How companies can source wool more sustainably
In conjunction with the release of the Textile Exchange 2019 Material Change Index, GreenBiz has partnered with Textile Exchange to publish actionable insights for apparel and textile companies looking to source raw materials more sustainably. The entire series may be found here.
Wool is a natural fiber made from animal hair that is twisted into yarn. Sheep’s wool is most common, although wool can also come from goats, camels, alpacas and llamas. It has been seen as a valuable commodity throughout history; it is said that when British King Richard I was captured in 1192, part of the ransom demanded for his return was 50,000 sacks of wool.
Wool is biodegradable, water-retentive and fire-resistant, making it a useful material for making warm outdoor clothing. However, there are both environmental and animal welfare concerns related to producing wool.
While well-managed grazing can have a positive impact on land, biodiversity and climate, grassland health can be negatively impacted by the way sheep are farmed, particularly in drought-prone regions. If sheep are allowed to overgraze, they may degrade soil and cause erosion, which can be exacerbated by an increasingly warming climate.
How sheep are raised and treated is another concern, with husbandry procedures and shearing as key animal welfare risk areas. An especially controversial practice is mulesing, a procedure commonly practiced in Australia, where skin around the sheep’s buttocks is removed to prevent parasitic infections.
Textile Exchange supports the apparel and textiles sector in switching to preferable materials that have a more positive impact on people and the environment compared to conventional. Textile Exchange developed the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) to address both the welfare of sheep and the preservation of the land they graze on. The standard ensures supply chain traceability and requires certification at every stage.
In addition to RWS-certified wool, Textile Exchange considers the following wool variations to be "preferred" options:
Organic wool certified to the Organic Content Standard (OCS) or Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
Recycled wool certified to the Global Recycled Standard (GRS), Recycled Claim Standard (RCS) or SCS Recycled Content Certification
How can companies level up their wool sourcing strategy?
Every year, Textile Exchange publishes a Material Change Index that tracks the fashion industry’s progress toward more sustainable materials sourcing, as well as alignment with global efforts such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the transition to a circular economy.
There are some key activities that top performers in the wool category have in common. These should serve as inspiration for companies that are looking to push their preferred wool programs to the next level. Textile Exchange also will be sharing a more detailed analysis of findings later in 2020.
1. Consider both environment and animals
The very best standards when it comes to preferred wool look at both animal welfare and land management. Brands that increased their use of preferred wool that is either better for animals or better for the environment should seek out even more progressive options — for example, RWS-certified wool — that drive improvement in both areas.
Material change in action: When IKEA committed to transforming its conventional wool supply chain to 100 percent responsibly sourced wool by 2025, it chose to go with RWS-certified as one of its core certifications.
"It was comprehensive yet very simple and covered all aspects," said Rahul Ganju, sustainability manager for IKEA. "We also like that it was created by receiving feedback and inputs from various organizations through a multi-stakeholder engagement process."
Implementing the standard required IKEA to identify new wool scouring and spinning units, and work with suppliers to develop traceability mechanisms. The work is paying off. By the end of 2020, all of the wool the furniture retailer sources from New Zealand, which is about 20 percent of the wool IKEA uses overall, will be certified by RWS or the ZQ Accreditation program.
2. Incentivize innovation
There can be many early-stage barriers when integrating a new product or material into a supply chain. It’s therefore important to train internal teams so they understand the importance of using more sustainable fibers and are encouraged to source or develop better options. Setting specific uptake targets and making policies public also can incentivize employees to make more sustainable choices.
Material change in action: Footwear company Deckers Brands, which owns brands including UGG, Teva, HOKA ONE ONE, Sanuk and Koolaburra by UGG, observed that its suppliers were generating significant waste when trimming wool from sheepskin material to get a uniform length across the whole skin. Because the waste wool had the same softness and fineness as the rest of the premium sheepskin, they realized they could recreate the same comfort and wearing experience by engineering a new material using these waste fibers.
No existing manufacturing process could incorporate repurposed fibers into a new material, so Deckers made significant investments in research and development to invent a manufacturing process that was later patented. The result is UGGpure, a woven-wool material initiated by the brand.
John Graebin, senior director of materials at Deckers, credited this innovation to employees. "Our amazing teams are dedicated to sustainable business practices and are always seeking more sustainable material alternatives," he said. For brands looking to do something similar, he advised, "Empower employees to pursue new solutions."
3. Work with farmers
Pushing the wool industry towards preferable practices requires multi-stakeholder efforts that engage and educate both farmers and brands. When possible, brands should work towards transparency to understand the risks and opportunities at both the regional and supplier levels, make long-term commitments to certified farms in order to build stronger relationships with them, and work with farms to progress both the quality and quantity of preferred wool.
The most progressive brands work even more closely with their suppliers by co-creating KPIs related to biodiversity, land management (at both the farm level and within the wider landscape context) and waste reduction (such as through recycled wool) at farms, and they actually track the progress and impacts made over time.
Material change in action: Outdoor clothing brand Icebreaker, owned by VF Corporation, has developed and deepened relationships with its grower families over the last 20 years. In 1997, it became the first company in the world to establish long-term contracts with key merino wool growers. More recently, it established the Icebreaker Growers Club, 10-year contracts with grower families on New Zealand’s South Island that provide Icebreaker with a consistent supply of high-quality wool and enable growers to invest in their business, their land, their animals and their people.
"The heritage and strength of our relationships and partnerships from farm to factory are essential," said Meredith Dawson Lawry, manager of global materials and sustainability at Icebreaker. "We would love to see more brands take a long-term view to their raw material commitments regardless of the fiber type. This could enable more stability at the grower level and with that more investment in ethical, sustainable practices, which can only be achieved if growers are in a position to take a long term approach."