The planets may finally be realigning for wool as the world starts questioning the impact of synthetic fabrics, woolclassers were told last week.
Several industry representatives who spoke at the New Zealand Woolclassers Association annual meeting and professional development day in Mosgiel, were upbeat about the fortunes of strong wool, but their optimism didn’t appear to be coming from a position of self-interest.
The 50 or so classers were told the industry is united and given examples of green shoots of opportunity by marketers and retailers.
Despite that, no one was left in any doubt of the scale of challenge ahead.
Strong Wool Action Group (SWAG) chief executive Andy Caughey has lived in Europe for many years and recalls in 2019 UK sheep farmers celebrating they were receiving more for their wool than NZ farmers.
He is optimistic about the future of strong wool, given changes to consumer buying patterns, especially among young people and growing awareness about the environmental impact of synthetic products.
“The youth in Europe and the US are building the world for their future and are actively looking for products that have a low environmental impact and are sustainable,” Caughey said.
Each year in NZ 150,000 tonnes of synthetic carpet is dumped in landfills, which have to be sealed to avoid the toxins in the products leaching into waterways.
“These special pits are tombs of toxicity,” he said.
Ironically a potential market for wool could be synthetic carpet manufacturers looking for more natural products.
He said the lifestyles and choices being made younger generations differ from their parents.
In the US many are abandoning inner-city apartment living for houses in the suburbs to engage with nature and spend time outdoors, creating an opportunity for wool blankets.
He said SWAG will transition to Wool Impact on July 1 under a soon to be announced board, which will not be made up of industry representatives.
Its chair will be chosen for their breadth of international experience, not necessarily in agribusiness, and the board will have people with experience in marketing, managing change, finance and NZ agribusiness.
Wool Impact will have an annual budget of $3.8m and employ a small executive.
Caughey said Wool Impact will work with industry to develop markets, brands and products and he sees opportunities for acoustic panels, insulation, floor coverings, furniture, bedding, sanitary products, bandages and new products using deconstructed powders.
Wools of NZ chief executive John McWhirter estimates that of NZ’s 750,000 annual strong wool clip, new uses or markets have to be found for 45,000 to 50,000 bales to start driving prices back up again.
He said 25 years ago wool accounted for 90% of sales of NZ floor coverings. Today it is 14%.
“Plastic has beaten wool and we’ve let it happen. We have to take it back,” McWhirter said.
McWhirter said new initiatives and commitments to use wool announced recently will absorb 2000 bales.
Wools of NZ is aiming to capture 50% of polypropylene’s current NZ carpet market share, which will consume 55,000 bales.
National Council of Wool Interests chair Rosstan Mazey said the key to turning around the fortunes of wool was the quality of the fibre.
“For strong wool, it has never been in a more challenging space, but also it has never had a greater opportunity, evident with companies like Bremworth committing to only sell wool carpets,” Mazey said.
He also spoke on the launch of the NZ Farm Assurance Plan (NZFAP), which provides assurances about the production integrity of agricultural products.
He was asked what role, if any, wool prepared by certified classers or graders would have in meeting the criteria of the NZFAP.
He said the scheme was in its early stages and had been focused on meat, but he was keen for it to be expanded to include wool.