A lurking hangover of the COVID-19 pandemic is a clear global consumer trend towards demanding sustainability in purchases.
Despite its natural, renewable and biodegradable credentials, wool is not exempt from the increasing retail push-back if sustainable practices and systems are not being used and proven in production, manufacture and supply of goods to the end-user.
Sustainability has become a very dominant conversation when making clothing purchasing decisions, and is wasn't necessarily a good trend for wool, according to the chief executive of Scotland-based company Johnstons of Elgin, Simon Cotton.
He was speaking at this year's International Wool Textile Organisation (IWTO) Congress, which was held virtually in May.
Mr Cotton said sustainability included everything in the supply chain - from grasses being grazed by sheep through to manufacturing waste, and the carbon footprint at each stage.
He said the wool industry competed head-on with plastics in its carbon footprint calculations and needed to unite more cohesively to promote its credentials.
"It is also important for woolgrowers, processors and brand owners to consider that consumers don't accept mulesing of sheep - full stop," he said.
"While it may be argued mulesing is needed in some circumstances, the reality is that consumers will never accept this practice.
"It is an issue that needs to be addressed by industry urgently, as it is a weak spot in its armoury."
Danger in perceptions
Mr Cotton said another clear consumer trend that emerged in 2020 was the linking of terminology for sustainability and veganism.
He said this was particularly dangerous for wool, as it was shorthand for anything sustainable also being anti-animal.
"We are concerned consumers are taking the view that sustainable equals vegan," he said.
Mr Cotton said all was not lost, and a major coordinated promotional effort could turn the tables in wool's favour as a natural and renewable fibre.
"It is just that wool must work much harder to present its sustainability credentials," he said.
It is problematic that the current textile apparel ratings system places wool and other natural fibres as less sustainable than synthetic, fossil fuel-based fibres.
- Woolgrowers roll-out a strategic plan for the next decade based on sustainability
- Evaluating and promoting the wool industry's sustainability credentials
How wool stacks-up
Veronica Bates Kassatly, who also presented at the 2021 IWTO Congress, is investigating the sustainability ratings for textiles.
Formerly a development consultant and World Bank analyst, she stumbled into fibre sustainability - and the misleading claims surrounding it - in 2018.
Ms Kassatly said there was a lack of robust evidence and data to support the comparisons between natural and man-made fibres in the ratings system.
And she argues the prevailing sustainability indexes fail to consider the socio-economic impacts of their claims on farmers and farming communities.
"For generations, woolgrowers have strived to transfer their land to future generations in a better condition than it was in when they started farming," Ms Kassatly said.
"Whatever the ratings say, the wool industry remains committed to continuous improvement in farming practices, to innovation and quality, hand-in-hand with respect for the planet and for its people.
"These are, ultimately, the sustainability credentials that matter - whether captured on a label or not."
A new system
Ms Kassatly said global apparel supply chains - including farmers - needed to agree on a definition of sustainability in the apparel industry, a measurement system and a robust method of oversight.
She said brands that made comparative fibre sustainability claims should consider the entire supply chain from origin to end product.
"Scientific rigour is needed, along with consideration of socio-economic and environmental issues," she said.
"Without this, absolutely all of it is just marketing."
The wool industry is dedicated to making wool's environmental qualities more understandable and accessible, according to the IWTO.
It invests in scientific research to ensure the environmental credentials of wool can be quantified and communicated.
Measuring and monitoring
IWTO said in the textile supply chain, environmental impacts are assessed from fibre production or extraction and processing, through textile production, product manufacture, distribution, use by consumers, recycling and final disposal.
Impact categories generally important for textiles include climate change, such as greenhouse gas emissions; fossil energy use; water use - commonly weighted for regional scarcity; land use; eutrophication; eco-toxicity; and human-toxicity.
The current ratings system allows woolgrowers, processors, spinners, weavers and all in the value chain to understand their impacts on the environment - and to make changes to reduce those impacts and increase efficiency of resource use.
Many changes will have associated economic benefits, according to the IWTO, but they rely on quality data.