Is traditional wool or acrylic better for the planet?
In the bid to go green, there can often be opposing views: what is ethically-sound may not be most sustainable, what is environmentally beneficial may be at odds with ethical aims. Whether food, travel or clothing choices, the more aware we are, the more moral questions arise. To take the headache out of these decisions, we take a look at both traditional and synthetic wool, and weigh up which one is more sustainable overall.
Sourcing clothes ethically is a growing consideration for many , with a number of environmental factors in the mind of the consumer. ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ is a common mantra with online marketplaces such as ‘Depop’ rising in popularity. Many people are also taking to older methods, with the sale of handmade items booming on Etsy. Few of us can deny the lure of high quality knitwear, but do we know which yarn is more sustainable overall? Let’s take a look.
At first glance, acrylic yarn seems by far the more ethical choice. Unlike wool taken from animals, acrylic alternatives seem non-exploitive to animals and often provide a go-to for those aiming to live a more ethically – often vegan – ethos. Sheep continuously grow the ‘wool’ product, so while commodifying animal products is an ethical debate, the wool itself is an organic, continuously abundant fibre. While this means the sheep would be confined and kept purely for the wool it produces, the growth of its fleece is a natural process. Acrylic, on the other hand, depends on human and mechanical processing and is not a natural process.
When it comes to the cost of sourcing materials, organic wool is initially more expensive to the buyer but with far fewer externalised costs on the environment. It is a natural fibre – coming predominantly from sheep and other farmed animals across the globe – and generally a more natural, organic and traditional process. Of course, there are the overheads and environmental costs involved in rearing, keeping and shearing animals. More recently, the low fetching price of wool has pushed sheep farmers to opt for self-moulting sheep; the cost of shearing sheep is often more expensive than the wool itself, so more and more farmers are opting for sheep that shed their own fleece. This somewhat moves around the ethical concerns of sheep shearing and handling.
In comparison, synthetic acrylic is far cheaper to the consumer but with much greater externalised costs. Produced artificially through a synthetic polymer knowns as ‘acrylonitrile’, its base material is derived from petroleum or coal-based chemicals and synthesised into acrylic resin pellets. This resin is then extruded through a machine to make acrylic wool – the manufactured filament, cut into lengths and spun into yarn. The acrylic wool goes through a range of processes where chemicals can be added to give the fibres different additional properties, such as flame retardant.
In terms of air miles, it is very possible to source locally-produced wool. From the UK to South America and all the way to Australia, most locations globally have a range of local wool producers. There are also numerous businesses specialising in locally-made clothing. Acrylic quickly racks up high air miles, with components for the products flown around the world to be produced, manufactured, warehoused, picked and packed.
The finished products perform very differently too. Wool is warmer and more durable overall, meaning less heating is needed for those who wear wool products. Arguably, wool can be seen as itchy, but texture preferences aren’t common to everyone. While said to be less irritating to sensitive skin, low-cost acrylic is less durable, non-breathable and made from plastic. Once you’re done wearing it, acrylic washes better in the washing machine whereas wool produced must be washed at low temperatures with less water and less often.
Ultimately, it seems that acrylic provides a cheaper, vegan-friendly option. With wool far more expensive to buy and arguably cruel farming methods, it seems an outdated product. Acrylic is low allergy, low cost, low cruelty but low quality. It uses plastic and machines and deals a heavier blow on the planet. Wool has the potential to be sourced locally, boasting far fewer air miles. Wool needs more considerate care but less water and lower temperatures. As a natural produce, wool is far more sustainable overall and lasts much longer than acrylic.
With the emergency situation of the planet and the clear environmental threat posed by the fashion industry, perhaps we could find a mid-ground of using ethically collected wool to tread more lightly on the planet. Of course, wool and acrylic are not the only materials, with cotton, bamboo and hemp yarns also offering vegan alternatives without synthetic processes.