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BRUSSELS – Natural fibres such as cotton and wool offer many solutions to the world’s current environmental challenges, but they risk being misrepresented by sustainability ratings systems. This was one of my key messages when talking at the recent Bremen Cotton Conference.

More than 450 participants from 32 countries attended this online conference, which brings together cotton and other textile specialists from around the world.

In a panel on responsible fibre production, I cautioned attendees that, under current ratings systems, products made from wool and cotton are at risk of being rated poorly compared to synthetics.

At present, fibre rating schemes do not reward the attributes of natural raw materials; likewise, they do not penalise key environmental impacts of fossil fuel-based raw materials.

If this misleading picture remains the same, the net result will be falling demand for wool and cotton as brand purchasing managers are forced to look for alternative fibres with ‘better’ ratings.

Fast fashion addiction

If we want to establish responsible textile and fibre production standards for the future, we will have to face the elephant in the room: our addiction to fast fashion. This highly lucrative business model, enabled by the massive growth in fossil fuel-based fibres turned into low quality garments by the lowest labour rate available for the season, has been dominating our industry for the past 30 years, resulting in opaque supply chains.

It need not be this way. The responsible fibre production systems of the future must include responsible fibre consumption.

Natural fibres such as wool and cotton offer many solutions to the current environmental crisis. Unlike fossil fuel-based fibres, wool and cotton are indefinitely renewable, and they can be grown again year after year.

At the end of life, these fibre types can be used again, with wool valued for closed-loop recycling and ultimately, when the fibre is exhausted and no longer suitable for clothing, it is valued in insulation and bedding because of its inherent flame resistance. Similarly, cotton fabric is valued for recycling because of its hydrophilic, moisture absorbent nature.

Research has established that wool fibres biodegrade in both marine and terrestrial environments and do not contribute to microfibre pollution. Indeed, last year, IWTO published the first full study which revealed wool garments have less impacts in the use phase because they are laundered less often than other fibre types and are kept in active use by consumers for longer, saving valuable resources during the use-phase. Further work in the pipeline has shown that impacts can be dramatically reduced by using garments to their potential.

Clock is ticking

The current rating rules that will soon be applied to textiles, designed largely by the European Commission, result in all-natural fibres being rated as less sustainable than synthetic fibres.

Accordingly, under these systems:

• Renewable and biodegradable fibres do not receive any positive scoring

• Petroleum based fibres receive no penalties for being non-renewable and non-biodegradable

• Microplastic pollution does not carry any negative scoring

• Natural fibres are fully costed for the environmental impacts of growing the plants that lead to fibre formation (i.e., the land, water and energy used, GHG emissions, etc.)

By contrast, the environmental impacts of growing the plants that ultimately form crude oil are not accounted for. A level playing field is not possible between clothing made from natural and synthetic fibres without improvements to the EC’s rating rules.

It is clear that it is not in the interest of fast fashion to allow natural fibres their deserved place in a balanced ecological environment. If left unchecked these scoring systems will see cotton, silk, wool, and other valued animal fibres relegated to the ranks of the unsustainable throughout the production cycle and ultimately at point of sale.

Time to make your voice heard

It’s not too late to change things. The European Union has targeted the textiles industry as a priority sector for establishing sustainability standards, in order to achieve climate neutrality and a true circular economy. Clothing and textile products sold in the EU may soon be required to carry labels displaying their environmental credentials, in the expectation that consumers will use these to make the best choice for the planet in their purchasing decisions.

The EU’s clothing and footwear industry employs 1.5m people across more than 160,000 EU companies, many of them SMEs in development areas.

Wool textile processing maintains a significant manufacturing presence in Europe, from the Atlantic coast to the Bulgarian border.

In addition, due to their relatively high value, wool textiles play a pivotal role in proximity sourcing in the circular economy.

The Sustainable Products Initiative, which will propose legislation aimed at making products sold in the EU more sustainable, is open for public consultation until 09 June 2021. Make your voice heard in support for natural fibres by completing the questionnaire on ec.europa.eu. A proposal from the European Commission is planned for the end of the year. 

Dalena White is the secretary general of the International Wool Textile Organisation


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