Bronte Moon, a wool manufacturer, has published an article arguing that wool is better than cotton. They cite the durability and other characteristics of wool as the reason for its superiority, with wool being;
- Warmer and keeps you insulated in the winter
- Has wicking properties that keep moisture away from your skin
- Is naturally flame retardant
- Has antimicrobial properties making it odor resistant
They also mention the durability of wool, which significantly extends the life cycle of a product; “wool fibers are extremely durable and flexible; they can be bent up to 20,000 times without breaking. In comparison, cotton fibers break after 3,000 bends, silk fibers after 2,000 bends, and rayon fibers after only 75 bends”.
Sustainable fashion is all about quality garments that can be worn again and again. If a product is of high quality and can be worn more times before it breaks down, this is excellent for sustainability. Wool is also a natural material, so if fibres come loose in the washing machine, or the garment needs to be thrown away, it will degrade.
From this perspective, wool has the potential to create a garment that is sustainable. But what matters more for the environment, is how the wool products are made, and the environmental impact of the supply chain.
Environmental impacts of wool
Sheep require a huge amount of space and produce large amounts of methane gas. In New Zealand a significant proportion of greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock animals, mostly sheep.
Wool production also contributes to soil erosion, land desertification and water contamination, plus the negatives if chemicals are used to treat the wool to make it wearable.
Animal abuse and cruelty
Wool comes from sheep. Though we would like to think of happy sheep being sheared on a grassy farm, without welfare standards in place wool usually operates as a highly industrialised factory farming model, like most animal agriculture. Welfare is not a priority when the product needs to be turned around quickly and abundantly. When animals are used as commodities and kept for profit, it is inevitable that they will end up being misused and mistreated along the line.
Investigations by PETA have found numerous cases of abuse. Sheep are bred to have skin folds because with more skin on them they produce more wool. This problem leads to pests festering inside them including flystrike, which gave rise to an inhumane mutilation practice cutting sheeps skin and flesh called ‘mulesing’.
Unless explicitly stated otherwise, these mutilations are usually common practice and are conducted with no painkillers. After suffering throughout production, wool sheep are eventually sent to slaughter. The wool industry is part of the objectification and commodification of animals, treating them as property not as sentient beings. It is not cruelty free.
Could wool be produced ethically?
Wool is durable, natural and renewable and it has the potential to biodegrade. These are all important eco-credentials. In theory it is possible for it to be a more ethical material with native breeds on native soil and never being slaughtered, but that would raise prices of wool but currently it is mass produced and in most cases the supply chain is not traceable.
Having said this, Bronte Moon’s sustainability page outlines their approach, saying that their Yorkshire Mill sources “the vast majority of their wool from mulesing-free countries” from farms “annually audited under a number of criteria, covering areas such as animal welfare, land management and social impact”. Here, Bronte Moon has tried to balance a need for sustainability within a profitable business model, which is much better than other wool suppliers.
They have made additional commitments, such as using 10% solar energy, aiming to be single use plastic free by 2022 and implementing zero waste principles by capturing fibres that come loose in manufacturing processes, and recycling them into isolation and/or carpeting underlay. These are important to recognise, as sustainability is an all encompassing attitude and not something that should be isolated to how a fabric performs.
A perfect sustainable company would own and oversee their sheep directly to ensure supply chain transparency and awareness. They might even rescue a herd from slaughter, like Isobel Davis, owner of Izzy Lane, but it is not easy to become perfect overnight. Therefore, efforts to be more transparent and environmentally conscious will always be welcome and shouldn’t be attacked.
Wool compared to cotton
Conventional cotton is environmentally harmful because of the use of pesticides and insecticides used. Sadly, this makes cotton one of the most treated agricultural crops in the world. This chemical use creates negative impacts on land and water which can affect biodiversity and our own health through drinking water and eating fish. Cotton also takes an incredibly large amount of land and water to produce, amounting to a low yield per acre – of 800 lbs.
Cotton is not the best quality fibre out there, but it can be composted and actively recycled using specific programs. Additionally, organic cotton is far better for the planet than conventional cotton [link to our blog]. Plus, at the moment, organic cotton is one of the few strong competitors for a fabric that can keep up with mass production and provide affordable fashion.
Bronte Moon were right to highlight that cotton is not necessarily as good as marketing like ‘The Fabric of Our Lives’ might make it seem, as this is the way sustainable businesses can hold each other to account, and rally together for change.
What makes a fabric sustainable?
Just because something is natural and has the ability to biodegrade does not mean that it is more sustainable. It is very difficult for wool to be sustainable when it necessarily is part of the animal agriculture industry which uses more land and energy than plant agriculture and also pollutes and involves cruel practices.
It is always going to be more sustainable to take a plant and turn it into a fabric, than take an animal and plants together, which involves the environmental costs of methane, transportation, urine, feaces, antibiotic use, housing and slaughter.
Considering this aspect in particular, it would be safe to conclude that in most cases, organic cotton is superior to wool in terms of sustainability.