systems, though these systems, unlike the three above-described ones, require expanding new technology.
How Can You Buy Recycled Wool Fabrics More Sustainably
The key to sustainably buying recycled wool products is to check on relevant environmental and original certifications.
- 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.
- 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.
- ZQ Merino: This certification system focuses on the quality, sustainability, and ethics of Wool from farm to fashion. They have five core principles they abide by in each step of the wool process: Animal Welfare, Environmental Sustainability, Quality Fiber, Traceable to Source, and Social Responsibility
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 Recycled Wool Fabrics
As we have established throughout the life-cycle assessment, recycled wool fabrics are sustainable textile materials. Yet, we compile for you a list of some of the most sustainable brands selling recycled 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 forth 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 recycled wool 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 recycled wool 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 recycled wool 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 extracted new.
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 cashmere or leather. 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, leather 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 laborers 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.
Recycled wool fabrics are generally sustainable materials. They are made in a mechanical process with reduced environmental impacts, bypassing the high-impact animal farming step required for virgin wool fabrics.
Also, recycling wool is a good way to reduce the volume of textile manufacturing and consumption waste.
To make it even more sustainable:
- While using recycled wool products, maximize the number of wear between washes, and keep the items as long as possible.
- At the end of recycled wool products, upcycle the material to extend its usage if possible. If not, arrange for it to be recycled or properly disposed of.
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Wool Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Science Direct: Life-cycle assessment (LCA)
- MIT SMR: Strategic Sustainability Uses of Life-Cycle Analysis
- European Environment Agency: Cradle-to-Grave
- Science Direct: Cradle-to-Gate Assessment
- Britannica: alpaca | mammal
- Britannica: vicuña| mammal
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Cotton Fabrics? All You Need to Know
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Bamboo Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Nature: Revisiting enteric methane emissions from domestic ruminants and their δ13CCH4 source signature
- Science Direct: Global warming potential
- European Commission: Methane emissions
- CIRCUMFAUNA: Australia is the leading wool exporter, and a leading cotton exporter. So which fibre is more land friendly?
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Cashmere Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- BBC: Why clothes are so hard to recycle
- ROADRUNNER – SMARTER RECYCLING: THE ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS CAUSED BY TEXTILE WASTE
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Organic Wool Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- TEXTILE VALUE CHAIN: UPCYCLING OF PRE-CONSUMER TEXTILES WASTE
- ScienceDirect: Post-Consumer textile waste and disposal: Differences by socioeconomic, demographic, and retail factors
- Bio-based Economy: Textiles for Circular Fashion
- INTERNATIONAL WOOL TEXTILE ORGANISATION: RECYCLED WOOL
- Mateco: HOW IS A RECYCLED WOOL FABRIC MADE?
- MDPI: Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of MWool® Recycled Wool Fibers
- MDPI: Reducing the Environmental Impacts of Garments through Industrially Scalable Closed-Loop Recycling: Life Cycle Assessment of a Recycled Wool Blend Sweater
- Springer Link: Natural Fibres: Advances in Science and Technology Towards Industrial Applications | Review of Wool Recycling and Reuse
- The World in Data: Renewable Energy
- Impactful Ninja: What Is the Carbon Footprint of Renewable Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment
- Impactful Ninja: What Is the Carbon Footprint of Solar Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment
- Impactful Ninja: What Is the Carbon Footprint of Wind Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment
- Impactful Ninja: What Is the Carbon Footprint of Hydropower Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment
- Impactful Ninja: What Is the Carbon Footprint of Geothermal Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment
- Impactful Ninja: What Is the Carbon Footprint of Biomass Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment
- Time for Change: CO2 emissions for shipping of goods
- European Commission: Circular Footprint Formula
- Springer Link: Statistical analysis of use-phase energy consumption of textile products
- Springer Link: Reducing environmental impacts from garments through best practice garment use and care, using the example of a Merino wool sweater
- Woolmark: RESEARCH |Wool reduces body odour
- International Wool Textile Organization: How Wool Reduces Climate Impact
- DE GRUYTER: Wool Wash: Technical Performance and Consumer Habits
- SpringerLink: Environmental impacts associated with the production, use, and end-of-life of a woolen garment
- MDPI: Sustainability | Textiles for Circular Fashion: The Logic behind Recycling Options
- Innovation in Textiles: Research shows wool fabrics biodegrade rapidly
- Merino Wool Gear: The Ultimate Merino Wool Sustainability Guide
- Road: Is wool really the ultimate sustainable choice for cycling kit?
- IWTO: Bioproduct and Fibre Technology Research Case Study: Microfibre Pollution and the Marine Biodegradation of Wool
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation: THE CIRCULAR ECONOMY IN DETAIL
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation: A New Textiles Economy
- Woolmark: WOOL INTERIORS | Closing the loop
- Cloudwool: Pure, local wool is back. And it is better than ever.
- MERINO WOOL GEAR: Smartwool Review and Company Profile
- Textile Exchange: The RCS and GRS are designed to boost the use of recycled materials.
- TEXTILE STANDARDS & LEGISLATION: ZQ Merino
- B Corp Certification: Home
- C2CCertified: Home
- Beaumont Organics
- Organic Basics
- Vitamin A
- Good on You: Greenwashing Examples: 8 Notorious Fast Fashion Claims and Campaigns
- The Guardian: Pulp fabric: everything you need to know about lyocell
- European Parliament: The impact of textile production and waste on the environment (infographic)
- Science Direct: The challenge of “Depeche Mode” in the fashion industry – Does the industry have the capacity to become sustainable through circular economic principles, a scoping review
- Science Direct: Carbon Footprint of Textile and Clothing Products
- European Parliament: Environmental impact of the textile and clothing industry
- European Parliament: What if fashion were good for the planet?
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation: A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future
- McKinsey: Style that’s sustainable: A new fast-fashion formula
- Our World in Data: Deforestation and Forest Loss
- Peta: Animals Used For Clothing