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Dita De Boni is a Herald business columnist

Dita De Boni: Making fleece golden again

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China has made the wool business more profitable. Next step: Make it sexy.

Illustration / Anna Crichton
Illustration / Anna Crichton

Amid all the teeth-gnashing about the Chinese purchase of the Crafar farms, it may help to remember that without the Chinese, another of our agricultural industries would most certainly be down the gurgler.

The wool industry, which has been mired in an over-supply/under-demand quagmire for many years, has finally turned a corner, according to a recent missive from agri-bankers Rabobank.

While it is true that Kiwi farmers have been leaving sheep farming in droves because of the uncertain outlook, and supply has subsequently plummeted, the reality is that demand is up. Almost half of whatever wool New Zealand exports is going to China, and within a year the Middle Kingdom will be taking most of it.

China is the world's largest wool processing centre, but can't produce enough domestically to satisfy demand. The wool grown in China tends to be coarser than the stuff from Australia and New Zealand, meaning the domestically-grown product gets channelled into mats and carpets, while the finer clip coming from the average New Zealand ruminant is used for the high-end apparel side of the market.

High-end apparel? I hear you ask. But the wool being used these days isn't yesteryear's wool - the product endured by one contemporary of mine, whose mother knitted him a multi-coloured bat-wing jersey which he was forced to wear on mufti day during the 1980s, exposing him to the scorn of the entire school. Nor is it the sort that sees therapeutic knitters turn out unusable kilometres of scarves, leg-warmers and 1950s-style cardies. It isn't even the stuff that was once used to truss up babies as if they were off to the Arctic.

These days it's being used by the world's top designers - or so the wool industry tells us. This month in Sydney, wool pieces from the likes of Burberry, Vivienne Westwood and the late Alexander McQueen will go on display as part of a "Wool Modern" display. Meanwhile, Prince Charles has got in on the act, hosting a Campaign for Wool tea at his home at Highgrove to convince folk that wool carpet really is the only type worth having.

The next step in the global wool PR offensive will no doubt be to find a celebrity who loves wearing wool and shouting about it. There's just the one we know about at the moment: according to the Go San Angelo Standard Times of Texas, Masters Golf champion Bubba Watson "relied on [US wool sock maker] Kentwool's proprietary, fatigue-reducing blend of air-infused merino wool to overcome a three-stroke deficit in the final eight holes of regulation and beat Louis Oosthuizen on the second playoff hole". No, it's not quite up there with persuading Lady Gaga to flaunt a pair of woolly knickers, but it's a start.

In the same vein, it would be great if the All Blacks took to the field in aerodynamic wool-blend underwear, primarily because it would further reinforce wool's image as a prestige item, which is just what the current PR spin is all about. More than that, it would not only result in more of our wool going to China for processing, but more Chinese consumers buying luxury wool items, which is what the local industry is being urged to aim for.

The only worry is that if it's all too successful, and the Chinese start putting in bids for a few high-country sheep stations to secure their wool supply, patriots like Winston Peters, Sir Michael Fay and his assorted PR flunkies will feel duty-bound to pull on their Swanndris and man the barricades once again.

* Illustration by Anna Crichton: illustrator@annacrichton.com

- NZ Herald

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