Is Alpaca Wool Eco Friendly? (Not Harmful to the Environment)
Alpaca wool is often presented as an environmentally friendly alternative to wool or synthetic fibers. You are probably wondering if, and to what extent, alpaca woolen garments are eco friendly?
Alpaca wool is an eco friendly material because it uses limited resources, like water and energy, for production. Alpaca wool is also 100% biodegradable as long as it is undyed. However, alpaca wool is mainly sourced from South America, so air transportation for product shipping is a negative.
While I still believe that alpaca wool is a great option for those of you who have set their minds on making sustainable choices, I feel that it is only fair that I explain to you both advantages and disadvantages of using alpaca wool. I might present it here as the best solution to all our environmental problems, but it has to be said that alpaca wool has its downsides, too.
Nevertheless, the availability of alpaca wool is admittedly the only downside when it comes to environmental aspects. Everything else about alpaca wool is just awesome :)
Air Freight Negatively Impacts the Environment, and Alpaca Wool Comes From South America
Of the entire alpaca population in the world, about 96% of them live in South America (mostly Peru and Bolivia). While there is an increasing number of alpaca breeders globally (mostly in the US, UK and Australia), this means that most of the alpaca woolen products come from overseas. Unless you’re living in Peru or Bolivia :)
Please note that basically all products, no matter what they are made of, need to be shipped probably halfway across the globe in order to make it to your wardrobe. So whether you are buying cashmere from India, merino from Australia, cotton from China… It is all transported and probably contributing to some kind of pollution.
Unfortunately, air freight negatively affects the environment in several ways, with air pollution being the biggest concern. Aircrafts contribute to the emission of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide. According to a study done in 2019 by Brandon Graver, Ph.D, Kevin Zhang, and Dan Rutherford, Ph.D, freight emissions accounted for 19% of the total CO2 emissions from commercial aviation.
To put this in perspective: the total CO2 emissions of commercial aircraft operations is 918 MMT (million metric tons), 171 MMT is for cargo, 747 MMT for passengers. The total of 918 MMT adds up to 2.4% of the total CO2 emissions globally.
You can read MUCH more about this topic in the full article: CO2 emissions from commercial aviation, 2018. (Links to the PDF)
Unless you have a neighbour who breeds alpacas and produces their own wool, remember that alpaca wool is in many ways much more sustainable than most fabrics. So if you have the possibility to choose, consider the lesser of two evils.
The Alpaca Leaves a Very Low Environmental Footprint
To begin with, the alpaca itself is a very sustainable animal and leaves very little impact on our planet. The alpaca has soft, padded hooves that leave literally no footprint at all. While many animal’s hooves are hard and rough, the alpaca can roam the lands without leaving a trace!
Alpacas also carefully treat the grass that they eat. While many grazing animals pull the grass (and its roots) out with their teeth, alpaca genty eat the tips, leaving the roots carefully intact. Grass and other foliage will grow back easily after a herd of alpacas has satisfactorily fed themselves.
Alpacas are also pretty tough animals when it comes to their diet and they live pretty frugally. They don’t eat much, can live for somewhat of a prolonged period without food and they don’t drink as much water. According to the AlpacaPlace.com, alpaca can even live well on poor quality pasture and they are incredibly efficient with their food energy!
When you compare alpacas drinking behavior with other (fiber producing) animals, you will see that alpacas really are frugal! Of course, I am not a farmer, so these are the numbers I found thanks to Mr. Google :) (I did the conversions myself). You can find the links below the chart.
Also, alpacas are pretty clean when it comes to doing their duty (hihi). They have a communal dung pile that they use - far away from the grass they eat and the water they drink. Their waste is also used as a fertilizer, making herding alpacas even more sustainable.
Is Alpaca Wool Eco Friendly? (Not Harmful to the Environment)
Producing alpaca wool requires less resources than other fibers.
To start with, if you compare all natural, plant or animal based fibers with synthetic fibers, you will easily see that natural fibers need so much less production than synthetic fibers. Which makes sense, if you think about it, because polyester fibers are made out of oil which requires additional processing. Think about everything you need to add and do in order to turn oil into a fabric.
Wool, for example, is fluffy fur turned into a fiber. Cotton is a fluffy plant turned into a fiber; linen as well. Silk is a cocoon turned into a fiber. So, naturally, the process of natural fibers will need less resources (generally!) than synthetic, man-made fibers.
The production process of alpaca wool generally uses less water and less energy than other fibers. Especially compared to regular sheep wool or cotton, alpaca wool uses a lot less water. The main reason for this is that alpaca wool is lanolin-free, which means it does not have a greasy layer on the fiber that needs to be washed off.
Animal fibers need to be washed before they can be turned into fabric. Lanolin causes animal fibers to be very dirty and they need to be washed thoroughly to cleanse of all the dirt. Regular cotton needs a lot of water to keep the cotton plants watered, and a lot of this water comes out polluted because pesticides are used to keep the plants free from bugs and bacteria.
Read more about cotton in a report from Textile Exchange: Quick Guide to Organic Cotton.
Polyester might actually need very little water for its production process, but on the other hand, it is made out of oil. On top of that, polyester causes an incredible amount of toxic waste, which pollutes the water and land nearby its factories. Polyester uses a huge amount of energy in order to be produced.
Read more about polyester in a Material Guide from GoodOnYou.com: Material Guide: How Sustainable Is Polyester?
You could also argue that alpaca wool is more environmentally friendly because it barely needs washing after it is purchased. Where cotton and polyester use a lot of water in order to be washed and kept clean, alpaca wool stays fresh by just airing it (odor-resistant, wrinkle-free and stain-repellent!). Linen needs to be ironed, alpaca doesn’t need that. Polyester spreads microplastics when it is washed, alpaca does not.
Read more about linen in a report presented on ISSUU: Eco Profile of a Linen Shirt.
Alpaca Woolen Products Have Natural Benefits (Without Adding Chemicals)
Alpaca wool has many natural benefits that you won’t have with other fabrics - at least not naturally.
Thanks to the special alpaca fiber, alpaca woolen products are naturally water-repellent and wind-resistant. Products made of alpaca wool will bring you pretty decent protection in rough weather conditions.
Many products these days can be made to be waterproof (which is admittedly better than just being water-repellent) or windproof, but this will need to be done with special chemicals. And chemicals are chemical: they are not good for the environment as they inevitably leave their chemical traces in the water and land where they are produced and washed.
Read more about the features of alpaca wool in other articles I wrote:
Alpaca wool is also naturally flame-retardant. When alpaca woolen products catch fire, they will be slow to ignite and they will quickly extinguish. Alpaca wool also does not melt to the skin, like other fabrics might do. While alpaca wool is not 100% flame-resistant, it offers a reasonable degree of protection, naturally.
Read more about this feature in the full article I wrote: Is Alpaca Wool Fire-Resistant?
There’s more! Alpaca wool is also odor-resistant, does not absorb stains easily and is wrinkle-free. Yup. You basically don’t need to wash it. EVER! All these things are also added to other types of fabric (especially hiking or sports equipment), but alpaca wool does the trick naturally.
Read more about how all of this works in more detail in the following articles I also wrote:
In a nutshell: alpaca woolen products are naturally awesome. I don’t say this because I am biased (which I am); rather, I say this because Mother Nature loves alpaca woolen products and she made alpacas awesome.
Alpaca Wool Is Biodegradable (When Undyed)
When a fabric reaches the end of its lifecycle, it can make a huge difference on the environment. There are different ways to say goodbye to your piece of clothing, although many people simply throw their clothes away (read more about this in this article by Roadrunner.com: The Environmental Crisis Caused by Textile Waste).
The problem with throwing our clothes away is that they end up in landfills. Where they just sit and sit until they decompose. The problem with items that are made out of polyester is that they don’t really decompose. At all. According to current estimates, it takes about 200 years for some items to decompose!
The worst thing is, we don’t even know this for sure, because we’ve only recently switched to synthetic fibers in such large quantities.
While it will (probably) take generations before your alpaca woolen garment needs to be retired, there might be a time that you will need to say goodbye to an alpaca woolen sweater or scarf. Luckily, alpaca wool is biodegradable, which means that Mother Nature can break it down all by herself. And in much less time than synthetic fibers like polyester!!!
HOWEVER - big side note! - alpaca wool is only biodegradable when it is undyed. Alpaca wool comes in 22 natural colors and probably all shades of brown, black, white, grey, and in-betweens are natural (but check to make sure!) and thus biodegradable. Colors, unfortunately, are often dyed chemically, although there are also many brands that use natural dyes.
A better way to get rid of your clothes is by donating them. While some closets are too small for the amount of clothes they carry, many people in other countries have such limited resources that they could give much better usage to unworn clothes.
Wool, cotton, down, polyester, rayon, nylon, and probably even more materials can be recycled! Technology has advanced so much that many old clothes can be repurposed into new clothes! While it is definitely not a perfect solution, it is a much better solution to opt for recycled fabrics than for new ones!