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Biodiversity and fashion – what’s wool got to do with it?

Wool has the potential to be a long-lasting and low footprint material in fashion, but that depends on how farmers produce the wool and manage their land and local river systems.

An emerging movement in the fashion industry is for leaders in the industry to scrutinise their supply chains and to prioritise nature-positive investments that will enhance biodiversity and benefit local farmers.

Beyond the responsible sourcing of raw materials, two global fashion brands – H&M Group and Kering (owner of Alexander McQueen, Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, amongst others) – are working with WWF and funding regenerative agriculture projects in the rural grasslands of the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

While each project differs slightly, the focus for both is on supporting sustainable wool production in these remote, biodiverse rangelands to reverse biodiversity loss and build a water-secure future.

Within the Eastern Cape Drakensberg project sites, the threats to the natural grasslands include overgrazing, poor rangeland management, invasive plants and land clearance for crops.

These rangelands are not ideal for crop production, but they are suited for sheep farming. If flocks are managed well, farmers can ultimately improve their wool quality – and income. There is however a need to provide support for communal sheep farmers to improve livestock health, grazing camps, sheep shearing facilities and the establishment of grazing associations.  

The Kering funding, through a global partnership with Conservation International, is being implemented locally by Conservation South Africa (CSA) who have a good Eastern Cape footprint. Over a decade ago, in 2009, CSA and WWF together developed best practice guidelines for 13 production sectors – including mohair and wool. Now, we are working with CSA to advance South Africa’s smallholder wool sector and to enable regenerative agriculture.

Working with various partners towards the overlapping goals of both Kering and H&M Group, the outreach work will include signing conservation agreements with communal and commercial sheep farmers, as well as providing training and mentorship to communal sheep farmers who are members of the local grazing associations within the pilot project areas. Commitments will include planned rotational grazing to allow areas of rangeland to rest during the summer growing season, thereby enabling the regeneration of healthy soil cover, as well as natural plants and biodiversity.  

The project sites are within, or strategically adjacent to, a critical landscape where work is underway to create a new national park in partnership with South African National Parks (SANParks) in a working, agricultural landscape. Buffer zones surrounding the proposed park will contribute to ecological connectivity and increased diversity of species. Once formally declared, the proposed national park will secure a further 30 000 hectares for high-altitude grassland conservation and national water security.

Critically, the mountainous Eastern Cape Drakensberg is a strategic water source area with many rivers, wetlands and natural springs which provide fresh water for millions of people downstream. Thus, the H&M Group project includes clearing of water-intensive invasive alien trees in its plans.

Says Justin Smith, WWF’s Head of Business Development: “We are delighted with these new fashion-sector partnerships. The regenerative wool production projects are unique in that the project sites are positioned within or next to the proposed new national park, which makes this an innovative approach to protected area expansion.

We also want to ensure there is impact at a landscape level and a sustained change in the supply chains of forward-thinking leaders like these in the fashion industry. When we align with multiple like-minded partners towards creating a lasting impact for nature and people, we are excited at what can be achieved together!”

How wool is produced and how farmers manage their land has an impact on biodiversity and river systems.

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