Woolly measurement: farmers say sustainable textile standard ‘doesn’t pass the pub test’

Woolly measurement: farmers say sustainable textile standard ‘doesn’t pass the pub test’

Speaking from his farm in Yass, Edward Storey is adamant, “wool is a fibre that’s incredibly sustainable, if you want to stop carbon emissions don’t turn the heating on, put on a woollen jumper”. Storey is the president of Wool Producers Australia and is part of the Trust in Australian Wool campaign, launched in March to reassure consumers wool is a sustainable product.

The campaign was announced in anticipation of the European Union’s Sustainable Products Initiative, ambitious legislation that will establish minimum sustainability and information requirements for products sold in the union, including textiles.

Farmers are concerned that wool (and other natural fibres) might fare badly under the new legislation because of the methodology used.

A data tool called the Higg Index, which is widely relied upon by fashion designers and businesses to calculate the environmental impacts of textiles, has attributed a higher environmental impact to wool than polyester.

Storey says this calculation “doesn’t pass the pub test” and more than one expert on sustainable fashion agrees with him – a report from researchers at Berkley found the index needed to prioritise and support “actual environmental outcomes”, while several experts voiced concerns to sustainable fashion publication Eco Cult last year.

The Higg Index uses life cycle assessments (LCAs) and standardised data provided by the textile manufacturing industry to measure the average impact of a kilogram of material across five areas: greenhouse gases, water scarcity, water contamination, use of finite resources like fossil fuels and management of chemicals.

Wool’s poor score does not come out of nowhere. It is widely accepted that emissions of methane from the guts of sheep and other livestock significantly contribute to global heating. According to the Department of Agriculture, livestock emissions account for around 10% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, although a report published by the CSIRO says sheep only contribute 16% of this – and Australia produces the vast majority of the world’s fine apparel wool.

The trouble is, standardised data and averages struggle to account for nuances in production across fibre types. For instance, it is easier to glean facts and figures from a chemical factory making polyester than a sheep farm.

Sheep graze in a paddock in Eden Monaro.

This is in part because polyester manufacturers can afford to fund more studies, something Storey and his peers are trying to rectify by providing technical papers to the European Commission. But it is also because nuances in agriculture are difficult to account for.

Climate expert Professor Mark Howden says the sustainability of wool farming can come down to the “management that’s used in a particular farm, or even a particular paddock”. This variation means, in many ways, using the Higg Index to measure the environmental impact of global wool production is like asking for the length of a piece of string.

Jason Kibbey, the CEO of Higg, says their information on wool was provided by the International Wool Textile Organisation, but acknowledges the system thrives when they have more data. “We would love nothing more than to have data from regenerative farmers to show what an improvement regenerative farming can make,” he says.

Kibbey’s comments reflect how thinking on the topic is evolving, as more nuanced understandings of agriculture become mainstream.

Howden gives the example of John and Robyn Ive, who have rehabilitated a clapped-out, run-down farm in the Yass Valley and turned it into one of the best wool operations in Australia. They have improved the function of that farm and now it “absorbs 11 times more carbon dioxide equivalents than it emits”.

Although he’s hesitant to label it regenerative farming, Howden is referring to stewardship that focuses on soil health, biodiversity, reduced chemical inputs and encourages holistic grazing of livestock, which results in positive outcomes for the environment, like carbon sequestration and restored ecosystems.

In her role as head of sustainable sourcing innovations for the luxury group Kering (whose brand list includes Gucci, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga), Dr Helen Crowley has become bullish about the power of regenerative agriculture. “I’ve been to regenerative wool production systems in Australia where it basically looks like … the eastern box gum woodland habitat that we had 200 years ago, they’ve restored it,” she says. She says the comparison between conventional and regenerative farming is “apples to oranges”.

Howden is a little more cautious. He says Australia’s best managers are as good as anywhere in the world, but “there’s probably a whole group of graziers who still have room to move to improve their systems”. This is also true with regards to mulesing, the process of removing excess skin from the hide of sheep to prevent fly strike, which has been banned in some countries but is still practised in Australia.

Crowley emphasises that sustainable fashion has to be about more than mitigating negative impacts, and points out that with synthetics, “you can reduce a certain element of the negative but it’s not driving any positive outcomes”.

By contrast, she says, natural fibres have enormous potential to do good, something Kering has committed to through its Regenerative Fund for Nature, which will aid the transition of 1m hectares of crop and rangelands to regenerative agriculture.

While Crowley believes life cycle analyses “are a good start” to achieving transparent impact measurements and targets, “we also need to be very careful that they don’t become absolute truths”.

Other criticisms of the Higg Index are focused on the capacity of the materials index to only measure the “cradle-to-gate” impacts of a garment (from the beginning of its production process to its arrival in a store), but not its impact during use and at disposal.

Storey points out that compared with a polyester garment, wool needs a lot less washing, lasts a lot longer, biodegrades and doesn’t contribute to microplastic pollution.

On 14 June, Higg announced its technology had been updated and a tool to assess the impact of a product through design, use and disposal has been added. A spokesperson for Higg confirmed that the tool accounts for the fact that wool products are washed less frequently, and that people tend to keep them for longer.

From a design and use perspective wool is a high-value textile. It is warm, breathable and soft on the skin. It can hold up to 30% of its own weight in water before it feels cold or wet. Its scaly surface can be fashioned into felt-like textures that are wind resistant. Its structure makes it naturally elastic, strong and wrinkle proof. It is stain-resistant because of its waxy coating. Its capacity to capture and release moisture means it doesn’t hold odours. It is favoured by luxury fashion houses, performance-wear companies and interestingly, by the CEO of the Higg Index.

Kibbey says, “I’m a big lover of wool T-shirts. They’re the only T-shirts I buy because they last a long time, they fit me well and I love the way they feel on my body.” He says you need to look at the garment holistically because “ultimately, if I love it, wear it and use it for a very long time, it’s a sustainable product.”

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