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Wool Industry Battles Misconceptions and Dwindling Market Share

While wool stands at just over 1 percent of the world’s total fiber production, speakers at the recent Wool Round Table 7 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, said the outlook is for viability and continued usage based on sustainability and reliability.

“We are swamped by the thing that will end up in landfill,” said Peter Ackroyd, president of the International Wool Textile Organization (IWTO). “But with scientific correctness, we can counter the arguments against wool.”

Ackroyd noted that wool has often seen itself and other natural fibers ranked below synthetics like polyester, acrylic and nylon in sustainability indexes due to giving too much importance to land use and eutrophication, and not weighing other environmental factors more heavily.

As wool sheep are run on land that does not support more lucrative crops, to penalize wool for land use when it is probably the best use of the land makes little sense, said Geoff Kingwill, who chairs IWTO’s sustainable practices working group. The oversimplification of farm practices is misleading and steers consumers in the wrong direction, he said.

Speaker Chris Kerston of the Savory Institute noted that life cycle assessment modelling does not always capture the full impact of fiber production. The brands in the Savory Institute’s new Land 2 Market program are moving beyond sustainability to regeneration.

“Net zero is not going to save humanity,” said Kerston.

[Read more about wool: Responsible Wool Standard Being Adopted by Argentine Wool Industry]

Brands in the L2M are looking for a “differentiated product” that shows net positive results on land,” Kerston said. “Sustainability is the bridge, regeneration is the destination.”

Communicating the benefits of wool sheep may have its challenges, IWTO noted. “Urban disconnect” requires educating consumers about the provenance of wool products and why this matters, the group stressed. The industry’s increasing transparency may also prove helpful–presentations on wool declarations showed that wool growers are increasingly reporting on-farm practices such as mulesing. Through certification processes in Australia and South Africa, this information is passed along through the supply chain, providing confidence to those choosing wool.

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Far fewer impacts occur later in the life of a wool product—wool garments need to be laundered less frequently than those of other fibers, and there is evidence that wool products are used for longer than their less-natural counterparts.

This is market-driven, with incentives for emerging for Australian growers, where declarations are voluntary. The national declaration rate is up to 65 percent and in some states even higher. In South Africa such declarations are compulsory.