Driven by a vision for and implementation of the opportunities for wool – especially the environmental benefits – The Woolmark Company has an unwavering commitment to research and development. It’s a commitment that is paying off for people and the planet in measurable and sustainable ways.
Earlier this year, The Woolmark Company’s R&D efforts bore fruit in the form a scientific study, “Microfibre Pollution and the Marine Biodegradation of Wool”. The research revealed both untreated and machine washable wool readily biodegrade in marine environments while synthetic fibres do not – which is unlike synthetic and man-made fibres. The implications, that wool does not cause microplastic pollution, is a game-changer for the fashion industry.
This most recent research buttresses other R&D work around improving the health of pastures as well as the health and welfare of sheep. The research also positions wool as a top choice for apparel makers, designers and consumers alike – and anyone who looking to mitigate the harmful impact of microplastics in oceans, on land and on the human body. Wool, in short, has emerged as a solution to a global, destructive problem.
At the heart of the problems is that microplastic particles, including microfibres from synthetic clothing and textiles, are now ubiquitous in aquatic and land-based ecosystems across the world. In fact, it is estimated that 0.6-1.7 million tons of microfibres are released into the ocean every year, with new research by the University of Manchester, recently published in Nature Geoscience, finding the number of microplastic pieces in the world’s waterways is vastly greater than previously thought.
A life long lived
The ubiquitous aspect of these microfibres in the environment is now serving as a wake-up call for the fashion apparel companies. But experts said the industry needs to upgrade how it rates fibres and other textile ingredients to help consumers make better choices.
Most Lifecycle Assessment (LCA) studies for clothing incorrectly assume that garments are immediately landfilled (or disposed of) at the end of their first life phase. A common thread throughout the clothing lifecycle is the opportunity to better inform consumers about what to do with clothing when items are no longer wanted, but also placing greater value on the clothes they buy and wear
It’s important to note that LCA is a young science which is still evolving. It’s widely agreed the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Material Sustainability Index (MSI) will bring consumer attention to the lifecycle of a garment and have a positive effect on the industry. However, many environmental ratings agencies such as the SAC’s MSI do not yet account for important life stages in their environmental rating index. Failing to include key environmental impact stages such as the use phase and garment end-of-life in the MSI ignores the major and urgent problem of fast fashion and so comparisons between fibre types are simply not meaningful.
That’s problematic on many levels. And if this is not addressed, these inconsistencies could guide well-intentioned consumers towards less sustainable clothing choices. A knowledgeable end-user is critical because research has shown that microfibres are released into the environment during the use phase of apparel’s life cycle – meaning when consumers wear and launder their clothing. And this phase is not even considered in the MSI.
Research has found a typical 5-kilogram wash load of polyester fabrics can release more than 6 million microfibres, with much of it destined for the ocean. Apparel made from natural fibres also releases microfibres during washing but in contrast to synthetics, wool has been shown to naturally biodegrade in marine environments. Equally as exciting, especially for those who hate going to the laundry, is that wool garments actually require less washing thanks to the fact it’s resistant to both stains and odour. This not only saves you time, but also money on energy and water bills. It’s win-win.
Failure to account for all life stages is one of the biggest shortcomings of current LCAs. These rating shortcomings aside, there are other attributes of wool that make it a more sustainable choice: There is no other fibre – natural or man-made – that can match all of wool’s inherent benefits.
First, wool is 100 percent natural, renewable and biodegradable and at the end of its life releases valuable nutrients back into the earth when it breaks down, improving soil health. Wool is also one of the most reused and recycled fibre of the common apparel fibre types, which gives wool products multiple lives rather than being destined for landfill.
This up-cycling and re-use includes wool garments – such as a coat – that is passed down through generations and family members. And then, at the very end of its functional life, the fibre in wool garments are highly valued for both open and closed-loop recycling for products such as insulation for mattresses and upholstery for the automotive sector.
It may come as a surprise to learn the Superfine Merino wool heralded by luxury and performance brands is in fact a relatively new fibre. Rising to fame throughout the 90s and 00s, this type of wool has been refined by generations of woolgrowers in Australia to produce a super soft product that’s gentle on even the most sensitive skin. In fact, Superfine Merino wool has actually been scientifically proven to be beneficial to people suffering from chronic skin conditions such as eczema and atopic dermatitis, and other studies have found that wool is not an allergen.
Wool’s compelling story – at every stage of the supply chain – is what has driven innovation and opened new opportunities for the fibre. Long loved by outdoor enthusiasts for its technical performance and eco benefits, recent innovations have seen Merino wool expand the footwear market – with APL releasing a high-performance Merino wool runner – and Kelley Slater’s brand Outerknown unveiling a 100percent Merino wool swim trunk which perfectly marries innovation and nostalgia.
Life on the land
You may have heard the term Regenerative Agriculture, and WWD has reported on it many times. But what does it mean? Basically, regenerative agriculture works to support the environment, with pioneering Australian woolgrowers at the forefront of the regenerative agriculture movement. It involves a holistic farming approach that focuses on developing the biology and fertility of soils as the basis of the entire farm ecosystem. In a nutshell: working with the environment to leave it better-placed for future generations.
Wool from Australia is grown by sheep raised outdoors on very large farms across a diversity of Australian ecological and climatic zones, from the more arid rangelands to the high rainfall tablelands and hills.
These different zones have different Australian native fauna and flora and sheep graze a variety of Australian native and improved exotic pastures. This agricultural approach customises the land use to the land type on each farm, ensuring the land is appropriately managed. Therefore, Australian farmers tend to think of biodiversity within their whole farm rather than specific to an industry.
Healthy soil and happy sheep produce the best wool – and it’s this trifecta which Australian woolgrowers strive for each day, lovingly caring for their sheep in a way that meets the Five Welfare Domains and constantly looking for improvements to be included in their management practices. The Five Welfare Domains are defined as: Nutrition, Environment, Health, Behaviour and Mental State. And since 2001, The Woolmark Company has invested AU$74.5 million into research and development that focuses on health and welfare of sheep.