Peta Launches $1 Million Contest to Find Vegan Wool Alternative | Fashion

It’s sweater season, but your communal or garden wool items may soon be a thing of the past: Animal rights group Peta launched a contest this week to find a vegan alternative to wool with a prize of $1 million (£860,500).

The Vegan Wool Challenge Award promises prize money to the first person or company that will develop a material that convincingly resembles sheep’s wool in its texture, function and appearance, and have a major clothing brand invest in the material.

Innovative entries are expected. “From flowers and fruit to hemp and soybeans, the options are limitless when it comes to creating animal-free apparel and accessories,” says Mimi Bekhechi, vice president for Europe at Peta. “Peta is excited to advance innovation that will help protect animals and stop the environmental destruction caused by animal agriculture.”

The competition comes at a time when new biomaterials, typically made from natural substances without harming the environment, are becoming increasingly popular in fashion. Mycelium, an alternative to cowhide made from mushrooms, is the most successful. It is now used by brands such as Stella McCartney, Ganni and Balenciaga. According to non-profit organization Material Innovation Initiative, investment in the burgeoning sector has reached $2.3bn (£1.94bn) since 2015.

There are vegan wool alternatives that exist. Tencel and bamboo can be used, as well as Nullarbor, made from coconut by-products. In 2019, a group of Colombian university students won an award for Woocoa, a wool-like material made from coconut and hemp.

Peta has long campaigned against wool production and the industry’s animal cruelty. A page on their website displays “15 videos that will change your mind about wearing wool”, detailing workers trampling and beating sheep on wool farms in countries including the UK, Australia and the US since 2014 .

Wool is also under fire when it comes to the environment. Like cows, sheep release a lot of methane into the atmosphere and need agricultural land.

According to the Pulse Report, released by the Global Fashion Agenda in 2017, wool was ranked as the fourth worst material for the environment, just behind the widely derided cotton. It revealed that synthetic fabrics, including acrylic, polyester, spandex and rayon, were less harmful to the environment. The Higgs Material Sustainability Index ranks the impact of wool at 81 out of 300. Cotton scored 99 and polyester 41.

The International Wool Textile Organization has since contested this. They say the index doesn’t take into account the fact that consumers tend to wear woolen clothes longer and that they get washed less. Only 5% by weight of the total clothing donated by consumers for recycling and reuse is wool.

“Wool is one of the most sustainable fibers known to man,” says Graham Clark, marketing director of British Wool. “It’s renewable and biodegradable, and therefore doesn’t contribute to landfill in the same way synthetic-based products do.”

Clark points out that wool doesn’t contribute to microplastics in the oceans and doesn’t need to be cleaned as often as man-made fabrics. “There is no denying that the fashion industry needs better sustainable solutions, but we must be aware that new initiatives, such as those that directly or indirectly encourage the use of synthetic materials, do not cause more harm than good,” he says .

Clark also denies the animal cruelty allegations. “Shearers in the UK are highly trained professionals who perform a vital duty of caring,” she says. “Shearing is a painless process and is an essential part of sheep care, as not doing so can cause discomfort and disease, with painful, dangerous and even fatal consequences. Shearing is a real animal welfare issue.”

The wool trade is a major industry, valued at $4.72bn (£3.98bn) in 2018. While Australia leads the market, the UK’s contribution is significant. According to Statista, the worsted wool and fine hair market peaked in 2019, when it was valued at £84m, falling the following year.

Peta stipulates that the winner of the Vegan Wool Challenge must be a biomaterial, biodegradable or recyclable. It also needs to work like wool across different weights (e.g. a thick sweater or a nice pair of socks) and keep the wearer warm.

According to the contest rules, participants have until July 2023 to submit a fabric sample and production plan. If successful, they will then be encouraged to partner with “at least one of the world’s top 10 apparel retail brands” to manufacture and sell items made from their material in the United States by January 2024. Any individual or business with revenue lower annuals $30m (£25.32) can come in.

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