COP26 – time to shake up the Woolsack

Cop26 –  time to shake up the Woolsack.

As politicians and campaigners prepare for Cop26 might someone consider the tragic waste of British wool?

There are over 15 million breeding ewes in the UK ergo at least 15,000 tonnes of the most exquisitely, versatile, useful, and bio-degradable, environmentally friendly fibre known to man. What is staggering to to learn is that much of this just gets burned! Yes. It gets burned!  By tradition the Chancellor of the Exchequer sits on a woolsack. A sort of diplomatic nod to the esteemed place wool held in the economy – once upon a time.
Sadly this one-time building block of the British economy is now a commercial liability – and yet it is still an unbeatable textile, environmentally sound, a naturally renewable resource that presents no cultivation costs whatsoever!  When the Wool Marketing board was established in 1950 to ‘Maintain the best possible net return for producers’, the commercial price of wool was 144 old pence per pound in weight; that is equal to about  £20/kilo today.  

Absolutely no fibre compares to wool for its warmth, resilience, elasticity, breathability, insulation, non-flammability (see below for more properties) – which is how it came to be the basis of the economy in the 17th C. As a textile it is naturally soft, and needs comparatively little washing and processing to become an extremely versatile ready to use textile, Contrast this to plant-based fabrics such as cotton, bamboo and bast fibres; here, bamboo in particular, makes massive environmental demands in terms of energy and resources and pollution, long before it gets anywhere near becoming a useable textile. Literally one could say: plant fibres cost the earth! Just look at  the cultivation, fertiliser, irrigation and industrial machinery needed just  to produce the bare crop. Now factor in the complex chemical and mechanical  processing equipment and the waste it creates,  that can only ever be released back into the locality. Now compare this to what it takes to create a similar sized yield of wool. Not much really. The sheep do it for us. All we have to do is clip, sort, wash and spin it.
Every year UK sheep farmers offer up a huge home-grown (!) crop of the world’s most versatile fibre, it is even harvested with hand-held clippers. Could any environmental impact assessment beat that? I dont think so. And as a bonus, it repeats annually from sheep primarily kept for other more financially rewarding reasons. Furthermore, most of the UK breeding ewes feed mainly on natural herbage and are frequently found on land that is no good for any other purpose. The environment case for wool just get better and better the more you look at it.
Clipping the wool off each year is essential to keep sheep healthy; it currently costs +/-£2.00 per ewe. The market value of wool is a pitiful 15 pence per kilo, and even less for some breeds; impossible as that may sound it is true. One does not need to be an economist to see why so much of it gets burned – the price doesn’t merit anything else!  Financially is has become  not worth bothering with.
And yet wool ticks nearly every box on the green list. But the market price remains a paltry 15p/kilo. £2.00 for shearing and 15pence for the fleece… Diddly Squat indeed!
Can we change this? Create a shortage, like toilet paper or fuel? One would think so, or at least do a bit better. But it seems not. The Campaign for Wool made great hits into Europe’s high fashion houses after ten years hard slog. There is an increasing demand for spinning wheels. But the price of wool could hardly get lower. Admittedly markets are complex and times tricky. But on the other hand, as the economists love to say, there is no denying the unique benefits wool offers, not just to the clothing and fashion industry, but in home interiors, and vehicle upholstery and buildings insulation. Not to mention the environmentalists undeniable argument.
Speaking figuratively, wool ought to ‘cost the earth’ because it ticks so many boxes. Look how people willingly pay £Ks extra for things perceived to be ‘greener’; take cars for example.  Maybe some COP -26 warriors will be inspired to think about this en route to Glasgow. One or two may spot sheep grazing distant uplands, as they speed past seated on the acrylic-upholstered seats of trains and cars and buses and planes; some will be wearing cotton jeans, and bamboo socks and ‘woollies’ made in Bangladesh  from recycled plastic bottles…
Maybe the problem is that British wool does not cost the earth? We might value it more if it did.  It is time the Chancellor’s cushion got a serious plumping!

2 thoughts on “COP26 – time to shake up the Woolsack

  1. A good read, Pam, thank you.

    I feel that we’re slowly starting to appreciate the harm that plastics (including acrylic yarn) do to the environment. I hope that wool will once more have its day when the true costs of artificial fibres are counted.

    1. thanks for reading, quite agree; will we ever know the true cost of all this acrylic and plastic tat?

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