This article is part of our series on small companies with a big mission in five areas: women, kids, community, planet, and hope. Click here for more articles in the series.
Making any consumer product sustainably and responsibly is difficult. But if you want to be downright inspired, talk to somebody who’s trying to do it within an industry that represents one of the largest polluters on the planet.
Sheep Inc. produces unisex wool sweaters that are biodegradable and carbon-negative — plus, each one comes with a sheep. We’ll get into what that last part entails later, but for now, rest assured you don’t need to prepare a pasture for a new friend. All sheep involved safely stay in New Zealand.
To better understand all the innovation implied in the previous paragraph, we talked to Edzard van der Wyck, Sheep Inc. co-founder and CEO, who minced no words describing what designers in this space are up against, starting with the material impact.
“If we’re going to change the industry, we need to keep that emotional engagement with the product post-purchase”
“The impact of the fashion industry is pretty staggering,” he said. Over 100 billion items of clothing are produced each year, using over 53 million tons of materials, and synthetic materials alone require some 98 million tons of oil.
“This translates into the fashion industry being responsible for around 10% of global carbon emissions annually,” Edzard said. “That’s more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.”
And the plot thickens, because purchasing habits are exacerbating the trend. “With the advent of fast fashion, clothing utilization has dropped over 35% over the past 15 years,” Edzard said, adding that some consumers are wearing their clothes as little as 7-10 times before throwing them away.
It would be commendable if Edzard and his co-founder Michael Wessely had committed to making Sheep Inc. carbon neutral. But in an industry where greenhouse gas emissions are projected to increase by more than 50% over the next 10 years, carbon neutral wasn’t good enough. They wanted to have a net positive, regenerative effect — starting with the sheep.
Wool for the sweaters currently comes from three farms in New Zealand that meet Sheep Inc.’s exacting criteria for animal welfare and sustainability standards. By working with such a small number of suppliers, the company can calculate a fairly exact figure for the gross impact of each sweater, which includes everything from farming to manufacturing to distribution.
That figure comes in at 30kg of carbon per sweater, according to Edzard. The company then works with Natural Capital Partners, a leader on carbon neutrality and climate finance, to offset its carbon footprint by 10 times — 300kg per sweater — through a reforestation project in Kenya and a conservation project in the Amazon.
In other words, these sweaters aren’t just carbon-negative. They’re very carbon-negative.
Chris Schraeder, global marketing director at Natural Capital Partners, said the impact doesn’t stop there, because the projects backed by Sheep Inc. also include a strong economic development component.
“Carbon offsetting allows companies to make a positive impact beyond their value chain. By supporting carbon finance projects, they are not only financing emission reductions now, but also funding projects that will support the transformation and regeneration of our economy: reforestation, conservation of biodiversity and sustainable development. For us, it’s amazing to see how a sweater, produced responsibly and ethically, can contribute to changing the attitudes of a carbon intensive industry.”
Due for a Shakeup
The statistics around environmental impact and economic development are significant, but just as important to Edzard and Michael is the living story behind the things we buy. The company puts it like this: “Every item of clothing started its life somewhere. In the case of our knitwear, it all begins with a sheep.”
And that’s where the “adoption” program comes in. By scanning an NFC tag on the hem of each sweater, customers are connected to a single sheep on the very farm where their garment originated — name, weight, birthday, whereabouts, and more.
“You’ll know if the sheep has lambs, how it’s been doing, any sheep-related events,” Edzard said. “These live updates are a constant reminder that there’s a living story behind the things you buy, which is more than a simple ingredient list. If we’re going to change the industry, we need to keep that emotional engagement with the product post-purchase.”
Moving from commodity to connection is a big shift in an industry that’s “due for a shakeup” in Edzard’s estimation. And the shakeup doesn’t stop even there.
“Offering a unisex garment does address another clear problem with the fashion industry,” Edzard said. “There is this constant delineation of what is men’s or women’s clothing. We think forcing people to pick a gender identity before choosing what to wear is more generally problematic.”
It’s clear that wearing a sweater from Sheep Inc. is a values statement as much as a fashion statement — and not every consumer will share those values. But if fashion is a wearable form of art and expression, Edzard and Michael believed that the values they want to see industry-wide had to be reflected in what they were creating. From the outset, it was all part of the design challenge.
“Figuring out better sustainable design is part of the exciting creative challenge,” Edzard said. “An innovative fashion artwork can also be one that champions sustainability.”
Spend for good: Sheep Inc.’s Merino Cashwool sweaters are available in two styles, both of which are available in a variety of colors. And most importantly, they come with a New Zealand sheep adoptee and a thoroughly negative carbon footprint.
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