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All going wool

28 October 2022
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merino sheep landscape 01

Why New Zealand merino doesn’t need a sales pitch. Words Carolyn Enting Photos NZM

Global awareness of merino wool has gone viral, in part thanks to a powerful campaign launched last month by Woolmark.

Timed to coincide with fashion weeks in London, New York and Paris, the “wear wool, not fossil fuel” campaign had more than 560,000 views on YouTube in the first week of its release and it certainly makes for compelling viewing.

Three people emerge from a swimming pool of petroleum drenched like birds from an oil spill, then peeling off the toxic layer to reveal natural merino wool apparel as they step into nature and a stunning high-country landscape.

The camera lens zooms in on the words “merino wool” and the message is clear. Merino wool, which is renewable, 100 per cent natural and biodegradable, is the better choice for our planet than fabrics made from synthetic fibres and the crude oil used in their manufacture.

The campaign follows on the heels of the launch of The New Zealand Merino Company (NZM)’s ZQRX programme in 2021, which takes action beyond the fibre itself. An extension of ZQ certified fibre, the world’s leading ethical wool, ZQRX is the world’s first regenerative wool platform.

ZQ brand partners, of which there are approximately 120, include Stella McCartney who is big on animal rights – ZQ growers meet ZQ fibre quality, animal welfare, care for the environment and social responsibility standards.

“They’re all looking for the same thing which is the highest quality fibre and lowest environmental footprint,” says NZM’s general manager of sales and marketing Tim Loftus.

ZQRX challenges and supports growers and brands to enhance their environmental practices and to be involved in the ZQRX programme you have to already be a ZQ certified grower, says Loftus.

It has not only lifted the game but answers critics who point to farm methane emissions in defence of polyester.

According to research by AgResearch, wearing wool is also better for skin than synthetics.

Wool also breaks down in the marine environment without adding harmful synthetic microfibres into the ocean.

As it stands, the merino industry in New Zealand cannot supply the demand for its merino wool. In recent years, to serve global contracts, NZM has had to diversify, sourcing ZQ quality merino from Australia and South Africa (where ‘Wear wool, not fossil fuel’ was filmed).

Year-on-year bale sales of New Zealand merino sold show 104,000 bales in 2021 compared to 75,000 bales in 2020.

“The highest demand for wool is in the 18-19 micron space and that’s the area that Australia has huge volumes in and we’re almost tapped out here in New Zealand,” says Loftus.

“Our key focus is around sustainability and animal welfare so as we move into Australia, where there is still mulesing there are some challenges in animal welfare practices so for us it is all about pinpointing the most progressive growers.”

Going regenerative

The New Zealand Merino Company launched ZQRX in collaboration with founding partners Icebreaker, Smartwool and Allbirds.

Tim Brown, co-founder of eco footwear brand Allbirds, is excited to be on the ZQRX regenerative journey.

“Farming done poorly can be bad for the environment. Farming done well incorporating regenerative practices, we believe, can be one of the single biggest levers you can pull to improve the world’s impact on the environment. It’s just all about how it is done,” says Brown.

“I think increasingly there is an awakening in the farming community that there is this enormous new opportunity for that sector to lead, to innovate and show people this incredible path, whatever type of farming you’re engaged in.”

The night NZM launched ZQRX to the grower community (which includes 300 merino growers in the South Island) they had 167 growers sign up on the spot. Since then that number has grown to about 520 growers committed to shifting their practices to regenerative.

“The growers are the heroes of the whole story,” says Loftus. “They are what we call the actionists in the world of sustainability where you’ve got activists who are making a hell of a lot of noise but for us we’re more interested in the actionists – the people who are tangibly making a difference.”

Having such a great community of forward-thinking and innovative farmers in New Zealand certainly gives NZM an edge in the marketplace.

“Leading practices on the farm around sustainability and animal welfare is our niche and in the global wool industry quite a small percentage of wool is considered ethical and that’s a space that we’ve been playing in for 25 years,” explains Loftus. “I don’t really need to have a sales pitch.”

There’s probably never been a better time in New Zealand history to be a merino farmer than right now, adds Brown.

Getting innovative

Since launching with a merino wool runner, Allbirds has continued to innovate with wool. Its latest offering is the Mizzle, a water-repellent shoe with a merino upper that keeps feet dry. The brand has also begun to experiment with wool in performance footwear and apparel.

Merino is also the material of choice for adventure performance-driven sports brand Mons Royale, which often mixes merino with other fabrics such as recycled polyester to meet the performance of riders (whether that’s on a bike or for snow sports).

“We really want to create things that are going to shift the needle and move someone from a synthetic bike jersey to a natural alternative, and to do that you’ve got to meet performance,” says Mons Royale co-founder Hamish Acland.

Thanks to the artistic direction of co-founder Hannah Acland, Mons Royale is also the kind of clothing you want to show off, unlike traditional boring base layers. The Wānaka-based mountain brand, which also has offices in mountain towns Innsbruck and Squamish, has 600 retail doors globally and it’s also taken on the ZQRX regenerative challenge.

Hannah grew up on a merino sheep station Dalrachney, Lindis Pass, and Hamish (a former pro skier) on a sheep and deer farm in Mt Somers.

“We could never have started a brand from an oil-based synthetic,” says Hamish. “Our purpose when we’re sharing our story is around bettering people and the planet through action-adventure sports.”

Allbird’s Brown, also a former athlete and All White, says it is an exciting moment for sportswear.

“Do you want plastic against the skin or do you want something from nature that gives you all these properties like moisture-wicking, comfort and temperature-regulation for free?” asks Brown.

“For 50 years we’ve been innovating in synthetic materials, so this is like playing catch up on a huge category.” It all comes back to performance says Jacob Faull, founder of Nature Baby.

“To why it’s such a great fibre and it’s really important people understand that, because it’s a high-performance fibre that’s specifically great for wearing in general, if it’s getting wet or funky,” says Faull.

“What a baby needs, a mountain climber needs as well. Merino is amazing at wicking moisture off so if they’re sleeping through the night and either sweating or wetting, it still keeps them warm.”

Full circle

Nature Baby was one of the early pioneers of adopting merino fibre over synthetics as far back as 1998 and has subsequently grown the merino side of the business from five to 18 per cent.

A ZQ partner, Nature Baby also sources GOTS-certified organic merino and on average its garments are passed on five to eight times.

“Because we use the longer and stronger fibres, it makes the fabric more stable and lasts longer and because it lasts longer and holds its shape and looks good, people will naturally use it more,” says Faull.

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