Your Soft, Woolly Jumper (Or Blanket): The Hard, Environmental Facts

Your Soft, Woolly Jumper (Or Blanket): The Hard, Environmental Facts

At The Wool Company, we love to bleat on about the fantastic properties of our favourite naturally-occurring noble fibre. Unlike man-made fibres, wool is highly breathable, regulates body temperature, is scientifically proven to improve sleep, absorbs moisture – AND is better for the environment than synthetic alternatives.

The scientific way to describe it would be ‘environmentally sustainable’. But what exactly does that mean?

In recent years, ecological sustainability has become a something of a buzzword at all levels of society. Hipsters claim to be environmentally sustainable by shopping for clothes on second-hand sites as they discard their third disposable vape of the day. Even oil and gas companies (somehow) have ecologically sustainable objectives in an attempt to convince us that fossil fuels are renewable and have a place in our future.

Given the confusion, perhaps it’s best to go back to basics. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the essence of ecological sustainability lies in creating and maintaining processes that inflict little to no damage on our environment, which enables these processes to be sustained for a long time or indefinitely.

So, how exactly can the impact of a product on the environment be measured? One of the surest ways to quantify the impact is through a systematic analysis called a Life Cycle Assessment.

What is a Life Cycle Assessment?

The process known as Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) scrutinises the environmental impacts of a product 'from cradle to grave', tracking it from the moment materials are sourced through to the end of the product’s life and beyond, providing a detailed analysis of its cumulative effects on the environment.


 The circle of life: from shearing to shawl to sack

Whilst this is a relatively new science, in recent years it has been employed to calculate the greenhouse emissions of woollen textiles (measured in carbon dioxide per kilogram). Let's see the results.

The Lifecycle of Wool – From Crade to Grave

1. Raw Material Extraction: This involves the extraction of resources such as minerals, fossil fuels, and biomass.

You would think that extracting the raw wool through shearing sheep would add no carbon to the atmosphere – and you would be correct (sort of). But the sheep need to grow their woolly coats over some months where they spend their time grazing and expelling gases like CO₂ and methane (CH₄). Whether this factor can really be included in the LCA depends on the thorny question: is wool a product or by-product (of the meat industry)? We’ve spoken about this extensively along with the implications of livestock farming on the environment.

Whilst it’s widely accepted that sheep farming in much of the world is a net contributor to greenhouse gases, under the right conditions, targeted sheep grazing can and does have positive environmental effects.

Whether wool is a product, coproduct or byproduct of sheep farming is moot but essentially, it varies, depending on the sheep breed and other factors. Generally UK wool is seen as a byproduct due to its low value and merino wool is seen as a product.  Assuming, however, that wool is indeed a product of sheep farming, it is estimated that the raw material extraction phase adds between 7.8 to 16.9 Kg of CO₂ per kilogram of wool – around 50 -75% of wool’s total environmental impact.

The sourcing stage of synthetic fabrics typically has a far higher environmental impact. The conventional raw materials used to make synthetic fabrics come from fossil fuels (natural gas, crude oil). Extracting and refining these non-renewable resources is energy-intensive and highly polluting. Wool has the added benefit of being renewable; unlike the manmade alternatives where 97% of the raw material are new, one time use sources.

2. Manufacturing: The process of converting raw materials into the final product.

There are a number of steps in transforming a fleece into a wool blanket, a cashmere shawl, hat, or jumper: scouring, spinning, dying, weaving, finishing, cutting and finally sewing. Of course, calculating the environmental impact of this step is dependant on the manufacturing process: was the garment manufactured in a colossal factory powered by coal, or handcrafted in a garden shed, spun from yarn using parts of an old bicycle?

Using a bicycle-wheel charkha (and a yarn swift) to spin yarn © Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons

Data from garment factories in China account the manufacturing phase to account for around 23% of greenhouse gas in the wool supply chain – mainly from electricity and steam use. The figure for products at The Wool Company is far lower as we use UK and European mills for production where possible, mills that use much higher mixes of green electricity in their processes, for example one of our key partners and blanket weavers, A W Hainsworth  has been working hard on its sustainability policies for many years now.

Research shows that the energy consumption of polyester fibres is almost twice as high as wool, emitting over 14kg of CO2 per kilogram produced whilst giving off nasty by-products that damage the environment further.  

3. Distribution & Transportation: Shipping, trucking, and other forms of transportation.

Depending on distances, transport emissions estimates range from 0.30 to 1.5kg CO2 per kilogram. This represents roughly 3% to 15% of the total carbon footprint. Of course, this can vary wildly - some suppliers are a few miles away, while others are halfway around the globe.  

At The Wool Company, we always do our best to source locally – but even this can get complicated. For example: sourcing British wool, which is then sent to India for manufacturing, defeats the environmental purpose of sourcing local product in the first place.

4. Product Use: Energy consumption, emissions, and life of product.

This stage comes down to two factors: How often do you wash the garment? And how many times do you wear it? Wool doesn't need as much washing as other materials because it's naturally stain and odour resistant, and can therefore often be refreshed simply by hanging outside on a breezy day.

Most importantly, research into the LCA of lightweight wool jumpers found that they were washed every five uses, and worn 109 times over it’s lifetime. For comparison, the average piece of clothing is worn only 7-10 times over its lifecycle before being thrown away.

In fact, studies show that the number of times a garment is worn is the most influential factor in determining the impact of wool garments - a signficant reason why quality drives everything we do – our products are to be enjoyed and savoured for years. For this stage of the cycle, it is the consumer that holds the power, making for a clear conscience.

5. Disposal/Recycling: Waste management and recycling processes.

Studies have found that around 76% of wool garments are recycled. This statistic is quite incredible as only 1% of all clothing is recycled into new clothing.

But eventually, woolly hats and sweaters and blankets eventually begin to unravel and there comes a time to throw them away. Wool is biodegradable, and will almost completely degrade naturally within six months. and will nourish soil and plants while doing so. Traditional fossil-based polyester is not biodegradable and can take 300 years to degrade completely.


So, what exactly does the Life Cycle Assessment tell us about the ecological impact of wool?

It depends.

That isn’t a very scientific conclusion, but the environmental impact of wool garments is extremely can only be calculated through the combination of numerous factors. It may (or possibly not) be surprising to learn that very little research has gone into the ecological impact of wool and how it stacks up to the synthetic alternatives.

However, as we as humans become increasingly more aware of our role as protectors of the planet, the importance for studies like this will only grow. This may come sooner than expected: last year, France passed a decree requiring every item of clothing sold in the country to carry a label detailing its precise climate impact. The EU is expected to follow suit, the need to fully understand the environmental impact of the textile industry will only grow. And rightly so!



Peri, Pablo L., Yamina M. Rosas, Brenton Ladd, Ricardo Díaz-Delgado, and Guillermo Martínez Pastur. 2020. "Carbon Footprint of Lamb and Wool Production at Farm Gate and the Regional Scale in Southern Patagonia" Sustainability 12, no. 8: 3077. 

Wiedemann, S., Biggs, L., Nebel, B. et al. Environmental impacts associated with the production, use, and end-of-life of a woollen garment. Int J Life Cycle Assess 25, 1486–1499 (2020).

Sandin, Gustav & Roos, Sandra & Johansson, Malin. (2019). Environmental impact of textile fibres – what we know and what we don’t know. Fiber Bible part 2.. 10.13140/RG.2.2.23295.05280

Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future (2017).

Beton, Adrien & Dias, Debora & Farrant, Laura & Gibon, Thomas & Guern, Yannick & Desaxce, Marie & Perwueltz, Anne & Boufateh, Ines & Wolf, Oliver & Kougoulis, Jiannis & Cordella, Mauro & Dodd, Nicholas. (2014). Environmental Improvement Potential of textiles (IMPRO Textiles). 10.2791/52624. 

Fixing Bad Fashion Habits, "The Economic Times". 2023. 


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