What is the environmental impact of wool?
Understanding Life Cycle Assessment for wool
Part of our motivation of being active outdoors is that we get to enjoy our beautiful environment. Because of our love for mother nature, we are also very much concerned with protecting it. This often starts with questioning and changing our own behaviour like saving water or energy. When it comes to our clothes, however, it becomes harder to understand what clothes and fibres are especially environmentally friendly. In other words, how do we know if clothes made out of wool or cotton or synthetics are better for the environment?
How does wool rate in environmental bench-marking tools?
To solve this question, there are different environmental fibre bench-marking tools available. These rating tools look at certain parameters to calculate the environmental impact of the fibre. A look at these tools, however, leaves us often surprised when it comes to the rating of wool. The environmental bench-marking tool by the organisation Made-By, for example, places wool in the worst category. Now, to everyone who knows and loves wool, this will seem counter intuitive as wool is a natural, renewable and sustainable fibre. To better understand what is going on, we want to bring some light into this mystery. Over the next couple of months, we will look deeper into the environmental rating of wool and publish what we find in our ‘Core Explorer’ blog posts. Let’s get started right now!
Life Cycle Assessment is the basis for measuring the environmental impact
To better understand the situation, we need to understand the technique of Life Cycle Assessment in short LCA. The International Standards Organisation (ISO) officially defines LCA as a technique used to assess the environmental impacts of products, processes or services. These impacts are being assessed along all stages of the supply chain.
For wool this means an LCA would look at the environmental impacts of the beginning of the wool processing supply chain such as sheep farms, washing (also called scouring), combing, spinning and knitting of wool. Furthermore, it would look how the fibre then gets turned into a garment, gets transported by sea, air, rail or truck and then is being sold at retail. In addition, it would also look at the use phase of how we wash our products and how long we wear them. Finally, the LCA would also consider the disposal phase, meaning if we throw our garment into the bin, donate it to charity or give it for recycling. Overall this is called the life cycle from cradle to grave.
LCA is complex and difficult to measure
So far the theory, but as always in life, things are not always so simple in reality. Measuring all impacts along the entire wool supply chain is complex and difficult. Sheep production systems vary from region to region not to mention from country to country. For example, wool growers will have different sheep breeds or have different feed available for their sheep. Some sheep rear on extensive paddocks all year round while other sheep only rear on grasslands during summer and are kept in sheep sheds during cold winter months. Manufacturing plants also vary widely depending on the location and age of the production plant. How we as owners of the garment wear, wash and dispose of our wool garments also varies widely around the world. Each of these factors has a different environmental impact and is often challenging to measure correctly.
Outdated data gives wool a negative rating
This is exactly where the problem lies. Because it is so difficult to measure the actual real-life environmental impacts of wool, researchers have often relied on assumptions or old data. As you may have experienced in your own life, if you put rubbish in, you get rubbish out and that is exactly what happened to wool. Wool’s environmental rating is so negative because the data used in the LCAs is outdated, false and incomplete.
In other words, badly researched Life Cycle Assessments is what got wool a negative rating. The good news, on the other hand, is that well-researched Life Cycle Assessments is what will get wool a true and better rating.
Over the course of several blog posts, we will dive into the specifics of Wool LCAs to help us understand the true environmental impact of our wool garments. We hope you will join us on our journey.