When it comes to sustainable fabrics available to the fashion industry, wool is, in many ways, one of the superior options available.
It’s natural, renewable and entirely biodegradable. According to the Woolmark Association, it’s a material that uses 18 per cent less energy than polyester and nearly 70 per cent less water than cotton to produce 100 sweaters.
But, animal rights organisation PETA believes the production of wool promotes unneccesary cruelty to sheep and also contributes to the climate crisis via methane gas emission, soil erosion and the contamination of waterways.
By way of response the US arm of PETA has this week launched the Vegan Wool Challenge, which will award US$1 million (approximately £850,600) to the first entrant who develops a vegan wool material that’s “visually, texturally, and functionally akin or superior to sheep’s wool and is adopted and sold by a major clothing brand.”
Open to applicants worldwide, the competition will no doubt be popular among budding sustainable fashion brands and material development companies.
“From flowers and fruit to hemp and soya beans, options are limitless when it comes to creating animal-free clothing and accessories,” says PETA Vice President for Europe Mimi Bekhechi. “PETA is delighted to foster innovation that will help protect animals and halt the environmental destruction caused by animal agriculture.”
PETA says it has documented cruelty to sheep in 117 wool operations worldwide, revealed in 15 exposés that found that even on farms marketed as “sustainable” and “responsible”, workers beat, stamped on, cut up, and slit the throats of conscious, struggling sheep.
Graham Clark, Marketing Director of British Wool, disagrees entirely. Extolling the sustainable credentials of wool as a material, he is also keen to stress that wool shearing is an important part of caring for sheep. “Shearers in the UK are highly trained professionals who carry out a vital duty of care,” he says. “Shearing is a painless process and is an essential part of caring for sheep, as to not do so can cause discomfort and disease, having painful, dangerous and even fatal consequences. Shearing is very much an animal welfare issue.”
“There’s no denying that the fashion industry needs better sustainable solutions, but we must be mindful that new initiatives, such as those which directly, or indirectly, encourage use of synthetics, do not cause more harm than good.”
The prize comes at a time when alternatives to animal-derived materials such as leather, fur and shearling are proliferating. Many of the recently popular “vegan” and “eco” leather and fur alterntives are actually made from planet-polluting plastics, so there are questions over whether they are in fact a better solution for the planet.
The really exciting solutions however are those materials that are derived from natural sources, but not animal-based. US company Bolt Threads is a pioneer in this space. It has made silk from spiders and a leather alternative from mushrooms called Mylo, which Stella McCartney recently used to launch the first commercially available luxury handbag made from mushroom leather. Her SS23 show also debuted handbags made from a leather derived from grapes.
Many of the truly sustainable material alternatives remain in their infancy and are not widely commercially available yet. However given a recent survey by Glamour magazine found that approximately 73 per cent of Gen Z identifies as animal rights activists, these are issues that brands can’t afford to ignore.
For more on how to enter the PETA vegan wool award, click here