The True Cost of Wool

By Anna Hunter

“Your clothes are an agricultural act—by purchasing and wearing you are voting for the agriculture you do or don’t want to see in the world, and depending on how your clothes break down, you’re either feeding microbes, or you’re leaving a world of plastic pollution.” – Rebecca Burgess (Founder of Fibershed)

We have become so disconnected from the source of our textiles and the steps in their processing that we seldom consider the true cost of these items. The last 15 months in Canada has exposed the fragility of many of our supply chains, including that of our clothes and textiles. By moving textile manufacturing offshore we have become dependent on wasteful, destructive practices over which we have little control. The global textile industry is responsible for significant GHG emissions, water pollution and thousands of tonnes of textiles in landfills every year. We have become so disconnected from the source of our textiles that we seldom consider the true cost of these items.

Canada does not grow cotton, but we have a strong sheep industry and historically have grown and manufactured wool for clothing and other textiles. Wool is an incredible resource that is both renewable and biodegradable. Wool is hygroscopic (temperature regulating), fire retardant and odour resistant. Wool can help fight against climate change and be a temporary carbon sink.  Pasture grasses take CO2 from the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil, roots and grass. Sheep that are fed on pasture utilize that carbon to grow wool. Organic carbon makes up 50 per cent of the weight of wool—and when that wool is returned to the soil it returns those nutrients back to the soil.

While we raise just over 3 million sheep, and they produce 1 million pounds of wool annually, only 10 per cent of this wool is processed domestically with small mills and farmers. The remaining 90 per cent is sold on the international wool market and shipped to China, India, and the Czech Republic—countries with less stringent environmental and labour policies—for processing. However, it hasn’t always been this way. In the first two decades of the 20th century, we imported about 9 per cent of our textiles, meaning we had the capacity to produce most of what we consumed. 100 years later we now produce less than 2 per cent of our textiles. Canada has lost most of our infrastructure to manufacture wool into textiles.

In fact, most of our clothing and wool is produced in China, Bangladesh, Taiwan, Mexico, and other countries that do not have rigorous environment and labour laws. This means our textiles are manufactured at a much lower cost to us as consumers but does not account for the true environmental and social costs of producing those items.

Would we think differently about purchasing clothing if labels listed some of the true costs?  For example:

  • The wool for this sweater travelled over 13,000 miles from a Canadian sheep farm to China and then back again. (We know that the transport of goods globally accounts for about 14 per cent of GHG emissions).
  • The dye run-off from these jeans was dumped into the Chilai River in Bangladesh.
  • The factory worker who made this sweater was paid $4 per hour.

We as consumers of commercial wool and textiles do not pay the true cost of manufacturing. What is the cost of biologically dead rivers and waterways from the waste effluent of the process of superwashing our wools?  What is the cost for poor communities (most often racialized communities) working under intolerable labour conditions for the newest fashions?

Would we think twice about our choices if our textiles had a more transparent and traceable label that informed us of what the true costs of production were?

It is possible to abandon the exploitative models of production of the past 50 years and look to build regenerative systems of wool and textile production that include a commitment to racial and environmental justice.  We can prioritize the needs of communities at every level rather than the dividends of shareholders.

Building resilient regional models of textile production is one solution. If we view our textiles through a soil-to-soil lens we can become connected to the source of our clothing.  We can then learn about who is growing our fibre and how they steward land. We can explore the small and medium-sized manufacturers in our communities and purchase products from them.  We can begin to make, mend or recycle our clothes to extend their life and connect us to the labour involved. We can ask the question of whether our textiles can be composted and returned to the soil to break down and deliver nutrients back to the biosphere, or if they will simply stay in landfills. To support your own local textile system or learn more check out the fibreshed movement:

Photo credit: Anastasia Zhenina

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