Contrary to what many people still believe, wool production is far from “a haircut for the sheep”. Firstly, sheep are only “in need” of shearing because they have been bred to produce up to ten times more wool than they would naturally need. In their natural state, sheep produce just enough wool to protect themselves from the elements, then shed it naturally in the summer. But in large-scale farming (where most high-street wool comes from), sheep are often shorn roughly and ruthlessly – undercover investigations on several continents have found that workers in the wool industry, who are often underpaid, work as quickly as they can to produce large amounts of wool as they are paid by the quantity of wool and not by the hours they work. This often leads to sheep being cut in the process. When that happens, they are either left bleeding or sewn up with a needle and thread.
Wool also has an environmental impact: the presence of sheep in the world’s two top wool-producing countries, Australia and New Zealand, is a top contributor to these countries’ methane gas emissions. Sheep also require a resource-intensive feed and an anti-parasite treatment that’s highly toxic. The farming of sheep also contributes to desertification, topsoil loss and deforestation.
But does this mean that our only other choice is wearing petroleum-derived plastics such as acrylic and polyester, which are known for being an environmental disaster? Absolutely not. The new vegan knits are eco-conscious and much more sustainable than their previous plasticky counterparts. Here are some of the most interesting sustainable materials that don’t harm a hair on a sheep’s head.
Cotton is one of those cases where choosing organic matters – cotton that is grown organically uses less water and is free from pesticides and GMOs. Organic cotton is also softer, stronger and more durable than traditional cotton, which is perfect for creating a long-lasting, sustainable wardrobe as opposed to constantly buying new. Labels that get organic cotton right include White Stuff and People Tree.
Tencel, or Lyocell as it’s also known, is made from wood pulp cellulose and produced with a closed-loop technology, which means that the water and chemicals used in the process are re-used. This material is biodegradable, natural and wrinkle-free. Brands that use Tencel include ethical labels Reformation and Bleed Clothing.
Once associated with a hippie-influenced style, hemp is constantly becoming a more versatile and more commonly used material. And with good reason – this material is produced without a need for chemical fertilisers or pesticides, making it ideal for organic farming. The leading company in hemp knitwear is Hemp Tailor, who started out as an outerwear brand and recently expanded into knitwear, offering a range of sweaters and cardigans that incorporate hemp and organic cotton.
When produced in a conscious way, bamboo can be a very eco-friendly fabric – unlike non-organic cotton, it requires little water and no pesticides , and regenerates itself when harvested. It’s also less chemically intensive than fabrics like polyester. The issues begin when bamboo is transformed into other bamboo-derived fabrics, such as viscose and rayon. As very harsh, toxic chemicals are part of the process, these fabrics cannot be seen as sustainable the way that un-processed bamboo can.
Brands that get it right include Thought Clothing, which blends bamboo with – again – organic cotton. Another label doing excellent work with bamboo is Brave GentleMan, the world’s first vegan menswear brand, creating beautifully cut suits in 100% Italian-milled bamboo.
Read more: Sustainable Textiles Spotlight: The Truth Behind Bamboo Fabric
As the plastic pollution crisis continues to be one of the most-discussed and most urgent issues our planet is facing, fashion brands are trying to do their bit to combat this crisis by incorporating recycled plastic into their designs, including waste that has been pulled up from the oceans. This helps combat the plastic waste crisis, as well as create vegan options that are kinder to the planet and animals. Brands that make progress in this area include Will’s Vegan Store, a former shoe brand that now also offers apparel that is certified carbon neutral.
The innovations in the area of vegan wool are promising. A few seasons ago, a group of university students from Colombia created Woocoa, a vegan wool made from hemp and coconut fibres treated with enzymes from the oyster mushroom. This eco-friendly development is still very much in the experimental stages but is slated to become commercial within the next few years.
Related Post: How Ecopel is Making Faux Fur Sustainable
Another exciting innovation comes from Australia, the world’s biggest wool producer. Material innovation company Nanolloose use coconut (once again!) waste from the food industry to create sustainable material Nullarbor. Liquid coconut waste is fermented to become cellulose, the main component of this material, which is just one of many future inventions that will replace wool in the years to come.
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Feature image of ‘Aussie Jacket’ made of cotton and Tencel via Reformation.