Peta launches $1m competition to find vegan wool alternative | Fashion

It is jumper season, but your common or garden woollies may soon be a thing of the past: the animal rights group Peta has launched a competition this week to find a vegan alternative to wool that comes with a $1m (£860,500) prize.

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

Innovative entries are expected. “From flowers and fruit to hemp and soya beans, options are limitless when it comes to creating animal-free clothing and accessories,” said Peta’s vice-president for Europe, Mimi Bekhechi. “Peta is delighted to foster innovation that will help protect animals and halt 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 more popular in fashion. Mycelium, an alternative to bovine leather made from fungi, is the most successful. It is now used by brands including Stella McCartney, Ganni and Balenciaga. According to the nonprofit organisation Material Innovation Initiative, investments in the burgeoning industry have reached $2.3bn (£1.94bn) since 2015.

There are existing vegan wool alternatives. 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 animal cruelty of the industry. A page on its website shows “15 videos that will change your mind about wearing wool”, detailing workers stamping 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 lots of methane into the atmosphere, and they require farming land.

According to the Pulse Report, released by the Global Fashion Agenda in 2017, wool was ranked 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 environmentally damaging. The Higgs Material Sustainability Index ranks wool’s impact at 81 out of 300. Cotton scored 99, and polyester 41.

The International Wool Textile Organisation has since challenged this. It says the index does not take into account the fact that consumers tend to wear wool items for longer, and that they are 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 fibres known to man,” said Graham Clark, the marketing director of British Wool. “It is renewable and biodegradable, and therefore doesn’t contribute to landfill in the same way as synthetic-based products.”

Clark said wool did not contribute microplastics to the oceans, and did not need to be cleaned as often as human-made fabrics. “There’s no denying that the fashion industry needs better sustainable solutions, but we must be mindful that new initiatives, such as those which directly, or indirectly, encourage use of synthetics, do not cause more harm than good,” he said.

Clark also pushed back against accusations of animal cruelty. “Shearers in the UK are highly trained professionals who carry out a vital duty of care,” he said. “Shearing is a painless process and is an essential part of caring for sheep, as to not do so can cause discomfort and disease, having painful, dangerous and even fatal consequences. Shearing is very much an animal welfare issue.”

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

Peta stipulates that the winning entry of the Vegan Wool Challenge will need to be a biomaterial, one that is biodegradable or recyclable. It also needs to work like wool across different weights (ie a chunky jumper or a fine pair of socks), and keep wearers warm.

According to the competition rules, entrants have until July 2023 to submit a fabric sample and production plan. Should they be successful, they will then be encouraged to partner with “at least one of the top 10 global clothing retail brands” to produce and sell items made from their material in the US by January 2024. Any individual or company with annual revenue under $30m (£25.32) can enter.

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