Orna Mulcahy: Time for more wooly thinking on sustainability

As fashion houses race to produce lab-grown, sustainable fabrics, Irish wool is forgotten

Fashion houses are in a race to produce a whole new wardrobe of lab-grown fabrics to help clothe the world more sustainably, from handbags made from mushroom fibre to sneakers spun from pineapple skins. It sounds exciting but it’s not fooling Greta Thunberg.

This week, the climate activist used a Vogue cover photograph of herself to hammer fast-fashion producers, accusing them of misleading consumers with feel-good labelling while continuing to harm the planet.

In an Instagram post highlighting the cover, Thunberg said: “Many are making it look as if the fashion industry are starting to take responsibility, by spending fantasy amounts on campaigns where they portray themselves as ‘ethical’, ‘green’, ‘climate neutral’ and ‘fair’. But let’s be clear: this is almost never anything but pure greenwashing. You cannot mass-produce fashion or consume ‘sustainably’ as the world is shaped today.”

Shoppers are seeking out brands that claim to do better and there has been a corresponding rise in labels promising planet-friendly alternatives to mainstream fashion

Thunberg appears on the cover of Vogue Scandinavia’s inaugural issue, wrapped in the folds of a dusty rose trench coat. Inside, she reveals that she hasn’t bought a new item of clothing for three years and even that was second-hand. Hardly music to the ears of Vogue advertisers who are coming under increased consumer scrutiny for their role in the climate crisis.


A recent report from consulting firm McKinsey entitled Fashion on Climate, shows that the fashion and textiles sector was responsible for a colossal level of greenhouse gas emissions in 2018 – 2.1 metric tons, about four per cent of the global total and more than the output of Germany, France and the UK combined. To reach targets set in the Paris Agreement the industry would need to cut its emissions by almost half by 2030 but it hasn’t a hope.

In fact, McKinsey estimates the industry’s greenhouse gas emission levels will likely rise to about 2.7 billion tons instead. Meanwhile, the United Nations has issued a Fashion Charter for Climate Action, exhorting fashion houses and textile producers to urgently commit to cutting carbon emissions.

Shoppers are taking note and seeking out brands that claim to do better and there has been a corresponding rise in labels promising planet-friendly alternatives to mainstream fashion. Over the past five years the number of labels describing themselves as sustainable has more than quadrupled among online retailers in the United States and UK, according to a report in the Financial Times.

How can one tell if they are genuine? The website goodonyou.eco is a useful resource with information on more than 2,000 brands and interesting content such as "Eight Ethical Alternatives to Primark" and "How Ethical is COS"? (Not very, but it is trying.)

High street outlets such as M&S and H&M are using more organic and recycled, and even vintage, fabrics while the major fashion conglomerates are investing heavily in alternative fabrics in an effort to move away from resource-heavy production fabrics such as cotton and silk.

Eco-clothing pioneer Patagonia is coming up with even more exotic and unusual fabrics for its outdoor wear. Years ago I felt quite the warrior buying one of its fleece jackets made from recycled plastic bottles. That’s old-hat now with ingredients such as dried coffee grounds and squid suckers being fashioned into fabric.

Just as one day we may snack on insects instead of crisps, so could we be wearing tracksuit bottoms spun from seaweed, underwear made from, who knows, recycled Amazon cartons, and shoes magicked up from vats of apple skins and cores.

Once it's been produced, polyester keeps on polluting, but it is cheap and fast-fashion brands continue to pump it out

But even as Hermes toils away on a new “leather” made from agriculture waste (unspecified) and H&M experiments with a “silk” created from spent orange skins, the predominate fabric being spun across the industry is polyester.

Where once the very word would have sent shivers down a fashionista’s spine, evoking visions of Hyacinth Bucket in one of her pleated frocks, today the synthetic fabric is everywhere, accounting for just more than half of all textile production.

Hundreds of millions of barrels of oil are used each year to manufacture the stuff and efforts to recycle it have not reached any scale. Once it’s been produced, polyester keeps on polluting as, during washing, it sheds micro plastic particles that make their way into the ocean. But it is cheap, and fast-fashion brands continue to pump it out with abandon.

Meanwhile, prices for a vastly superior, natural and easily renewable fabric continue to plummet. Irish wool has a part to play in slow fashion but it would take a monumental effort on the part of the Government, producers and consumers to make it happen.

The world is hungry for wool, but the lighter, finer varieties grown in Australia and New Zealand are more prized, while the fleece of Ireland’s three million sheep, according to The Irish Times fashion editor Deirdre McQuillan in a recent article, “is considered waste and worthless because farmers breed sheep for meat and not for wool”. Irish wool is now valued at an average price of 20 cent per kg, according to Teagasc, down from about 70 pence per lb in the 1980s.

Wool is plentiful, renewable, beautiful to wear and breathable, but it's almost extinct as a fashion fabric in Ireland

Some years ago Prince Charles, despairing of the low price of British wool, encouraged fashion leaders and farmers to do something about it. The Campaign for Wool was launched with elaborate PR stunts such as grassing over Savile Row and letting a flock of Merino sheep loose on it, and burying two garments, one wool and one polyester, in the ground for six months to see what would happen. HRH himself buried the garments, using a silver shovel.

A half-year later when they were exhumed, according to Vogue director Nicholas Coleridge, “the wool jersey had all but disappeared with a few fat worms digesting the final strands.” The synthetic one was intact. “You could have put it through the washing machine and worn it again.”

The thought that the ground beneath our feet is filled with Penneys polyester that will live forever is depressing. Wool, by contrast, is plentiful, renewable, beautiful to wear, and breathable so it doesn’t need frequent washing. But it’s almost extinct as a fashion fabric in Ireland.

I’m not suggesting a return to the time of báinín costumes and hairy jumpers that would rarely get a wash, but it would be good to see a well-funded campaign to promote Irish wool. Green Party Minister of State Pippa Hackett, who is a sheep farmer, will shortly report to Government on the findings of a group set up to consider alternative uses for our fleeces. Let’s hope there’s some innovative ideas we can all wear.