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Wool is part of the natural carbon cycle

In South Africa, we have been experiencing severe drought during the last couple of years. At the same time around the world, many countries are experiencing similar heat waves and droughts combined with extreme storms and floods. During the 136 years of weather recording, seventeen of the 18 warmest years have occurred since 2001. These severe weather patterns are commonly summarised as climate change. As geological findings demonstrate, climate change has occurred throughout the history of this planet. However, this time 90% of all climate researchers are certain that the current change in climate is happening due to human activity.

This leads quickly to the question of which human activity is the highest contributor to climate change? Many news media repeatedly report that livestock is the greatest contributor to climate change. In fact, there is one particular number being (falsely and repeatedly) mentioned, claiming that 18% of GHG emissions come from livestock and that these livestock emissions are higher than all transport combined.

In this blog post, we want to look at this statement more closely and provide you with the context, the bigger picture, and the correct figures.

Biogenic Carbon – Wool is part of a natural carbon cycle

All livestock such as sheep and cattle are part of a natural carbon cycle. You may remember from your biology class, that CO2 is a natural gas present in our atmosphere and is needed for photosynthesis. In fact, each year 155 billion tons of atmospheric carbon is converted to biomass carbon (also called biogenic carbon) which are in simpler terms plants, grass, and trees.

Sheep eat biogenic carbon, in the form of grass and shrubs and other plants. Their digestive system then turns the grass partially into the amino acids of the wool fibre and partially carbon and methane gases which return into the atmosphere. In fact, 50% of the weight of clean wool is made up of pure biogenic carbon. Wool is in some way a special form of carbon storage until it biodegrades and returns the carbon back to the soil. The CO2 and methane gases which the sheep releases through its digestive system are returned to the atmosphere and can be turned back into biogenic carbon through photosynthesis.

Synthetics are made of fossilised carbon

All synthetic textile fibres such as polyester, acrylic or nylon are made of crude oil. Crude oil, along with gas and coal is fossilised carbon. Fossilised carbon is excess biogenic carbon which nature has stored away into long-term storage over the millennia. We humans have started to add this long term carbon storage back into the atmosphere during the last 150 years since the first oil wells were found in 1870. 60% of this additional carbon can be absorbed through photosynthesis and oceanic storage. However, the remaining 40% stays in the atmosphere and heats up our planet.

With synthetic fibres the issue is that the fibres do not biodegrade but instead only break down into small microfibres polluting our soil and water (read more about biodegradation here).
However, the largest amount of carbon emissions is generated by energy production and consumption as well as transportation (cars, planes, etc.). This brings us back to the comparison mentioned above of who emits more greenhouse gases, livestock or transport? This topic also brings us back to Life Cycle Assessment, which we have been talking about in our blog series.

False numbers with a long shelf life

In 2006, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), a United Nations organisation, published the famous number claiming livestock contributes to 18% of GHG emissions. FAO added in their report that this was more than the transportation sector.
Since then, FAO has revised these numbers because further research showed that they were incorrect. How did this happen?

FAO had conducted a full LCA of livestock. This means they had included the whole life cycle of the livestock supply chain from farm to the grave. This included GHG emissions from the production of fertilisers, pesticides, plant emissions, feed production, manure, digestive emissions, slaughter, transport, industrial food processing etc. Based on the LCA methodologies available in 2006, the number of 18% was actually quite well calculated. However, the error FAO made back then was in not doing a full-fledged LCA for the transportation industry and instead just using the tailpipe emissions from different vehicles. In other words, the calculations for the transport industry did not include extruding of oil, transportation of oil, emissions from refineries, manufacturing of cars, planes and other transportation vehicles, use and recycling of vehicles. The numbers were not comparable.

In the meantime, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has published numbers that only look at the direct emissions of livestock (manure and digestive gases) and transport (tailpipe emissions). These numbers identify livestock to contributing 5% of all GHG emissions while transport contributes 14%.
So far, researchers have not been able to calculate the full emissions based on the life cycle of transport as there is not enough data available. However, the life cycle emissions for livestock have been updated based on improved LCA methodologies and are calculated to be 14,5%, if all inputs and outputs are being considered.

The next time you hear or read the news claiming livestock are the largest contributor to climate change, you will know that the reporter behind the news item didn’t do his research well as he is citing outdated numbers.

When it comes to choosing a new garment, you will be able to make better choices for yourself and the planet.

Reduce your own environmental impact with wool

We all love our (Core) merino wool garments because we love how comfortable wool makes us feel. However, at Core Merino we like to argue that there is another reason to love having wool in our closets and in our life: Wool helps us reduce our own environmental impact and therefore live a more sustainable life – something our planet urgently needs from all of us right now.

What do we mean by that? As you know, everything we humans do or use has an environmental impact in some way or the other. The same is true for our clothes as we need to regularly wash, dry and iron them. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) research shows that the use phase of our clothes has actually the highest environmental impact compared to the production and manufacturing stages of a garment.

The environmental impact comes from water and energy use as well as the use of detergents and other chemicals. Just think about how often you wash your clothes (e.g. after one wear) and other home textiles such as towels and bed linen?

The good news is, however, that the use phase is exactly where each and every one of us can get active to reduce our own environmental impact. And surprise, surprise, we can reduce our impact by wearing wool. Let’s dive into the details.

No need to wash – that often

The research identified that we typically wash our wool clothes less often compared to other clothes. On average a wool garment is worn 3 times before thrown in the washing machine compared to a cotton t-shirt being washed after 1,5 wears. The need to wash wool garments less often, is based on some of wool’s natural properties. Let’s have a closer look at some of them.

Wool is odour resistant

We hope you already noticed it, but if you haven’t let us tell you, that you will not so easily stink in your merino wool clothes. This is due to several characteristics of wool. First of all, wool moves heat and moisture away from your skin meaning less sweat can get in contact with the naturally existing bacteria on your skin. In addition, wool does not absorb nor release odours leaving your garments to smell less. If your wool garments don’t smell you can wear them multiple times before having to wash them.

Wool is stain resistant

Another cool characteristic of wool is that it is naturally stain resistant due to its hydrophobic properties. This means when you spill something like coffee or tomato sauce on your wool garment, the stain is not soaked in by wool but just sits on top of it. This makes it very easy to wipe off with a wet cloth. If you do get a little bit of a stain, tapping it with a wet cloth can often do the trick. Being easily able to avoid stains on your wool garment means you do not need to throw it into the wash that often.

Freshen up in air not water

Over the last few decades, we have become quite used to thinking that cleaning a garment from odours and stains means washing it in water. However, when it comes to wool, cleaning it with water is not always the best choice. The best cleaning method for wool is actually hanging in fresh air. Fresh air is the best way to remove odours from wool garments.

These three factors of odour and stain resistance in addition to cleaning wool in the fresh air lead to wool garments needing less washing. If you can get more wears out of your wool garments you will be able to save water, energy, washing liquids as well as money and your precious time.

Cleaning methods for wool

Another area to look into when trying to reduce our own environmental impact are the cleaning methods used. We already mentioned the advantage of air cleaning earlier on but wool also has its benefits when it comes to our home appliances.

Lower washing temperatures

Looking at the care label of your Core merino wool garments will show you that the recommended washing temperature is either cold or 30°C. Wash cycles on low temperatures use less energy, which is better for our climate.

Drying temperatures

The care label will also recommend that you do not tumble dry your Core merino garment but rather line or flat dry it. Tumble dryers use a very high amount of energy. Being able to save this will further reduce your own environmental impact.

Wool cycle

One more thing your care label will say is that the Core merino garment should be washed on a wool cycle, a feature most of today’s washing machines have. A wool cycle will run on lower temperatures as mentioned above but will also use less water and have a much shorter set time compared to other cycles. Less water and less time, meaning less energy used, will decrease your impact even further.

Durability

The last factor to look at when it comes to ways of reducing our environmental impact with wool is how long the garment will last. On average the lifespan of a wool t-shirt is 6 years, compared to 3.8 years of a cotton t-shirt. This is due to wool being a very durable fibre. It can be bent many times before it may break.

You may ask why durability is important when we wish to reduce our environmental impact? The longer garments last, the longer we can use them and do not need to replace them with a new garment. This saves additional resources and energy needed to produce the new garment. So while our business is to sell wool garments, we do hope you love, use and wear your Core merino garment for a very long time.

We hope this gives you some inspiration about what you can do for our planet by including more wool garments in your wardrobe. While there are many big environmental challenges we as a society need to solve, choosing clothes made of natural, long-lasting fibres like wool also helps our planet. As Vivienne Westwood once said: Choose well, choose wool.