Which Is Better: Organic Cotton Or Wool?

It’s a debate that has long raged between sustainable fashionistas and vegans. So, which is better: organic cotton or wool?

By Chere Di Boscio

When we talk about sustainable, responsible knitwear, the factor most conscious shoppers consider first is whether or not the fibre is natural and biodegradable. This is especially important given that much knitwear today is created from acrylic or polyester, both of which shed harmful microparticles.

While the Global Fashion Agenda found the environmental impact of acrylic and polyester production to be far reduced as compared to wool or cotton, it’s undeniable that synthetics will never biodegrade. On the other hand, wool and cotton are both biodegradable, feel great on the skin, and are considered to be more luxurious than petrol based fibres. So, if we’re looking to buy the most ethical and eco-friendly knitwear we can find, which is better: organic cotton or wool?

The answer is: that depends.

Global Warming & Land Use

If climate change is your main concern, you should know that wool is far less eco-friendly than organic cotton. Sheep emit a huge amount of methane through a process called ‘enteric fermentation’ – essentially sheep passing gas and belching. In fact, in Australia – the world’s largest producer of wool – 10% of that nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions, including transportation and mining, are made up by enteric fermentation of sheep and cattle. In New Zealand, a competing wool-producing nation, one third of all emissions are produced by sheep.

Both cotton and wool have a dangerous capacity for degrading the soil without careful consideration. Degraded soil is of serious concern to us all, as it can lose its ability to house nutrients and micro-organisms that create a healthy ecosystem. The ultimate consequence is ‘dead’ soil that doesn’t produce plants without the heavy use of fertilisers and chemicals. However, rotational farming practices in both instances can work to protect soil health. 

The less land surface that’s used for plant or animal farming, the more land that’s available for rewilding, allowing more wildlife to return to their natural habitats. But at the time of my writing this article, a whopping 36% of native Australian land has been cleared for the sheep meat and wool industry, with a further shocking 92% of all land clearing being connected to animal agriculture. The other 8% of cleared land is used up by all crop plants (such as beans, apples, cotton and so on), mining, and for use in our cities and roads.

While we may think of cities as taking up enormous tracts of land, their impact is actually paltry compared to that of farming.

Then, there’s pesticides and insecticides to consider. This is another complex element of all farming (and one which probably needs it’s own article!). Both organic cotton and wool are available, though organic cotton is far more accessible.

If we look at cotton, pesticide use varies hugely between producers – for example, Australian cotton farmers claim to have reduced insecticide use by 95%, due to producing GMO cotton. However, the reality is that GMO plants don’t at all reduce their use of chemicals, as they are genetically modified to intrinsically contain insecticide right in the plant. They’re deemed to be ‘Roundup ready’ – but let’s not forget that Roundup is just the brand name for glyphosate, a chemical that causes cancer.

While some cotton does use a large amount of chemicals in its growth, it’s little known that wool production does too. Sheep are ‘dipped’ into chemicals – thrown into baths of chemical filled water, to prevent parasites. If this is something which concerns you, organic wool may suit you better.

Water Use

When we look at the Global Fashion Agenda’s comparative analysis of the environmental impacts of material production, at first glance it appears cotton is much more impactful, due to its heavy water consumption.

This is of particular concern in countries like Australia, where cotton growing monoculture was blamed for the devastating fires that raged through the country recently. Greens Senator for South Australia Sarah Hanson-Young labelled the idea of cotton being farmed in Australia as ‘madness.’

“The idea that we spend our precious water growing cotton in South Australia is stupid and dangerous. We are the driest state in the driest continent on earth. Our water resources are precious and we are facing a dramatically drying climate, the last thing we need is big corporate cotton taking more water,” she said.

However, the GFA states that ‘water use for cotton depends a great deal on the method of cultivation’. Basically, ‘conventionally’ grown cotton differs to cotton which is grown sustainably and/or organically. Some cotton is entirely rain fed, requiring no irrigation. 1kg of cotton grown in drier areas of India was found to require over 22,000 litres of water, whereas in the Southern USA, cotton only uses 8,000 litres per kg.

With the large majority of cotton’s recorded eco-impact relating to water, where cotton is sourced from and how it’s produced is clearly very important. If it’s well sourced, from areas that naturally receive much rainfall (i.e. not Australia), the fibre’s overall environmental impact could be smaller than that of wool.

As for wool, clean, fresh water is a daily necessity for sheep and lambs. Sheep will consume anywhere from 1 to 19 litres of water per day, depending upon their physiological state, the content of water in their food, and environmental conditions.

Interestingly, according to Tree Hugger, the impact of wool and cotton on our water systems is about the same, as both take 101 gallons of water to make 1 pound of fabric. The difference is that the wool will leave less pesticide in the water system.

Compassion and Ethics

Many people have been misled to believe that the wool industry is fairly harmless. It’s widely thought that so long as shearing is completed gently and carefully (though worldwide investigations consistently show this not to be the case), everything is well and good. Unfortunately, this is far from the reality of the wool industry. Across the world, it is standard practice for sheep to be legally and harmfully mutilated without pain relief – castrated, their tails cut off, and in some cases, the skin around their rear end sliced off. 

All sheep that are bred for wool are also bred for meat, considered ‘dual-purpose’ by the industry – even woolly merino lambs. Sheep are either shorn of their wool before they are slaughtered as young lambs, or they are shorn regularly over some years, and then ‘cast for age’ when their wool decreases in quality, just like human hair as we age. These sheep are slaughtered at about 5 or 6 years old, which is at least, only half their natural lifespan. Often, these older sheep end up on live export ships, which are very cruel.

If we choose not to eat lambs and sheep, it only makes sense not to wear their wool.

As for cotton, there are some animal impacts, too, but they’re less severe: of course, insects are killed by insecticides, but most devastatingly, in Australia, an estimated 1 billion animals died in the fires, and one of the greatest causes of those fires was a lack of water due to cotton monoculture.

So, Which Is Better: Organic Cotton Or Wool?

With all this in mind, what kind of knitwear should we buy? The true answer is: it depends on your outlook.

Personally, as I still want to opt for biodegradable knitwear over a synthetic ones, acrylic and polyester are out for me. As I refuse to support the slaughter of sheep, wool is out, too, especially if I can find a rain fed, organic cotton knit. In fact, it hurts my heart to think of contributing to the suffering and slaughtering of all animals – but especially the gentle sheep. But that’s just me – others may opt for organic wool, or a brand that uses recycled wool in its designs. 

For everybody, though, the best way to make sure our knitwear (and all our clothes) is responsibly sourced is to become better informed about production processes. Let’s inform our decisions based on what we feel matters most to us. Let’s really think about what kind of world we want to live in, and what that looks like, and how we get there.

Ask brands questions, see what they know (or don’t know) about their supply chains and their materials. Research different fabrics. Read reports and articles that are backed by solid evidence. And remember always that knowledge is power. 

All organic cotton images by St Agni.

Chere Di Boscio
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