Author: Concha Salguero
English translation: Alexis Beaufoy
Edited by EWE Foundation: Laura Case and Dóra Jamniczky-Kaszás
Wool and other natural fibres make their bid for an alternative to their synthetic counterparts
Innovative projects and international alliances call for the prioritisation of natural and biodegradable fibres such as wool as a mean of reducing marine pollution resulting from the textile industry
What are your clothes made of? Have a look at the label on any item of your clothing and most likely you will find that it contains synthetic fibres derived from oil. It is therefore equally likely that you are contributing to the damage inflicted upon our rivers and oceans with those same items of clothing.
Recent scientific studies have presented us with devastating results: according to the European Environment Agency (EEA), between the 16% and 35% of the microplastics (extremely small pieces of plastic created by the breakdown of larger plastic waste) in our oceans are microfibres derived from the production, washing, and use of synthetic clothing — items that are the most common in most wardrobes. In addition, they appear to be the kind of microplastic most frequently consumed by marine species, a situation that creates disastrous consequences for our oceans’ biodiversity.
This threat is present in every marine environment on the planet and affects both coastal waters and the ocean floor where several thousand tonnes of microplastics gather in the form of sediment deriving mainly from our own washing machines. As reported by the Guardian, experts state that a single garment can release up to 700,000 microfibres, meaning 700,000 very small pieces of plastic, when washed; one can only imagine the devastating amount of microplastic that is flushed through our pipes and released, daily, into the sea.
‘The Ocean Race’, a pioneering initiative that combines science and competitive sailing for data collection and the production of a map of plastic in the ocean, confirms this data. From thirty-six samples collected over the course of six weeks from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean, microplastics were present in each sample. There was a predominance of microfibres, and the rest was not better: residues from deteriorating items such as bottles and packaging and plastic microspheres used in toiletries such as exfoliants and toothpaste.
In Spain, both the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea suffer from this plastic contamination, in the latter being especially worrisome due to its nature of closed sea and the human pressure it experiences. Studies conducted during the race show that the western Mediterranean, between the Spanish coast and the Balearic Islands, is the area with the highest accumulation of microplastics as a result of ocean currents. In some spots along the Catalonian coast, extreme accumulations have been identified, including clumps of microfibres leftover from organic matter and plankton (this sentence is not very clear…). Polyester is the leading cause of clogging within the ocean floor, while fragments of polyethylene and polypropylene are those most frequently found polluting beaches.
The effects on human health also warrant a mention. Some additives used in the treatment of textiles appear to act as hormone disruptors and “hijack” our endocrine system. A team of researchers from the University of Granada and led by Professor of Medicine Nicolás Olea, has been studying these consequences for decades, highlighting the possible effects on pregnant women and babies; this is especially crucial since, as stated by Dr. Olea, “the first one thousand days of a person’s life determine their adult makeup”. This highlights the critical imperative to avoid environmental pollution in infant clothing.
The environmental impact of the textile industry has been public knowledge for years. Global outreach campaigns, such as Greenpeace’s ‘Detox My Fashion’, illustrate the polluting processes present in the fashion industry: from the production and treatment of synthetic fibres to the washing and dyeing of all manner of items, as well as managing the waste generated by such processes.
A market strangled by “fast fashion”, forced to keep its factories running around the clock, foster a compulsive consumption of clothes that we buy cheaply, but for which we pay an immeasurably high social and environmental cost. Look no further than the “fast fashion graveyard” in Chile’s Atacama Desert, the images of which held the world in dismay only a few months ago.
With all this in mind: Is it possible to put clothes on our back without putting plastic in our seas?
NATURAL FIBRES ARE THE SOLUTION
The answer is yes, and once again it is offered to us by nature: a return to natural and biodegradable fibres is, without a doubt, the path towards fashion without plastic. Industrial innovation is multiplying the options of alternative fibres coming from animal and vegetable origin, which have the potential to nurture a new form of textile production that is both responsible and sustainable. Cotton, linen, sisal, coconut, coir, hemp, and fungi-based fabrics are among the available plant-based materials; wool or sheep’s wool, silk, alpaca, angora, cashmere, mohair, and even camel hair are just a few of the many fabrics of animal origin.
At Trashumancia y Naturaleza we believe in the potential of wool as it is renewable, reusable and 100% biodegradable. Its thermoregulating, insulating, waterproofing and fireproofing properties make it a widely versatile raw material with unlimited roles in fashion industry. That does not even begin to touch on the social and environmental benefits that accompany its production under extensive grazing and shepherding systems. Sheep, by now domesticated for thousands of years, no longer shed their wool and require regular shearing for their own wellbeing and health. This makes their wool an available resource that, if unharnessed, is tragically wasted and impedes the renewal of natural cycles.
WOOL: A MATERIAL WITH MANY POTENTIAL
Although the international value of wool has increased due to long-term speculations over its emerging role in the textile industry, it nevertheless continues to be an undervalued material, the disposal of which is often a problem for sheep farmers. One fundamental issue at the heart of the matter is that the wool is not considered a farming product but rather a “by-product” or a “waste”; there exists no easy and efficient method for selling this by-product or even having it collected. Because of this, instead of becoming a source of revenue for farmers, wool becomes an expense.
The global wool market is currently dominated by countries such as Australia, which sets the prices, and China, the world’s leading wool processor. In fact, most of the “raw wool” (wool that has not been processed) that is sourced from Europe for textile use is sold at a low cost to China, returning to Europe in the form of finished products at a greatly increased price.
It is worth reconsidering this arrangement of complete dependence on foreign markets and players at a time where the global demand for wool is on the rise, especially as consumers begin to prioritise natural fibres. In some cases, the industry itself is propelling these changes; for example, the increasing use of wool by sportswear manufacturers is currently driving a surge in demand.
Additionally, the issue of traceability is gaining importance for consumers keen to know the conditions in which their wool was produced, and the outcomes of the process, for example: the existence of negative social and environmental impacts or, on the contrary, the positive impact of the purchase. This presents us with a serious opportunity to boost the use of wool, transforming this material into potential revenue stream for sheep farming systems that significantly benefit the local environment. To put it simply, wool could go from being “waste” to becoming a “product” — and a trending one at that.
When you consider the versatility of wool, the inefficiency of our current situation becomes quite clear. Beyond textiles, wool has other less known uses, including furniture manufacturing, thermal insulation in construction, agricultural fertiliser and a role in cosmetic and pharmacy industries. In addition, there exist other experimental uses with great environmental potential, one of which is the creation of bioplastics. Bioplastics made of wool can function as a flocculant (a substance that encourages substance clumping) in water filtration and as an effective absorbent in oil spill clean-up.
For three decades now, Scotland has been using sheep’s wool as a base for road surfaces in protected areas, with the animal’s fleece replacing the plastic geogrid. Based on promising results, this usage is now being implemented in Ireland as well. This construction practice apparently is nothing new, however, as records exist of its use in building manufacturing dating all the way back to ancient Rome.
Even the logistics of this repurposing of wool provide a huge advantage. Being locally-based, sheep can be shorn right at the roadside and their fleece laid directly into the roadworks’ base; no transportation or further processing is necessary.
With all these possibilities at our fingertips, why should we discard and waste thousands of tonnes of wool every year from which we could otherwise benefit?
Fortunately, fresh new initiatives are emerging not only to award wool the recognition it deserves as a valuable material, but also to establish it as a sustainable option for our future. Interest for wool is gaining popularity within institutions, such as the Balearic Government that supports the local food cooperatives’ use of wool as an insulator; or the development of the EU’s LIFE Programme to tackle sustainable processes for cleaning wool, a step in this material’s treatment which is pending improvement.
It is imperative that public administrations support initiatives that stimulate rural development of the wool market in our towns and villages as well as spur the R&D for the implementation of wool’s alternative uses in material innovation on a global scale. Or perhaps we should say, for material “retro-innovation”, as this paradigm shift seeks to restore wool to its original role as a main player in the narrative of our industry — a role which it held for centuries.
THE FUTURE OF WOOL IS ABOUT LEARNING AND INNOVATION
The potential of wool does not go unnoticed by innovators who dare to bet on brand-new ways to wield it; such is the case of New Zealand’s Shear Edge company, which exploits the lightweight, waterproof quality of this low-cost material to dethrone plastic in the manufacturing of small watercraft, kitchen utensils and other tools.
Closer to home, initiatives such as LanaLand — Interreg’s cooperative project involving Basque and French organisations — are developing technological strategies that might enable the use of locally sourced wool as a substitute for plastics and other pollutants. In the same creative vein of reassessing the value of local wool are companies such as Ternua which, along with Mutur Beltz, created a wool-based sportswear collection; as well as the Mallorca-based company Yuccs, which has become a role model for the use of wool in footwear manufacturing.
At the same time at Trashumancia y Naturaleza from Spain they strive to collect and bring visibility to smaller — although not by any means lesser — initiatives have sprung up all across the country via their transhumance map, where you can find many sales points for wool and other shepherding products. A similar initiative is the Map of Wool Ecosystems by Shemakes.
We must not forget that for there to be wool there must also be flocks — and, above all, shepherds who can adequately develop their craft. To this day, they are the most vulnerable link in the supply chain, and public policy still has a long way to go before it can adequately support these men and women. This is partially why wool seems to be more abundant in our bins and garbage dumps than it is in our product lines.
The devaluing of wool goes hand in hand with our lack of recognition for family livestock farms and shepherding communities, and the minimal social awareness for the role that these livestock systems play in the environmental wellbeing and the survival of both rural and urban economies.
For this reason, there are two crucial imperatives: to forge alliances that present and amplify the possibilities of wool as a material of the future and to uplift the shepherding systems which produce it as a tool with irreplaceable social bearing. Restoring the supply chain of wool — in a way that builds bridges between production, processing and consumers — is therefore a top priority alongside nurturing young initiatives working with this material, whether within the textile industry or within other areas of manufacture.
If you have been moved by the article “Check the Label” we recommend that you put this energy into action by knitting a woolly jumper for yourself or your loved one.
We have prepared the easiest jumper pattern for an easy start! So get cosy with your knitting supplies along with a cup of tea and let’s get started!
You can find the pattern by clicking below
Easiest jumper pattern
Download PDF • 5.01MB