The carbon footprint of wool has been grossly overstated, according to a consortium of Australian woolgrowers, scientists, and carbon specialists known as the Wool Carbon Alliance. The group, which claims that recent advances in methodology have resulted in estimates up to 60 to 80 percent lower than previously indicated, wants to challenge existing notions about wool carbon using “current and relevant” science. “We are finding that the wool fiber production systems, based on renewable grass and natural vegetation, complement current demands to reduce carbon emissions,” announced Martin Oppenheimer, chairman of the alliance, on Tuesday. “Wool is part of the natural cycle of water and carbon that can impact climate in a positive way.”

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Wool’s status as a sustainable fiber is not uncontested. Unlike leather or fur, it doesn’t require the animal’s demise. Vegans eschew the fiber, however, because they oppose practices such as mulesing, a painful surgical operation that involves cutting flaps of flesh from around a lamb’s breech and tail to prevent flystrike, a parasitic infection rampant in flocks in Australia.

A growing movement exists to promote wool as an eco-friendly alternative to petroleum-based synthetics.

Sheep, like other ruminants, also happen to be methane-belching machines. Lumped with other livestock, they are responsible for more greenhouse-gas emissions than cars are, according to a United Nations report.

Yet at the same time, a growing movement exists to promote wool as a fashionable, durable, and eco-friendly alternative to petroleum-based synthetics such as polyester, most notably by Britain’s Campaign for Wool, which holds an annual “Wool Week” to fete all things wild and wooly.

But can woolgrowing actually help stem global warming? “Advanced methods of on-farm carbon accounting have shown how woolgrowers can play an important role in the carbon cycle,” says Stephen Wiedemann, an independent agricultural scientist with FSA Consulting. “Preliminary results suggest where soil carbon sequestration can be achieved, wool production can be carbon-neutral.”

Australian Wool Innovation, an industry group of 29,000 Australian woolgrowers and, incidentally, a thorn in People for the Ethical Treatment of Animal’s side, counts itself among the researchers working on ways to slash wool’s carbon footprint by reducing energy use during manufacturing, laundering, and garment disposal. The leading offender? Dyeing, which the group will tackle in two ways: first, by looking at mechanical modifications to the dyeing machine and second, investigating the dyeing process itself.

“With regard to domestic laundering of wool garments,” the organization adds, “AWI is exploring technology that allows wool garments to be successfully washed at lower temperatures than the normal 40°C wash. In addition, work is being conducted to reduce the drying time during tumble drying…by about 30 percent.”

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