It’s sweater season, but your common or garden woolens could soon be a thing of the past: animal rights group Peta launched a competition this week to find a vegan alternative to wool that comes with a prize of $1 million (£860,500).

The Vegan Wool Challenge Award promises cash prizes to the first person or company to develop a material that convincingly resembles sheep’s wool in texture, functionality and appearance, and what a major clothing brand invest in this material.

Innovative applications are expected. “From flowers and fruit to hemp and soybeans, the options are limitless when it comes to creating animal-free clothing and accessories,” said Peta Vice President for Europe Mimi Bekhechi. . “Peta is excited to drive innovation that will help protect animals and stop the environmental destruction caused by animal agriculture.”

The competition comes at a time when new biomaterials – usually made from natural substances without harming the environment – ​​are becoming increasingly popular in fashion. Mycelium, an alternative to bovine leather made from mushrooms, performs best. It is now used by brands such as Stella McCartney, Ganni and Balenciaga. According to the non-profit organization Material Innovation Initiative, investment in the booming industry has reached $2.3bn (£1.94bn) since 2015.

There are vegan alternatives to wool. 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 shell and hemp.

Peta has long campaigned against the production of wool and animal cruelty in the industry. A page on its website shows “15 videos that will change your mind about wearing wool”, detailing the workers who stamp and beat sheep on wool farms in countries including the UK, India. Australia and the United States since 2014.

Wool is also under fire when it comes to the environment. Like cows, sheep release a lot of methane into the atmosphere and they need farmland.

According to the Pulse Report, published by the Global Fashion Agenda in 2017, wool was ranked the fourth most environmentally harmful material, just behind the widely derided cotton. He found that synthetic fabrics, including acrylic, polyester, spandex and rayon, were less harmful to the environment. The Higgs Materials Durability Index ranks wool’s impact at 81 out of 300. Cotton scored 99 and polyester 41.

The International Wool Textiles Organization has since disputed this. He indicates that the index does not take into account the fact that consumers tend to wear woolen items 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 fibers known to man,” said Graham Clark, Marketing Director of British Wool. “It’s renewable and biodegradable, so it doesn’t contribute to landfill the way synthetics do.”

Clark said wool doesn’t contribute to microplastics in the oceans and doesn’t need to be cleaned as often as man-made fabrics. “It is undeniable that the fashion industry needs better sustainable solutions, but we must bear in mind that new initiatives, such as those which directly or indirectly encourage the use of synthetic materials, do not cause more harm than good,” he said.

Clark also pushed back against animal cruelty charges. “Shearers in the UK are highly skilled professionals carrying out a vital duty of care,” he said. “Shearing is a painless process and is an essential part of sheep care, as failure to do so can cause discomfort and disease, with painful, dangerous and even fatal consequences. Shearing is truly an animal welfare issue.

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

Peta stipulates that the winning entry for the Vegan Wool Challenge must be a biomaterial, biodegradable or recyclable. It should also work like wool on different weights (i.e. a chunky sweater or a nice pair of socks) and keep wearers warm.

According to the contest rules, entrants have until July 2023 to submit a fabric sample and production plan. If successful, they will then be encouraged to partner with “at least one of the top 10 global apparel retail brands” to produce and sell items made from their material in the United States by January 2024. Any person or business with an annual turnover of less than $30 million (£25.32) can enter.