Merino wool is often marketed as the irrefutable sustainable choice fabric for cycling kit, with brands endlessly listing the natural performance benefits for outdoor exercise. Is it really as environmentally friendly as we're led to believe though?
Yes, there are an impressive amount of those natural performance benefits and it results in cycling gear you’re bound to enjoy wearing, but even merino isn't without its issues. While we'll acknowledge the wonderful qualities of this renewable resource, in this feature we'll also be looking at where merino is sourced, the ethical problems and the certifications you should be looking out for, why it’s often blended and the consequences, and how you should be looking after your merino gear to make the most of its sustainable value...
In short, if a product is durable and has performance benefits, you're more likely to only buy once and use it lots. It’s important for us as consumers to put more effort into finding suitable products that we like and need, after assessing if we can use what we currently own.
Buy something that suits your needs, and do it once. It’s no good purchasing a product that is slightly better for the environment if you then fail to use it, and need to buy the more suitable item second time round.
It’s much more environmentally friendly to make a limited number of considered purchases. If it’s not a hasty purchasing decision and you’ve spent longer saving up for the premium performance item, then you’re also more likely to appreciate the garment and take good care of it.
Velocio is one cycling apparel brand that makes good use of merino in specific products, and it explains that its overarching aim is to create apparel that is both high performance and durable: “Our primary goal is to create apparel that improves experience and comfort and lasts a really long time.
“We recognise that the highest impact any apparel has is manufacturing, so these two goals mean that we can effectively reduce the impact of manufacturing by reducing the number of garments produced if we can make a product that people love to wear, and they can wear that product longer.”
There’s no doubt that merino wool garments boast a lot of performance benefits and so are likely to keep you satisfied. As detailed on Woolmark, here’s what it can offer:
Warmth: Merino wool contains crimps (natural waviness) which create pockets that trap air as you move. As that air can’t circulate it retains heat from your body to keep you warm.
This heat retention method which utilises the merino’s fine fibres provides a high warmth to weight ratio - you can stay warm with minimal bulk, and therefore it performs a useful role in a layering system for dealing with the cold or elements.
Merino wool also maintains its insulating properties when damp, meaning it has versatile use.
Soft and comfy: As merino wool fibres are fine and more flexible than standard wool fibres, they provide a gentler next-to-skin experience and, with this, can reduce itchiness issues.
Breathability: Wool is naturally highly breathable as it can absorb large quantities of moisture into its own fibres, holding it away from your skin before then moving it away to evaporate into the air.
Quick-drying: The fine fibres produce lighter fabrics that dry quicker. The fast-drying aspect is convenient for trips away and also is great for cutting down on the environmental impacts by reducing the need for high energy use for drying.
Odour resistant: Merino wool garments can be worn for longer between washing intervals because of the natural odour resistant properties of wool. This makes it a practical option for bikepacking trips as you can wear the same item of clothing without any social judging.
“It retains its benefits and often reduces other things needed on synthetics, like anti-bacterial treatments or coatings due to its natural and inherent properties,” Velocio adds.
A sheep produces a new fleece each year, meaning that wool is a renewable fibre.
Merino wool is a natural fibre, and therefore 100% biodegradable. The ideal conditions are warm, damp soil combined with access to oxygen.
Researchers in New Zealand found in a study that merino fabrics lost around 36% of their mass after only two months burial in soil and up to an impressive 99% after nine months, whereas a polyester knitted fabric did not degrade at all during the course of the nine-month burial period.
Merino wool has also been found to readily biodegrade in a marine environment, whereas synthetic fibres do not.
The Woolmark Company is a not-for-profit organisation that works alongside Australia’s 60,000 woolgrowers to research, develop and certify Australian wool. It conducted a study into the biodegradability of untreated and machine washable merino wool in a marine environment compared to nylon, polyester and polypropylene.
To simulate a partial garment lifetime, all fabrics were washed repeatedly before testing. The rate of biodegradation was then compared to that of kraft paper pulp, a substance known to biodegrade readily.
Researchers found untreated wool biodegraded at 20.3% the rate of the pulp and the machine-washable wool biodegraded more than three times as quickly, at a rate of 67.3%. Nylon biodegraded at the slowest rate of just 0.8%, followed by polypropylene (1.8%) and polyester (6.3%).
Merino wool is therefore a good environmental choice during the use phase, as it won’t be polluting the ocean when being washed. Once it’s reached the end of its usable life, it can biodegrade fully when buried in soil.
Two of the reasons for choosing merino wool are for its naturally odour-resistant and anti-bacterial qualities. Thanks to these qualities the social and hygienic reasons for washing frequently are significantly reduced; however, this benefit for the environment is only realised if you follow through and practice good washing and drying habits.
“Wool garments have particular attributes that favour reduced environmental impacts in the garment use phase, associated with odour resistance leading to less frequent need for washing, low washing temperature requirements and suitability for air drying practices,” it’s noted in Wiedemann, Stephen G. et al.’s study (2021).
Merino wool may have potential for a long life and low environmental impact in use, but the study concluded that there are “substantial differences between the best, current and worst case scenarios”. The use phase is well understood to be a hotspot for fossil energy demand and water consumption, but as the study acknowledges, with merino wool “opportunities exist for consumers to rapidly reduce these [environmental] impacts”.
Airing wool garments can help keep the clothing free of odours for longer, according to Laitala, K. et al.'s study (2017). By doing this you can maximise the number of times a wool garment is worn before it is washed.
As merino wool is quick-drying thanks to its fine fibres, it’s important to realise that there’s less need to attempt to quicken the drying process. Line drying or drying in an unheated room is the least energy intensive and so you should be using one of these methods where possible.
However, Laitala, K et al.'s study (2012) acknowledges that in practice it can be difficult to follow the ideal washing scenario because if you own few wool garments, it can take longer to accumulate a wool-specific laundry load, which may result in efficient washing loads.
With this in mind, Laitala, K. and Klepp, I.G.'s study (2016) recommends airing wool garments as it gives you more time to accumulate a fuller wool load. If this is not enough, making up the rest of a wool wash with garments made of other fibres is okay, as a wool wash cycle tends to be more gentle than other wash settings, and therefore won’t be detrimental to the other fibres.
Consumer washing and drying habits are a key part of making best use of the environmental benefits of merino wool, and while brands can do a lot more to instil these environmentally friendly practices by making it clearer on the product packaging, it’s down to you to wash less frequently and dry in an energy-saving way.
Mulesing is method that's carried out to reduce the risk of losing sheep to a parasite called flystrike, but it is a painful procedure where skin is removed from around the backside of the sheep. This practice is the most important to be aware of, and to ensure you avoid if you're conscious about the welfare of the animal your garment came from.
Regular washing and shearing are much kinder methods of protecting the sheep, albeit much more expensive. Sheep that have been treated with the kinder methods produce non-mulesing merino wool.
“Where these [natural fibre] materials become problematic is more commonly associated with ethics,” Velocio acknowledges. “The treatment of these animals, how it’s processed, milled and so on.” The brand adds that down is another example of an amazing natural material in terms of performance, that has a sordid past.
“With anything - whether it’s sourcing raw materials, labour in manufacturing or end of garment life, it’s important that we consider how things are made and ensure that everyone and everything that’s involved through that process is part of that product.
“We are always working to ensure that our product meets the highest standards at every step - environmentally and ethically - and we work with all of our partners to continue to challenge this process and see where we can improve.”
Sheep mulesing has been illegal in New Zealand since 2018, but in Australia the practice is still legal.
Standards and certifications aim to address the environmental and social challenges related to wool production, and so it’s important to ensure the brands you are buying from are sourcing from certified farms and mills.
RWS stands for the Responsible Wool Standard, and alongside guaranteeing the absence of mulesing, this standard aims to ensure animal welfare through the application of Five Freedom points:
The Responsible Wool Standard’s social requirements are based on the principles of the International Labour Organisation’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, for guarantees that good working conditions are upheld.
Rapha, for example, has committed to only sourcing wool that is certified to the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) by 2025. “Our commitment to using the finest, most responsibly sourced wool ensures the welfare of sheep – no mulesing – and land management practices that protect soil health, biodiversity and native species,” Rapha states on its website.
For the cycling kit to be sustainable, 'virgin' (first time use) wool needs to be sourced from farms that are Responsible Wool Standard certified, which promote standards for animal welfare and land management. But where are these farms?
Merino wool is a natural fibre grown by merino sheep which were originally bred in Spain in the 12th century, and were later introduced to Australia in the 1700s.
“Nowadays 81% of merino wool is produced in Australia, which is the leading producer followed by New Zealand, South Africa, Uruguay, Argentina, etc,” Rapha highlights.
“There is a herd of Bowmont Merino sheep in the UK, though it tends to be relatively low volume, producing only 700kg of fibre each year - except for this kind of small scale solution, there are currently no merino wool producers in the UK or Europe.”
Rapha currently sources the majority of its wool from Australia, with a small portion from New Zealand, and does so due to its confidence in the Australian Wool Strategy 2030.
“Through technological innovation, environmental stewardship and building a young and prosperous community of farmers, the strategy is transforming Australian farming,” Rapha highlights.
“Progressive agritechnologies including virtual fencing and remote sensing are employed to help the young, skilled workforce, and farmers are also equipped with the apparatus needed to detect health issues like flystrike early on, so that sheep can be separated and treated without the need for mulesing.”
Relationships form part of Rapha’s sourcing practice. “Since the inception of our sportwool jerseys, which make up the majority of our merino supply chain, we have worked with the same mill who sources from Australia and New Zealand,” Rapha says.
“Wherever possible, we look to build upon our existing relationships with our long-standing partners, who are experts in their field.”
Although wool is environmentally friendly as a natural, renewable and biodegradable resource, it is sourced from far, far away from UK consumers, which does result in some unwanted environmental impacts. How it’s transported over can make quite a considerable difference in how much damage is cause, though.
Merino wool is often blended with other fibres to increase the durability and elasticity of the clothing for improved comfort, fit and lifespan. In these cases, the performance benefits and increased use period are chosen over biodegradability and recyclability.
Alpkit uses the ‘corespun’ manufacturing method for its merino wool clothing to improve the durability and elasticity without losing any of the benefits.
“It's made by wrapping a central thread of nylon and elastane with Merino wool fibres to create a single yarn,” Alpkit explains. “Clothing made with corespun Merino lasts longer, stretches more and recovers its shape better.”
Velocio, for another example, has blended merino wool with nylon and elastane in its Concept Merino jersey.
It’s also the same case for Rapha’s Classic Jersey II. “For performance, our RPM fabric is 64% recycled polyester, 36% merino wool,” says Rapha.
But… “unfortunately, once you blend a natural fibre with a synthetic fibre it limits both biodegradability and recyclability,” Rapha continues.
“It’s one of the biggest challenges for the apparel industry, as so many fabrics are blends.
“For the cycling industry especially, we’re all going to struggle with recycling clothing with high amounts of elastane, such as bibshorts.
“This is something we’re exploring and looking to overcome, with our target of 50% of production volume being recyclable or compostable by 2027.”
Velocio explains its approach: “We look to how we can reduce the use of “new” materials wherever possible.
“That’s why we look to recycled polyester and nylon, bio-based synthetics and natural fibers, such as non-mulesing merino wool.
“It’s important to consider here the first point about performance, comfort and durability.
“The fact is, merino is superior for certain applications over synthetics, while in other situations, synthetics prevail.
“This goes for durability as well. So when we select a non-mulesing merino, we’re doing so because it performs exceptionally and for its sustainable qualities.”
There are certainly many considerations that need to be balanced. A lot of cycling brands utilise merino for its natural performance benefits, and accept that increasing the durability is a necessary step for reducing the environmental impact in one way by lengthening the use phase.
So, we’ve gathered that merino is often blended to bolster its performance benefits, and we’ve also established that merino wool is often distantly sourced in Australia. This is because there simply aren’t closer options for cutting shipping emissions, which would of course be preferable for a reduced environmental impact.
With the added blending process, the distant farm from which the merino wool is sourced is only one step in its journey to the final product
We were very impressed by the comfort and breathability of Rapha’s Classic Jersey II, in both the men’s and women’s cuts, and so it certainly ticks the boxes of being a high quality product that’ll cover your needs. With this in mind, here are the steps taken from the raw material to final product, to understand how environmentally friendly the whole process is…
Rapha made the jersey with its Rapha Performance Merino 150 fabric (RPM150) which consists of 36% merino wool mixed with 64% recycled polyester. The polyester is often added to merino to help with stretch and strength of the fabric.
”The raw wool is sourced from an Australian farm, then sent to Italy to be spun into yarn, where it leaves with Responsible Wool Standard certification,” Rapha says.
“Meanwhile, the mechanically recycled polyester is sourced from post-consumer waste in Asia.
“The two come together in Poland, before being sent back to China where it’s cut and sewn into a finished jersey.”
Rapha clarifies that the RWS certification is up to fabric level, not just yarn, so it leaves the Poland mill with the certification.
“We’ve put in the work to trace each fibre back to the source, but it’s clear to see that the supply chain for materials is complex,” Rapha notes.
“Having this information to hand is the first step to making adjustments that will make things more efficient and ultimately minimise emissions.”
It’s a complicated process to produce a top-performing merino product - so there’s certainly a lot more to consider when using merino wool than just its natural performance benefits.
While merino does boast a lot of amazing natural performance benefits - it’s warm, comfy, breathable, quick-drying and odour resistant - it could also do with a little bit of extra stretch and strength, particularly to meet the demands of cycling.
Brands often blend merino with other fibres such as nylon and elastane to increase the durability and elasticity of the clothing for improved comfort, fit and lifespan which will help lengthen the use phase, but this does limit biodegradability and recyclability, as well as increasing the steps in its journey across the world, from raw materials to the final product.
Cycling kit that is ethically produced - made from non-mulesing merino wool and meeting certifications such as RSW - begins its journey as far away as Australia or New Zealand.
But merino wool is a good environmental choice during the use and end-of-life phase. Thanks to its naturally odour-resistant and anti-bacterial qualities the social and hygienic reasons for washing frequently are significantly reduced, and it’s quick-drying too so it’s possible to dry in an energy-saving way. That said, it’s down to you to follow through with these good practices.
Merino wool also won’t be polluting the ocean when being washed and once you’ve finished using it, it can biodegrade fully when buried in soil.
Knowing what you know now about merino manufacturing, will you be buying merino cycling kit in future?