Let’s Talk Wool

The 90th IWTO Congress celebrated the creation of the first global wool trading standards, drafted 90 years ago. Soon, the textile trade will be tied to sustainability. Here’s how wool is leading the conversation.

One of the effects of the ongoing pandemic is that people care more about the clothes they buy and how they are made. They want to buy less and wear what they have for longer.

As consumers begin to turn over clothing labels and ask pertinent questions about the origins of their purchases, makers and sellers have a duty to provide transparent and truthful answers.

The global wool pipeline is responding to this call. Over the course of the IWTO Congress, held 17-21 May, speakers from the wool textile pipeline spoke to solutions being developed and, in many cases, already offered by the industry.

Towards Carbon Zero

2020 brought twenty years of change in a single year, says speaker Simon Cotton, Chief Executive of Johnstons of Elgin.

Johnstons, specialists in cashmere and fine wool since 1797, saw its European sales decline last year as the market moved east: Chinese consumers who would have travelled stayed home and shopped online via apps like WeChat and Tmall.

“One hundred percent growth was very common for brands with a [digital] platform,” Simon noted.

In Europe too, shoppers embraced online retail, leaving traditional physical spaces empty. At the same time, office wear entered a terminal phase as every day became Casual Friday: finer wools will need to find new markets.

Yet the most resounding message was that during 2020, sustainability became “everything.” This trend was emphasized not only by Simon Cotton but also by industry visionaries like Michael Wessely’s Sheep Inc.

A “truly regenerative brand,” each article of Sheep Inc.’s clothing connects purchaser with a sheep via an NFC tag. Sheep Inc. has gone beyond carbon zero: its products are now carbon negative. Sheep Inc. achieves this through a commitment to regenerative farming with all products naturally removing more CO2 from the atmosphere than its manufacturing creates. There is also no longer a need for Sheep Inc. to offset to achieve this naturally carbon negative status.

Carbon negativity is achieved at the raw material stage by working with the NZ Merino Company, whose ZQRX offers a Regenerative Index based on 1.7 million hectares of high country and 173 wool growers. These farms sit at the forefront of innovation and thanks to land management, feeding and grazing approaches the farms capture more C02e from the atmosphere than their operations omit. A similar initiative is found in Australia via Trust in Australian Wool.

Sheep Inc.’s carbon-negative fibre is then processed by industry-leading supply chain partners across Europe, including IWTO Member, The Südwolle Group. These partners run on 100% solar power to spin the yarn, manufacture the garment and run logistics. The result is that all manufacturing happens entirely carbon-neutrally.

All of this is underpinned by sound science: as IWTO’s LCA expert Stephen Wiedemann said, “Not only does the wool farm have the possibility to be carbon neutral, but also to offset emissions throughout the supply chain.”

Read more: Options for Recycled Wool at iwto.org/sustainability/recycled-wool/

Traceability, Ratings & Retail

This should be good news for a natural fibre like wool, right? Not quite: despite being natural, renewable, and biodegradable, wool must work much harder to present its sustainability credentials, due to the way textile apparel ratings operate. Because of choices that have been made in the way inputs a calculated, wool and other natural fibres rank as less sustainable than synthetic, fossil-fuel based fibres.

Not so long ago, nobody thought of plastic fibres as sustainable, panellist Veronica Bates Kassatly has pointed out. Kassatly, formerly a development consultant and World Bank analyst, stumbled into fibre sustainability in 2018, and has since published extensively on the misleading claims made about the comparative sustainability of farmed fibres such as cotton, silk, and wool.

Kassalty made a clear case for the need for solid data, transparently available, to back up sustainability labelling. This would apply in any context but in the case of textiles, becomes even more important as the farming communities of the global south are significantly implicated.

Wool growers and their communities are of course near and dear to the heart of the IWTO. Traceability is achievable: IWTO members like Segard Masurel, to name one example, offer practical pathways connecting farmer to spinner.

Segard Masurel’s Abelusi Wool standard covers 50-odd criteria, audited regularly, in animal welfare, environmental and social responsibility. It is a fine example of the way the wool industry responds to challenges: through partnership and long-term relationships.

Traceability in the wool chain isn’t just a buzzword: learn more at iwto.org/wool-supply-chain/traceability/

The International Wool Textile Organisation is the global authority for standards in the wool textile industry. The IWTO’s members represent from 21 countries and all stages of the wool pipeline. The 90th IWTO Congress hosted 152 participants and 38 speakers to its 90th annual Congress in a weeklong digital event, 17-21 May.

View recent IWTO events here.