PHOTOGRAPHY: FARHAD SAMARI
WRITER: PAUL TRYNKA
Renewable, warm, odour-resistant, non-flammable, hypoallergenic, elastic, soft, wrinkle-free: wool is a natural fibre with a lot going for it. Yet according to a 2017 report by the global non-profit organisation Textile Exchange, wool and down accounts for only 1.3 per cent of the world’s fibre production. This is partly due to a communication problem: ‘Over the last half a century, consumer messaging on wool has been confusing,’ says Alberto Rossi, business development manager of Organica, a new arm of French company Chargeurs Luxury Materials, one of the world’s leading suppliers of premium wool fibre. Cheap synthetic alternatives now have a 68.3 per cent share of the textiles market.
Increasingly savvy luxury consumers understand the environmental cost of producing and disposing of synthetic materials, but they are also often aware of some of the downsides of wool production, including animal cruelty, worker exploitation and pollution. Which explains why, as the luxury goods groups get serious about sustainability and look to overhaul their manufacturing and supply chains, producers are busy polishing their environmental credentials.
Chargeurs Luxury Materials promised a traceable and sustainable supply chain when it launched its Organica precious fibre last autumn. ‘Through the development of new global standards, we want to become the game changer of the luxury natural fibre world,’ says Michaël Fribourg, the Chargeurs group’s chairman and CEO. Establishing those standards means hitting suppliers with a lengthy list of protocols, covering animal and environmental welfare, land management and corporate social responsibility.
This value chain begins with over 3,500 growers across Patagonia, Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand and the United States, many of whom Chargeurs has worked with for generations, and some of whom will be certified with the Organica standard. One of them is Estancia Cerro Buenos Aires, an 11,000-hectare farm in El Calafate, Patagonia, which produces 25-30 tonnes of wool per year, and fleeces 1,000 animals a day during the week-long autumn shearing season. Organica’s growers produce ‘greasy wool’ of between 14 (the same fineness as goat-produced cashmere) and 23 microns. This is then combed and spun into high-end yarn. Wool below 20 microns is suitable for insulating next-to-skin performance wear, while 18.5 microns is the optimum fibre diameter for a soft worsted wool suit.
Organica has a two-track approach to traceability. Brands (and their customers) are able to trace the specific farm or farmers that have supplied their merino wool. Or, they can work with Organica to develop a full traceability programme, which extends across every supply chain stage from sheep to spinner, garment maker to shop floor. A third-party company is responsible for auditing each element of the supply chain. ‘Every farmer has to prove a high compliance level with our demanding Organica protocol,’ says Uruguay-based Federico Paullier, managing director of Chargeurs Luxury Materials.
Textile Exchange’s Preferred Fiber Materials Market Report estimates that organic wool makes up only one per cent of the 1.2 million tonnes of wool produced globally, but demand for traceable and ethical wool is gaining momentum. Presaging Organica’s protocols, the non-profit organisation set up the Responsible Wool Standard in 2016, auditing sheep farms according to land management standards and animal welfare. This includes guidelines for preventing environmental degeneration due to animal grazing, and restrictions on ‘mulesing’, a painful and controversial procedure, used in Australia, which sees strips of skin removed from the breeches of sheep, to prevent myiasis or ‘fly strike’.
Gabriela Hearst, who grew up in Uruguay on a merino sheep ranch that has been in her family for six generations, founded her eponymous sustainability-focused brand in 2015. Operating her fashion label from New York, she supplies Italian mills with wool from her own farm, and buys surplus deadstock fibre as part of her label’s production process. ‘I can’t stand the thought of the world’s most beautiful wool being stuck in a warehouse because it is a few seasons old,’ Hearst says. ‘To be a true luxury brand today, you have to have a strong commitment to raw materials.’
New York-based fashion label Theory launched its sustainability-focused Good Wool capsule collection for A/W 2017, sourcing wool from Beaufront, an ethical farm in Tasmania, which is then spun at the Tollegno textile mill in Italy, powered by renewable energy.
Stella McCartney’s long-term commitment to sustainable manufacturing once looked maverick; now her views are mainstream. Still, she keeps pushing for more care and concern across the industry. Last November, the British label and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched the Circular Fibres Initiative, a report assessing the devastating environmental impact of the textile industry. Its findings included an estimate that by 2050, 22 trillion tones of synthetic microfibres will have been released into the oceans.
The brand’s Cradle-to-Cradle Certified Gold Level wool yarn is produced without using toxic substances, and can therefore be safely biodegraded back into soil. ‘Through every step of the supply chain we optimised chemical inputs,’ McCartney says of the process that took two years to develop. Her commitment to wool production promotes the concept of a non-linear, circular economy, where garments are reused, recycled, or biologically harnessed to regenerate natural systems. ‘Our goal was to ensure that one of our key wool yarns was a safe building block towards this idea.’
Woolmark is developing its relationship with the Fashion Tech Lab, which aims to help brands improve their environmental footprints. It seeks out producers who do not use petrochemicals, toxic APEO/NPEO compound-based detergents or fluorocarbon-based finishes, and favour waterless dyes. Bangkok-based textile manufacturer Yeh Group uses DryDye, a compressed, recycled carbon dioxide to colour fabric. Pili, which operates from two laboratories in France, cultivates bacteria to produce renewable natural dye, while Colorifix has developed a new approach to dyeing from its headquarters in Cambridge, UK, which uses ten times less water than conventional practices.
The high street is doing its homework, too. Last September, Control Union, a global specialist in sustainability programmes, joined forces with H&M to launch Connected, a data service that allows retailers to track complex supply chains. Connected is currently working with 600 companies, which are able to trace whether controversial practices like mulesing are being used within their supply chain, or whether wool fibre is being blended with other materials as it travels upstream. They even have the option of placing QR codes on their clothing labels, as a way for customers to digitally trace the origin of a garment.
Chargeurs Luxury Materials’ target is that 50 per cent of its wool fibre meets the Organica standard by 2021, and 100 per cent in the following decade. For the company’s growers, who already operate with high production values, meeting these new standards means extra costs. Farmers may need to purchase organic, heavy, metal-free fertilisers, install new housing pens, or retrain their staff in revised lambing, shearing and slaughter practices. ‘Farmers need to do a lot of homework,’ says Paullier. However, he estimates that after implementing Organica’s protocol, farmers’ profits will increase by five per cent. ‘It’s an investment. When we grow, they grow.’ He also estimates the cost increase to the brand to be one per cent, and even less to the consumer. In order for customers to purchase high quality, traceable and renewable garments, which can be implemented into a circular economy, it’s a tiny mark-up to absorb. ‘At the end of the day’, Paullier adds, ‘the person who is really going to drive this demand is the consumer.’
BY LAURA HAWKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY: GEORDIE WOOD