How Sustainable Are Wool Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
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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.
Wool is a term used for various fibrous materials made from animal hair. The wool industry utilizes many animal species, from the ubiquitous sheep and goats to the lesser-known Alaskan musk ox or Peruvian vicuña. Unsustainable practices have been documented in the systems where these animals are raised, harming living beings and the environment. So, we had to ask: How sustainable are wool fabrics?
Conventional wool is generally unsustainable while recycled and/or organic wool is often sustainable. However, the sustainability of wool fabrics depends largely on animal farming practices. Wool’s main adverse impacts are global warming, land degradation, biodiversity loss, and animal cruelty.
In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of wool fabrics used for clothes and accessories. Then, we evaluate its sustainability, potential, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable products made with wool fabrics.
Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Wool Fabrics
Wool fabrics are made with animal hair: a natural material that readily biodegrades at the end of its life. During the usage phase, wool clothing and household items can be washed sparsely, saving water and energy. Yet, wool fibers are sourced from animal farms, and some farming systems are troublesome, affecting wool fabrics’ sustainability and ethics.
“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 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 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 wool fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments.
|The life-cycle stages of wool fabrics||Each stage’s sustainability|
|Sourcing of wool fabrics||Wool fibers are generally considered a renewable resource. The raw material for wool fabrics comes from the fleece or hair of various animal species. However, the farming systems that raise some of these fiber-providing animals are so damaging that they affect the renewability of the resources they provide.|
Farming practices are also the major factor dictating the environmental impacts of rearing animals for wool and meat. Yet, it is possible to source some types of wool fabrics sustainably.
|Manufacturing of wool fabrics||Manufacturing of wool fabrics is energy and water-intensive, making wool processing less sustainable. The process starts with collecting sheep’s fleeces. In many cases, the shearing is painful and stressful for the animal. The processes that come after fiber collection are mostly mechanical.|
|Transporting of wool fabrics||Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of clothing items made with wool fabrics due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Wool fabrics typically travel from pasture lands, where the sheep’s fleeces are collected, to processing and finishing factories, sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfills.|
|Usage of wool fabrics||The usage of wool 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. Lastly, clothes made with wool generally have a long lifespan.|
|End-of-life of wool fabrics||The end-of-life stage for wool is generally sustainable because untreated wool is fully biodegradable and compostable.|
Overall, we can say wool fabrics are on a spectrum from unsustainable to sustainable. With conventional wool being unsustainable and recycled and/or organic wool often being the most sustainable. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, like a sweater or a pair of socks, depends on more specific factors, including the sourcing of the raw material (animal fleece or hair), the manufacturing process, the transportation distance, and vehicles used during transport.
Conventional wool is ranked class E – the least sustainable fiber class by Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres.
Let’s dive deeper into each life-cycle stage and find out how you can buy wool fabrics more sustainably.
How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Raw Materials for Wool Fabrics
Wool fibers are generally considered a renewable resource. The raw material for wool fabrics comes from the fleece or hair of various animal species. However, the farming systems that raise some of these fiber-providing animals are so damaging that they affect the renewability of the resources they provide.
Farming practices are also the major factor dictating the environmental impacts of rearing animals for wool and meat. Yet, it is possible to source some types of wool fabrics sustainably.
What Raw Materials Are Used for Wool Fabrics
Wool fabrics are made with the hair or fleece of various animals. Following are several types of wool fabrics and the animal hair they use:
- Lamb wool (or virgin wool) is derived from the fleeces of baby sheep’s first shearing
- Merino wool is made with merino sheep’s fleece
- Shetland wool is derived from Shetland sheep, which can be found on the Scottish island of Shetland
- Cashmere wool uses the undercoat of the cashmere goats
- Mohair wool comes from the hair of the Angora goats
- Alpaca wool is made with the hair of alpacas
- Vicuna wool takes the fibers from vicuna – a Peruvian animal species related to alpacas
- Llama wool is derived from the hairy coat of llamas
- Camel wool uses the hair of camels
- Angora wool comes from the fine and soft fur of angora rabbits
- Qiviut wool uses the wooly coat of musk ox species native to Alaska
The sustainability of sourcing the hair or fleece varies significantly depending on the animals and how they are kept and shorn.
In this article, we will focus on wool fabrics made from sheep (and their babies), as these are some of the most common and widely available types of wool. When relevant, you may find examples of other types of animal-derived fibers, mostly in comparison with sheep wool.
How Do the Raw Materials Sourced for Wool Fabrics Impact the Environment
Sheep wool fabrics are made with animal fleece, which is generally considered a renewable resource. However, this raw material bears the environmental impacts of raising sheep, including global warming, land degradation, and biodiversity loss.
Sheep Wool Fibers Can Be Considered A Renewable Resource
A sheep can produce a significant amount of fibers per fleece and repeated harvest throughout its relatively long lifespan.
- The fleece of a sheep can be ready for collection every few months. For example, farmers can shear sheep of certain breeds as frequently as 2 to 3 months.
- On average, each sheep yields about 10 lbs of wool a year, enough for about 6 sweaters.
- A sheep lives from 10 to 12 years. And in the case of merino sheep, will be able to produce enough wool for over 100 garments containing around 1 lb each. (Note that merino sheep breeds tend to have a higher fiber yield.)
It’s noteworthy that the renewability of fibers from sheep fleece is also thanks to their population: There are about 1.2 billion sheep worldwide, spreading over upland habitats on all continents.
However, the situation varies depending on animal species and not all are equally sustainable. For example:
- Vicuña is an animal species living exclusively in Peru. Vicuña wool is the most expensive type of wool, partly because of its limited availability.
- Cashmere goats, which provide fibers for cashmere wool, live in very specific geological locations in Central Asia and the Gobi desert. Climate change and land degradation have made these exclusive locations increasingly unsuitable for large herds of cashmere goats, leading to these fibers becoming a non-renewable resource.
Sheep Farming Emits Methane – A Potent Greenhouse Gas
Wool fabrics’ sourcing stage (aka the sheep farming) has a high global warming potential, generally many times higher than other textile materials made with plant fibers. The reason is the sheep and their way of digesting food:
- Sheep, and other ruminant animals, 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.
For example, a knitted jumper made with 12 ounces of Australian wool has a sourcing carbon footprint 27 times higher than that of a knitted jumper made with Australian cotton fibers.
In absolute value, the farming stage of (Australian) wool fabrics has a carbon footprint of 24.9 kg CO2 -eq per kilogram unit of greasy wool at the farm gate, according to a life-cycle assessment. Direct emission of methane from the sheep accounts for a significant share (86%) of all GHG emissions of the farming stage. Other emission sources include animal wastes and fertilizer inputs.
Some researchers also look into the way pasture lands sequester carbon in the soil and vegetation. They suggest that the amount of carbon sequestered could be deducted from the total emissions over the full life-cycle. (The deduction is equivalent to 4% for each successive wool production year over 100 years.)
Land Occupation of Sheep Farming Could Have Serious Ecological Consequences
Raising sheep takes up a lot of land.
For example, considering the stocking rate in Australia, 109 acres (44.04 hectares) of land are needed to raise the sheep to get enough wool fibers for one bale. That is 367 times more land than would be required for a bale of cotton – a plant fiber.
However, Australia has a relatively low stocking rate compared with northern hemisphere countries or other wool-producing nations such as New Zealand. Thus, sheep farming in Australia requires more land per animal in absolute numbers.
On the other hand, a low density of sheep reduces the risk of overgrazing, which could lead to pasture lands not being able to recover, degraded and eroded, and biodiversity loss.
It is important to note that not all lands are equal regarding the ecological consequences of using the land. For example, pastures set up on non-arable grounds, which are not suitable for growing crops, are different from pastures obtained through clearing bio-diverse forests.
Sheep Farming Contaminates The Grounds and Waterways
With the increasingly large sheep flocks, excessive amounts of manure and other toxins enter the ground, degrading soil quality and contaminating waterways. This contributes to problems like eutrophication.
Also, the toxic chemical “sheep dip,” used to kill parasites, often overflows into the surrounding water bodies and grounds.
According to a life-cycle assessment using the Ecoinvent database, the shares of the sourcing stage (or sheep farming) are significant in several impact categories from cradle to factory gate. Specifically,
- Sheep farming accounts for around 85% of the total climate change impact
- Rearing sheep causes almost all human toxicity up to the point when finished wool products leave the processing factory
- The share of sheep farming in the freshwater ecotoxicity impact is around 95%
- Sheep farming also accounts for about 80% of the total freshwater eutrophication impact
It is important to note that the above-mentioned adverse environmental impacts often come from worst-case scenarios for sheep farming: high density of sheep on pasture lands, overgrazing, and failure to properly handle the agricultural waste. However, some farming practices don’t damage the land but help restore it, from which sheep wool can be sourced sustainably.
For example, regenerative farming practices could improve soil health (instead of degrading the ground), resulting in more carbon sequestration. Some examples of these agricultural practices that sheep farmers can do are as followings:
- Planting native trees in pasture lands
- Confining flocks to specific areas and letting the grass and other plants regrow in other parts of the land before the sheep graze there again. This practice is called rotational grazing.
- Composting of sheep manure to sequester carbon
- Growing crops in pastures to improve biodiversity and soil health
- Removing pollutants from waterways
According to a life-cycle assessment comparing the carbon footprint of garments produced in various farming systems, good land management helps increase carbon sequestration. Consequently, garments made with fibers produced on land well-managed have lower carbon footprints (cradle to grave). When all other elements are similar, the difference between good land management and conventional land management is a 60% decrease in carbon footprint.
Where Are the Raw Materials for Wool Fabrics Usually Sourced From
The wool industry produces around 1,949 million kg (2021) of raw wool from a global flock of approximately 1.2 billion sheep.
Because of the methane sheep belch as they eat, sheep production results in high emissions of greenhouse gas. The GHG emissions from all Australian sheep are equivalent to burning fossil fuels to supply energy for one-million homes for a whole year.
Another issue with sheep farming is land degradation and desertification caused by overgrazing. In several sheep-rearing countries, many areas are so degraded that the grounds can no longer be productive.
For example, the Patagonia region of Argentina was once incredibly rich in species and now contains stretched-out deserts empty of life, all because of sheep ranching. In the area, roughly 20m acres have become so deteriorated that they are abandoned.
- The Australian native Tasmanian tigers were blamed for sheep deaths and, consequently, brought to extinction by the wool industry.
- Dingoes, another species native to Australia, are often poisoned, trapped, and shot by the wool industry.
- Coyotes and kangaroos are routinely killed by sheep breeders.
How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Wool Fabrics
Manufacturing of wool fabrics is energy and water-intensive, making wool processing less sustainable. The process starts with collecting sheep’s fleeces. In many cases, the shearing is painful and stressful for the animal. The processes that come after fiber collection are mostly mechanical.
How Sustainably Are Wool Fabrics Generally Manufactured
Here are the standard steps in manufacturing wool fabrics:
- Collecting the fibers from the sheep: This can be done by shearing the whole fleece of the animal. Depending on the breed and the farm practices, shearing could happen once or multiple times a year.
- Scouring: The raw fibers (“greasy” wool) are cleaned to remove dirt, impurities, and other organic matter. Lanolin oil, secreted from the sheep’s skin, makes wool greasy. Most large wool producers use chemical catalysts to remove lanolin from the hair, though there are other ways.
- Carding: Wool fibers are sorted into grades and combed into long, thin strings.
- Spinning: The carded fibers are fed into a spinning machine, which twists the wool fibers to form yarn.
- Weaving or knitting: The wool yarn is (plain- or twill-) woven or knitted into fabric.
- Finishing and post-treatment: The fabric is occasionally dyed and subject to chemical treatments. Some post-production finishing treatments include:
- Fulling: a process in which the wool fabrics are immersed in water to make the fibers interlock
- Crabbing: a process that permanently sets this interlocking of fibers
The manufacturing process of wool fabrics is relatively standard for textiles made with natural fibers. In most cases, wool manufacturing doesn’t involve toxic synthetic chemicals. However, mechanical processes require energy and water resources.
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.
For example, according to a life-cycle assessment of a merino wool sweater, manufacturing accounts for 47.7% of fossil fuel use and 23.5% of greenhouse gas emissions across the whole value chain (cradle-to-grave).
A change to renewable energy will reduce the carbon footprint of this step. Organic waste from wastewater treatment during the scouring processes could be one source of generating renewable energy.
Wool Manufacturing Causes Wastewater Pollution
Scouring and dyeing are the key processes causing wastewater pollution.
The scouring removes grease, pesticides, and other organic matter (including feces) from the fleece. To wash and clean the wool, potent cleaning agents and a large quantity of water (which needs heating up to 150oF to melt to wool wax or grease).
Chemicals and organic matter may become suspended in the wastewater after scouring. If not treated properly, they contaminate the freshwater supply. One study found that the average wastewater from wool scouring contains as much as 291 times more pollutants than fresh (or blue) water.
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 wool fabric producers.
Where Are Wool Fabrics Usually Manufactured
Australia is the world’s leading exporter of wool fibers, but China claims the first place in processing wool fibers into wool fabrics.
- New Zealand
- United Kingdom and Northern Ireland
- South Africa
Let’s look into the sustainable and ethical issues associated with these countries’ wool fabrics production.
Animal Cruelty Is Widespread At Sheep Farms
The ethics of using wool is tainted with the widespread mistreatment of the sheep.
Sheep have been increasingly bred to maximize the amount of wool they carry. Merino breeds, for example, are engineered for wrinkly skin to increase the surface area for hair. This unnatural overload of wool causes many sheep to collapse and even die of heat exhaustion during hot months
While carrying a thicker coat of hair, sheep are at a higher risk of flystrike – a condition in which maggots eat the sheep alive. The area under the tail is extremely vulnerable for flies to lay eggs, which turn into larvae.
To deal with flystrike, some farmers perform a procedure called “mulesing,” in which they remove the wooly skin near the buttocks of a sheep.
- Mulesing is an extremely painful procedure for sheep, especially when it is often done without painkillers.
- The cruel practice of “mulesing” is banned in New Zealand, yet still available in Australia – home to the world’s largest flocks of sheep.
- Flystrike can be avoided thanks to regular checking, shearing around the buttocks of a sheep, and other interventions. However, these practices take time and are not feasible (or profitable) with a very large flock of sheep.
Other mistreatments of sheep include:
- ‘Tail docking’ (chopping off a lamb’s tail)
- Kicking, punching, swearing aiming at the sheep while shearing the fleece
- Sewing up cuts caused by shearing without painkillers
Even though the natural lifespan of sheep is around 10 to 12 years, many sheep are killed when they reach 5 or 6 years old because they no longer produce high-quality fibers.
Moreover, many sheep are left to die at their lamb stage due to the wool industry selectively breeding for twins and triplets to quickly increase the flock size.
- Twins and triplets are more likely to be smaller, weaker, and unable to withstand the harsh conditions they are born into.
- It is also much more difficult for the ewes to feed twins and triplets.
- Sheep are increasingly bred for lambing in the winter (instead of spring as nature dictates). Winter-born lambs are more cost-effective because the lambs can be fattened up quickly with green grass in the spring. However, winter-born lambs have to face much harsher conditions. Furthermore, smaller twins or triplets are more vulnerable to death from exposure to the cold.
GHG Emissions During Manufacturing Wool Fabrics Vary Depending on Location
According to Our World in Data, the shares of renewable energy in primary energy in wool-producing nations vary significantly. The difference between the wool-producing country with the highest percentage of renewable energy (New Zealand) and the wool-producing country with the lowest share of renewable energy (Iran) is a staggering 31 times.
Specifically, renewable energy shares in the top 10 wool producers are as followings:
- China: 14.95% renewable energy
- Australia: 12.93% renewable energy
- New Zealand: 40.22% renewable energy
- Turkey: 16.52% renewable energy
- United Kingdom and Northern Ireland: 17.95% renewable energy
- Morocco: 7.64% renewable energy
- Iran: 1.29% renewable energy
- Russia: 6.62% renewable energy
- South Africa: 3.41% renewable energy
- India: 9.31% renewable energy
The production of wool fabrics, including fiber production at the farm level and textile processing at the factory level, accumulates high environmental impacts in many categories. Up to the factory gate, wool fabrics are high-impact materials.
Conventional wool is ranked class E – the least sustainable fiber class by Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres.
However, this benchmark doesn’t consider wool’s usage phase and end-of-life options, which are much more environmentally favorable (as we will explain later) than many other textile materials. Also, the benchmark doesn’t cover organic and recycled wool fabrics.
How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Wool Fabrics
Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of clothing items made with wool fabrics due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Wool fabrics typically travel from pasture lands, where the sheep’s fleeces are collected, to processing and finishing factories, sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfills.
In the life-cycle of wool clothing items, transportation typically occurs as below:
- From grasslands, where the sheep’s fleeces are collected, to yarn factories
- From yarn factories to textile manufacturers
- From textile manufacturers 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
Traveling Distances of Wool Fabrics Vary Depending on the Supply Chain
It is not uncommon for 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 wool fabrics:
- Wool manufacturers can source the fleece from Australia, ship it to China to be scoured, Vietnam to be spun, Cambodia for garment-making, and finally across the Pacific for US consumers.
- The fleece is collected from wool sheep in Argentina and processed in South Africa before selling to consumers worldwide.
- Wool manufacturers source fibers in New Zealand and turn them into woolen products in Italy, which are sold mainly in Europe.
You can reduce the transporting carbon footprint by choosing wool fabrics that travel shorter distances.
The Carbon Footprint of Transporting Wool Fabrics Depends Largely on the Vehicle of Transportation
During its life-cycle, a piece of 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, as a consumer, you can choose not to pick the fast delivery option when ordering wool clothing items and accessories to reduce the carbon footprint of your order.
According to a life-cycle assessment of a merino wool sweater, the shares of transportation in several impact categories across the whole value chain (cradle-to-grave) are as followings:
- Transportation accounts for 12.6% of the total fossil fuel requirement
- Transportation accounts for 5.2% of the total global warming impact
- Transportation accounts for 3.6 % of the total freshwater usage
How Sustainable Is the Usage of Wool Fabrics
The usage of wool 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. Lastly, clothes made with wool generally have a long lifespan.
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%.
According to a life-cycle assessment of a merino wool sweater, the use phase was a significant contributor to its environmental impacts. The shares of this usage stage in several impact categories across the whole value chain (cradle-to-grave) are as followings:
- Usage accounts for 30.4% of the total fossil fuel requirement
- Usage accounts for 13.4% of the total global warming impact
- Usage accounts for 37.1 % of the total freshwater usage
How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Wool Fabrics
The end-of-life stage for wool 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.
According to a study by researchers in New Zealand, when burial in soil, merino wool fabrics degrade quickly:
- 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.
A 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 wool is sometimes blended with other materials for durability and performance. Mixing materials would normally hinder biodegradability and the opportunities for recycling.
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
Recycling wool fabrics involves putting wool waste, both pre-and post-consumer, back into the supply chain, either as standalone garments or materials serving other purposes like insulation. Cloudwool, for example, is a nonwoven textile made with supposed wool fiber “waste.”
Wool is the most reused and recyclable fibers in all textile materials, according to Wool Mark.
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.
How Can You Buy Wool Fabrics More Sustainably
The key to sustainably buying wool products is to check on relevant environmental and original certifications.
- 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 sheeps are raised).
- The Responsible Wool Standard (RWS): An all-encompassing wool certification that ensures all facilities and aspects of Merino production are held to the highest standards. It covers everything from farms, top makers, spinners, fabric mills, garment makers, and even the retailers themselves.
- Woolmark Certification: Woolmark certification is for wool products that were made using sustainable and cruelty-free methods.
- 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
- 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 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 wool fabrics)
- Certified Organic Wool: Wool produced following federal standards for organic livestock production as described in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Standards. (For organic wool fabrics)
- Certified Animal Welfare Approved: A Greener World (AGW) has the most rigorous standards for farm animal welfare and environmental sustainability across the globe. AGW’s Certified Animal Welfare Approved standards have been developed in collaboration with scientists, veterinarians, researchers, and farmers around the world to maximize practicable, high-welfare farm management with the environment in mind.
- IWTO Specifications for Wool Sheep Welfare: Specifications developed by the wool-growing country members of IWTO.
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 Wool Fabrics
We have established throughout the life-cycle assessment that wool fabrics are on a spectrum from unsustainable to sustainable. Unsustainable wool fabrics are associated with farming systems promoting overgrazing, land degradation, and biodiversity loss.
However, some wool producers and clothing manufacturers address the above challenges in their sourcing and production and/or opt for recycling materials instead of strain on natural resources and organic farming to reduce pollution. Here, we compile for you a list of such sustainable brands selling recycled and/or organic wool fabrics (in alphabetic order):
- Armadillo Merino
- Helly Hansen
- People Tree
- Unbound Merino
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 wool or 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, 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.
Wool fabrics are on a spectrum from unsustainable to sustainable, largely depending on the farming systems in which animals are raised for their hair or fleece.
Wool fabrics are generally made from renewable resources. They are breathable and odor-resistant, leading to a low-impact usage phase. At the end of their life, they are readily biodegradable and suitable for composting.
Also, it is possible to produce wool sustainably and ethically, with controlled grazing, animal wellbeing considerations, and less fossil fuel dependency.
To make it even more sustainable:
- Buy second-hand, recycled, or upcycled wool clothing items and accessories.
- While using wool products, maximize the number of wear between washes, and keep the items as long as possible.
- At the end of wool products, upcycle the material to extend its usage, and arrange for it to be recycled or properly disposed of.
- 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
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Merino Wool Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- SHETLAND SHEEP SOCIETY: Home
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Cashmere Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Sewport: What is Mohair Wool Fabric: Properties, How its Made and Where
- Britannica: alpaca | mammal
- Britannica: vicuña| mammal
- NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC: Llama
- WORLD’S FINEST WOOL: Camel Hair
- Britannica: angora rabbit | mammal
- Britannica: musk ox| mammal
- Your Sustainable Guide: What is Merino Wool? Is it Really Sustainable?
- Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nation| FAOSTAT: Crops and livestock products
- Sheep101: Home
- Merino Wool Gear: The Ultimate Merino Wool Sustainability Guide
- AUSTRALIAN ASSOCIATION OF STUD MERINO BREEDERS: Evolution of the Australian Merino
- INTERNATIONAL WOOL TEXTILE ORGANISATION: WOOL SUPPLY CHAIN
- CFDA: CASHMERE
- 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 climate friendly?
- Research Gate: Greenhouse gas emissions profile for 1 kg of wool produced in the Yass Region, New South Wales: A Life Cycle Assessment approach
- Science Direct: Journal of Cleaner Production: Resource use and greenhouse gas emissions from three wool production regions in Australia
- CIRCUMFAUNA: Australia is the leading wool exporter, and a leading cotton exporter. So which fibre is more land friendly?
- How Sustainable Are Cotton Fabrics? All You Need to Know
- Science Direct: Journal of Cleaner Production: Aquatic eutrophication indicators in LCA: Methodological challenges illustrated using a case study in New Zealand
- THE RANGELAND JOURNAL: Building Grass Castles: Integrating Ecology and Management of Australia’s Tropical Tallgrass Rangelands.
- Science Direct: Eutrophication
- Sewport: What is Wool Fabric: Properties, How its Made and Where
- Ecoinvent: Database | Textile
- Universidade do Porto: LIFE CYCLE ASSESSMENT OF TWO TEXTILE PRODUCTS| WOOL AND COTTON
- Woolmark: Regenerative agriculture
- Fibershed: Greenhouse gas costs and benefits from land-based textile production
- CFDA: WOOL
- Sewport: What is Merino Wool Fabric: Properties, How its Made and Where
- The Nature Conservancy: Wool: Patagonia’s White Gold
- The Guardian: Can sheep restore Patagonia’s grasslands?
- Collective Fashion Justice: Shear Destruction Wool, Fashion and the Biodiversity Crisis
- DEFEND THE WILD: Misguided and lethal dingo ‘control’
- Science Direct: Lanolin
- Springer Link: Environmental impacts associated with the production, use, and end-of-life of a woollen garment
- Scientific.Net: Publisher in Materials Science & Engineering: The Water Footprint of Wool Scouring
- WoolWise: Wool Scouring Principles and Methods
- WorldAtlas: The World’s Top 10 Wool Producing Countries
- SOUTH AFRICAN JOURNAL OF SCIENCE: SKIN FOLDS IN THE MERINO SHEEP.
- MAKE FASHION BETTER: Is Wool Sustainable?
- Wiley Online Library: AUSTRALIAN VETERINARY JOURNAL: Control of sheep flystrike: what’s been tried in the past and where to from here
- PETA: Victory! New Zealand Bans Mulesing Mutilations of Sheep
- GOVERNMENT OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA: Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development: Managing flystrike in sheep
- Collective Fashion Justice: Shear Destruction Wool, Fashion and the Biodiversity Crisis
- Good On You: Material Guide: How Sustainable and Ethical Is Wool?
- Collective Fashion Justice: Issues in the wool supply chain
- GOVERNMENT OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA: Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development: Time of lambing
- 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
- The World in Data: Renewable Energy
- Common Objective: Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres
- Time for Change: CO2 emissions for shipping of goods
- 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
- Innovation in Textiles: Research shows wool fabrics biodegrade rapidly
- 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
- MERINO WOOL GEAR: Smartwool Review and Company Profile
- Cloudwool: Pure, local wool is back. And it is better than ever.
- Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): Home
- Textile Exchange: The Responsible Wool Standard aims to improve the welfare of sheep and the land they graze on.
- Woolmark Certification: Home
- TEXTILE STANDARDS & LEGISLATION: ZQ Merino
- Textile Exchange: The RCS and GRS are designed to boost the use of recycled materials.
- Organic Trade Association: Organic Wool Fact Sheet
- A GREENER WORLD: AWA Standards | Certified Animal Welfare Approved by AGW
- International Wool Textile Organization: IWTO Specifications for Wool Sheep Welfare
- B Corp Certification: Home
- C2CCertified: Home
- Armadillo Merino
- Helly Hansen
- People Tree
- Unbound Merino
- 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