26 July 2017

Fibre vs Fibre

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BRUSSELS, 26 July 2017 –  Wool is a natural, renewable, biodegradable fibre – grown year-round by sheep on a blend of water, air, sunshine, and grass, according to an industry website. Wool has an array of natural properties that make it functional as well as beautiful and we have used it to make clothing for thousands of years.

The latest research shows that wool sleepwear and bedding increase sleep time, and that fine wool knitwear can help those who suffer from chronic skin conditions. Wool has a long history of recycling, and research suggests wool garments are worn for longer and retained for longer than those made of other fibres.

Wool growers work hard to care for their sheep and land on which they graze, and there is evidence of significant carbon sequestration in the trees and shrubs on sheep farms, which mitigates the effects of greenhouse gases. Holistic land practitioners will also tell you how livestock like sheep promote biodiversity and prevent desertification.

All of which is well-documented and readily findable through a simple Google search.

But you won’t find a shred of it in the recent Pulse Report, which made headlines throughout the fashion industry when it was published in May. Purporting to represent the fashion industry’s sustainability performance, the Pulse Report “scored” the industry on its environmental and social performance. Overall, the industry didn’t come out looking great: the overall score given was 32 out of 100.

Of more concern than that number, however, are the conclusions made in the Report and its subsequent recommendations.

Apparel Brands Urged to Stop Using Cotton

The Report’s dominant messages is a call to replace what it calls “conventional cotton” with polyester. Organic cotton may be all right according to the authors – Copenhagen Fashion Summit organisers Global Fashion Agenda and The Boston Consulting Group – but the focus is clearly on “substitution”, and goes as far as to note that there are “viable options” for fashion brands and consumers who “may not be ready for a complete elimination of cotton”.

Other recommendations include persuading consumers that polyester is as appealing as cotton, that it should develop more man-made fibres, and continue to enhance polyester.

If that strikes you as odd in a report that claimed to be concerned with sustainability, you’re not alone.

That market is already dominated by oil-based synthetic filament fibre, much of it polyester staple used in direct competition for cotton. While natural fibres currently account for just under 30% of total fibre production, that hasn’t always been the case. Demand for polyester only began to take off in the 1990s – “the fabric of choice,” as one site puts it, “in a changing economy of speed, efficiency and convenience.” Or in other words, fast fashion.

According to PCI Fibres, a specialist consultancy, “anyone in the fibre business has to be aware that polyester producers are constantly looking at other fibres and their markets to determine if polyester can take further market share.”

Given the Pulse Report’s advocacy of polyester, objective readers would be excused for concluding that it is doing exactly that.

What's Wrong with the Rankings

The Report has been roundly criticized by experts such as Greenpeace’s Dr Kirsten Brodde, and the natural fibre industries have filed official responses.  While portions of these responses can be technical, it is nonetheless important to make the main points known beyond the fashion industry. Why? Because, if left unchecked, reports like the Pulse have a way of working themselves into the public sphere, to be referred to and quoted from as though they were objective and balanced.

The Pulse Report bases its conclusions on incomplete life cycle data, takes a dismissive attitude to microfibre pollution and props up the fast fashion business model. This is misleading at best. Worse, the Report risks loss of credibility for an industry already known to be one of the world’s top sources of environmental pollution and worker exploitation.

“The most serious problem with the Pulse Report is that it presents a ranking of fibre types without the required data and analysis,” says Geoff Kingwill, Chair of the Sustainable Practices Working Group of the International Wool Textile Organisation (IWTO). “There are very clear rules about how to make comparisons of fibre products, particularly to the public. This problem is compounded by failure to make clear that the data the ranking relies upon is based in part on preliminary data. In addition, the ranking is based on just one stage – the first of several stages – of the life cycle of the fibre.

“The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which supplied the data for the report, is very much aware that overall impact ratings cannot be inferred from this one portion of data.

“It is particularly erroneous because while recycled polyester is included in the data used, recycled wool has yet to be incorporated,” Mr Kingwill added.

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition supplied the data for the Pulse Report through its Higg Index. The Higg Index is a work in progress, with SAC’s members – of which the wool industry is one – making continual improvements. The rankings in the Pulse Report were made using data from the raw materials stage of SAC’s Footprint Tool. Other stages are manufacture, consumer use, reuse and recycling, and disposal. IWTO for example is collecting data through research projects that will support development of the Footprint Tool for wool and across fibres. But data and methods are still under development.

There are strict rules about comparing fibre types, particularly when presented to the public. These rules are governed by the ISO, the International Organization for Standardization. The ISO standard – ISO 14040 to be exact – requires that public comparisons be based on a full life cycle assessment. Without including all impact categories, the picture created is incomplete. It seems obvious, and indeed best practice dictates, that inferences about environmental impacts based on only part of the life cycle lack diligence and scientific robustness.

Not only do such rankings disadvantage wool and other natural fibres, but they have the potential to mislead consumers and risk a loss of faith in the industry and data provider.

“A loss of credibility like that would be a shame,” says Dalena White, IWTO’s Secretary General. “SAC and its members have worked hard to develop an objective tool that can be used to make positive change.

“IWTO was not consulted for the Pulse Report, which is disappointing because wool is a meaningful part of the fashion apparel industry.”

Downplaying the Consequences of Fast Fashion

The Pulse Report compounds the ranking problem by turning a blind eye to the fact that polyester staple is a non-renewable, petroleum-based product, and for a report that claims to provide a common fact base on the fashion industry’s sustainability performance, takes a surprisingly dismissive attitude to microfibre pollution.

There is ever-growing concern and awareness of the microplastics pollution arising from the use of synthetics in apparel, but little more than two paragraphs were devoted to this topic in the Pulse Report.

Nor was analysis presented on the projected increase in microplastics pollution should the report’s recommendations be carried out (e.g., replacing 30% of “conventional cotton” by 2030 with polyester). The implications for ecosystems and human health are potentially vast.

Says Tone S. Tobiasson, editor of nicefashion.org, who has written on the subject for EcoTextile News, “One thing is that fast fashion and the fitness craze already have exploded the use of synthetic fibres, with increased laundering as one result. Once we realize that that marine animals are ingesting microplastic particles and fibres through the food chain, and that we are eating those fish and animals… the implications are serious and frightening.

“That the Pulse Report recommends increasing the presence of these fibres so drastically, is beyond frightening, especially in the light of the increased attention and research this is generating.”

The report unaccountably, props up the fast fashion business model, which is difficult to reconcile. Reports like Greenpeace’s After the Binge, the Hangover, which presents the results of a survey on shopping habits in Asia and Europe, identifies the biggest factor in the industry’s environmental footprint as “the rising volume of clothes produced and consumed.” Other commentators are also condemning overconsumption (see, for example, A shopper’s manifesto to quitting fast fashion). A documentary on the subject won an award at the 2016 London Film Festival.

The Way Forward

Wool has a long history of use in modern apparel and high-end fashion, and its uses in sleepwear, protective wear and athletic and leisurewear are gaining appreciation. IWTO and other natural fibre organisations will continue to work within the industry to improve its sustainability performance.

IWTO and its members have significantly invested in research into wool’s life cycle assessment. A critical element of this work is to ensure that consumers, NGOs and the industry at large can be confident that the information they receive is scientifically robust and defensible.

In addition to its numerous natural benefits when used in apparel, wool provides a livelihood to communities all over the world, including developing economies, with social and cultural benefits extending beyond the textile supply chain.  We are just beginning to more fully understand – and appreciate – how interconnected the natural world is. To lose yet more wool now to oil-based synthetics would be a very great loss indeed.

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