Ask G

Ask G: Is wool sustainable?

Is raising and farming sheep for wool damaging to the environment?

I’ve always thought of wool, being a natural fibre, as preferable to synthetic knits on environmental grounds. But I read somewhere that raising/farming sheep is methane-intensive and contributes to climate change. Is this true?

Wooly sheep

Credit: sxc.hu

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Yes, wool has a carbon footprint, as does cotton, polyester and other fibres. Wool is a particularly good insulator, so a house using wool insulation, blankets and clothing will produce less carbon emissions than a household that cranks up the heating and electric blankets to stay warm. Carbon neutral wool has also entered the market, but carbon is only part of the picture.

An estimated two-thirds of the weight of raw wool is grease, skin flakes, dried sweat, dirt and plant matter, so wool processing can use lots of water, detergents and solvents, and produce polluted wastewater. Environmental standards for wool processing vary greatly around the world, often affecting cost.

Then there are animal welfare considerations (for things such as mulesing), health considerations such as skin sensitivities to synthetics, and fairtrade and labour issues that apply to the manufacture of any garment. In short, when considering the ethical and environmental aspects of clothing, favouring ‘natural’ fibres and even carbon impact can be too narrow a focus.

But before your brain explodes with all of these considerations, there is a simple answer: less is more! When it comes to making greener wardrobe choices, longevity and durability is arguably a more important and more straight forward consideration than fibre type.

Buy a few good-quality, classic, long lasting garments instead of many cheap, throw-away, fashion-driven items that you’ll be tempted to throw out before they wear out.

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For an in-depth look into the growth and production of wool, don't miss the June/July 2011 issue of G magazine, on sale from 18 May.