Padded wool peacoat from Filippa K autumn/winter 2016

Elin Larsson: Reflections on our wool report

How sustainable is a fibre? Filippa K has evaluated the environmental impact of wool from a holistic perspective. The report shows that the environmental status of wool should be reconsidered, concludes Filippa K Sustainability Director Elin Larsson.

“How sustainable is a fibre? Answering this question poses a real challenge for our industry today. It’s a very complicated and complex task that also needs to be simplified so that users of fibre tools, like designers and other decision makers, can easily adjust to them and make them an integrated part of the their everyday work.

Today most fibre tools only look at the environmental impact of the raw material and the process of turning the raw material into readymade fabric. In other words, they do not consider the fibre from a holistic perspective, excluding the production phase of the product, the user phase, the recycling phase or the end-of-life in their analysis. This unfortunately leads our industry in the wrong direction sometimes, causing us to make bad decisions during the designer phase–even if we think they are good ones.

Take the example of synthetic fibres. They score pretty good in most tools, due to little water- and energy use and low emission on green house gases in comparison to e.g. cotton and wool. But knowing that the fibre is made of oil, which is a finite resource; that synthetic fibres live about 200 years before being degraded; and that all synthetic fibres shred during the washing phase, releasing micro plastic fibres into our oceans, animals and our food; sheds a new light on the synthetic fibres. Researchers say that our oceans contain more plastic than fish today, and micro plastics from synthetic materials is a major contributor to this.

Do we then really want to encourage brands to use more of that fibre? Until we have a solution on how to filter the micro plastics in our washing machines and water purifying plants we should not use synthetics at all.

Wool is another fibre that requires a holistic approach when assessing the level of sustainability. It scores bad in most fibre tools due to high release of green house gases, the use of land and challenges in terms of animal treatment. In order to make a decision on whether to continue to work with wool or not, Filippa K and Axfoundation did a deep dive analysis of wool together with TruCost, with input from Textile Exchange, evaluating the fibre from the sheep farm all the way to end-of-life, looking at the environmental impact but also looking at animal welfare and social aspects.

And you know what? It turned out that wool is not so bad after all. Let me give you a summary of our findings:

« It turned out that wool is not so bad after all »


The report identifies how the choice of different practices, both on a farm level and on the use side, can influence the positive and negative impacts associated with wool. 

Produced and designed in a durable way, woolen garments can significantly reduce the overall life cycle impact of garments by minimizing virgin material production for new garments, and reducing energy and water use in maintenance.

There are some major challenges. For instance looking at animal welfare, surgical treatments (such as mulesing, castration and tail docking), transportation and shearing are the stages that pose the highest risk for unethical treatment of the animals.

Looking at the social aspects, the most challenging stages are insecticide poisoning from sheep dips, zoonosis and shearing injuries. These are however pose less of a challenge compared to the other implications of wool.

We ended up not including landuse in our calculation. Region valuation is too abstract from the specifics of land management, dry matter levels and farming practice to appropriately assess land use change impact. 

The natural capital assessment identifies that GHG (greenhouse gas) is the dominant impact of sheep farming and wool production, regardless of allocation methodology.

The natural capital cost of organic wool compared to conventional shows a 4% decrease, though this is considered to be an under-representation due to limited data availability. The most significant reductions are apparent in water use (26%), terrestrial ecotoxicity (33%) and human toxicity (13%), while GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions, the most significant impact, was reduced by 4%.

Wool is highly durable and requires little use phase maintenance. Compared to other fibres such as cotton, woolen garments can be used longer between washing cycles due to the natural repellence to soiling. Some washing can be replaced by airing, and wash programs have lower washing temperatures and shorter washing cycles. In addition, once garments are worn out, wool is highly recyclable, and unlike many other fibre types, the quality of fibre remains high even after mechanical recycling. As such, the opportunity to minimise the overall impact of a woolen garment is high, with design for longevity and clear consumer engagement offering potential natural capital savings.

The use phase and end of use phase account for over 40% of the total natural capital cost of a woolen sweater. However, use phase is highly variable depending on how consumers care for, wash and dry their garments. Optimised practice, such as washing garments less frequently (possible due to wool’s self-cleaning characteristics), and taking back for reuse or recycling at the end of its useful life, can reduce impacts by 58%.


To summarize, our report show that assessing garments over their entire lifecycle and counting the natural capital cost per wear of a garment present a more appropriate account of garments’ true ‘sustainability’. This takes longevity and durability into account, as well as recyclability.

It is also important to highlight that the animal welfare issues, the farming practices and the social issues in many cases comes down to the price. What are we willing to pay for wool? This question should be addressed to both us, the retailers, and the users. How can we guarantee that every stake holder along the value chain gets paid enough money so they do not have to take unsustainable short cuts and decisions that will have a negative effect on workers, animals and the environment? What is the true and fair price for wool?”

/Elin Larsson, Sustainability Director Filippa K


Click here to read our report: Filippa K Wool Report

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