Natural fibres undersold

What's truly sustainable in today's eco-sensitive consumer world?

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Wool, like this super fine fleece from Tarrangower, east of Armidale, is made with sun, soil, water and sheep but apparently it is worse for the environment than oil-based polypropylene.

Wool, like this super fine fleece from Tarrangower, east of Armidale, is made with sun, soil, water and sheep but apparently it is worse for the environment than oil-based polypropylene.

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The consumer is being duped into believing oil-based fibres like polypropylene are more sustainable than wool. Is it time for producers to push back such nonsense? Dr Paul Swan says tell the story of their farm and production system for what it is.

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Your woollen cardigan is apparently more harmful to earth's life systems than the bright green pile jacket made from fossil fuel, according to the so-called science behind trendy eco-labelling.

Wool consultant Dr Paul Swan, formerly with Australian Wool Innovation and now based in Sydney, told producers at the Australian Superfine Wool Growers conference at Armidale last weekend that it was up to producers to counter such obvious bias against biological products by telling their story of sustainability.

That's not going to be easy, given consumers already sift through branded products sporting any one of 463 sustainable systems certifications. Science is required before a claim can be declared trustworthy, and Dr Swan said the accounting system is far from perfect.

In Europe, home for five out of 10 superfine wool markets, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition ranks clothing fibres based ultimately on the Nike Material Sustainable Index - which claims natural fibres like wool, cotton and especially silk are more environmentally damaging than polypropylene and polyester.

That's because the system of accounting measures things like footprint - an oil derrick's concrete base is much smaller than that of a paddock of oil producing canola, for instance.

"The science of sustainability doesn't do well with biological systems," Dr Swan said. "It was developed for factories, not farms."

Another area of misconception involves ranking methane gas as a dangerous greenhouse emission when its "equivalent", carbon dioxide, lasts in the atmosphere thousands of times longer.

The science of sustainability doesn't do well with biological systems. It was developed for factories, not farms. - Dr Paul Swan

Unfortunately this type of reasoning bases the concept of carbon trading on CO2 equivalents.

"The science is going to take a long time to fix, if ever," Dr Swan. said.

"But there are things we can do.

"We want to change the way people talk, we want to correct the misconceptions."

For instance, the story about Australia's drastic reduction in its use of organo phosphates is well known locally, but how well understood is it by overseas consumers?

Currently the vast production of Australia's wool clip is below the European Union threshold for synthetic pyrethroids because producers have changed their practices.

When it comes to animal welfare, mulesing is an issue that speaks volumes among young European consumers but do they know that the industry is rapidly coming on board?

One out of 10 bales of Australian wool are from sheep that are not mulesed, while half of the flock that comes under the Australian Superfine Wool Growers Association are mulse-free.

Of all Australian sheep that have had the skin-snip, 78 per cent have been treated with pain relief during that operation - one that helps prevent flystrike.

Meanwhile, the entire chapter explaining the benefits of a biodegradable natural fibre has, apparently, been filed in a circular bin.

"The science doesn't deal with biodegradability - that is not part of standard lifecycle analysis upon which the sustainable systems certifications are based," Dr Swan said.

Another aspect about wool is its suitability as a next-to-skin garment, with its capacity to breathe - unlike clothing made from oil-based fibres.

"We have a great opportunity through this to go on the offence," Dr Swan said.

"We are a good example of sustainability. We need to share our knowledge."

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