Below are some environmental comparisons of wool with cotton and bamboo fibre:
- locally abundant (UK)
- produced by grass fed animals, therefore little or no outside input is required, such as foreign produced feedstuffs
- land is not ploughed, therefore sequestering carbon in permanent pasture
- an annually produced crop, the sheep are sheared and return to graze
- very simple processing into felt, just detergent to scour the wool, then mechanical tangling of the wool
The bamboo that is used in textiles is technically classed as a ‘manmade’ fibre; it is not naturally fibrous, and has to be treated with caustic chemicals by the Rayon process to make it into fibre for spinning and weaving into cloth. Add ‘textile miles’ to this – i.e. it is mostly produced in China – and it’s environmental credentials become very dubious. Here’s just one of the links for more information but there are plenty of others. Personally, I don’t buy anything made from Bamboo fibre.
Cotton carries a massive carbon footprint. With the growing, harvesting and processing of the fibre we see soil erosion on a massive scale, exploitation, pesticides, fertilizers (both the latter with their own, huge footprint), massive water use, massive mileage in processing and manufacture before it reaches the UK. Organic cotton production is a whole heap better, but there are mountains of cotton recyclables in the UK, which it would be far greener to make use of.
My Personal Summary
I would say this, of course, but wool IS the best. I add the caveat that sheep need to be managed in a sustainable and welfare friendly way, so not too many per acre, graze them on well managed permanent pasture, with plenty of shelter from trees (which could also be productive, such as apples and nuts) with excellent husbandry. Primitive breeds are best, as they tend to be more resistant to pests and diseases and can be grazed as part of conservation management.
The other fibres I’d like to mention are flax and hemp, both of which used to be grown and processed into cloth in the UK. Unfortunately we have lost all our baste fibre processing mills, but potentially the UK could be self-sustaining in the fibres we need to cloth ourselves. Both fibres can be grown without the use of fertilisers and pesticides and the processing is also, potentially, low impact. Here’s a link to a project I’m involved in, that has a vision of such a future.