If anyone needed reminding of the infancy of the strong wool sector and its strategy, it was in the government's announcement that it will kickstart the industry by investing in the production of strong wool nappies.
In rolling out its long-awaited vision and action for New Zealand's wool and fibre sector, Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor said on Friday that the government will put seed capital of $80,000 into Woolchemy, a company formed in 2010 to transform wool into sustainable, added-value products.
The research grant, through the government's recently recapitalised sustainable food and fibre futures fund, will assist in the development of a non-woven textile that incorporates strong wool for use in disposable, biodegradable hygiene products - including nappies.
Woolchemy co-founder and chief executive Derelee Potroz-Smith, said the funding will be spent on further research of its neweFlex product line, essentially a lightweight, bio-composite distribution layer for single use nappies and sanitary pads.
Potroz-Smith said the application, engineered to be both "moisture-loving and moisture repellent," was also good for regulating infants' temperatures. She said the major challenge was in procuring the right wool at the right price, with her preference being to cut out the buyer in the middle.
But while the company will use NZ-sourced strong wool, production will head offshore – likely to a manufacturer in the US, China or Europe; or all three - and sales into those markets will follow suit.
Up the value chain
O'Connor highlighted Woolchemy, along with companies such as air filter manufacturer Lanaco and strong wool apparel group Agwool, as the future of the wool trade, and companies that aimed to transform wool into "something more valuable."
And generating value out of what was once NZ's main export is the inherent challenge, according to the wool industry project action group, which blames a lack of investment in the sector for the last 20 years as the root cause of not only declining sheep numbers – from 49 million to 27 million in 2018 – but also volatile strong wool returns.
Latest auction results for full fleece don't paint a positive picture. Good quality cross-bred, greasy wool is managing just $1.50/kilogram, which rises to $1.90/kg for "really good" clean wool, a price drop of between 35 percent-to-40 percent over the past quarter alone.
The picture is the same across both islands, according to PGG Wrightson general manager of wool Grant Edwards, with both growers and wool buyers starting to build inventory levels on the back of poor pricing.
Telling the story
"At that level it's just unsustainable for farmers," he said. "So any strategy we put out there has to be about increasing international demand and telling the story to consumers about the benefits of the natural fibre."
While noting the poor investment in wool had undermined functional requirements over the years, the report did highlight an emerging shift into natural fibres that have a strong environmental story.
"NZ's strong wool sector can meet these market needs if we can shift how we engage with global consumers and collaborate to renew investment in the sector," the report noted.
One of the group's key recommendations is the appointment of an executive officer supported by wool sector experts and government agencies, supporting skills training, research and development, sector data and connection and coordination. It also wants to see stronger governance to oversee development of an investment case.
Mark Shadbolt, a Banks Peninsula grower and founding chair of Wools of New Zealand, said it was good to see the government take the initiative and release the report, because the industry has never needed a strategy "more than it does now."
"We were in duress even before covid and the industry's probably been in decline for more than 20 years, and that's in spite of a host of initiatives and structures to try to fix it."
Structural change needed
He said the devil, as always, was in the detail and it "would be good to understand how funding will work and how the board or executive officer will be selected, but we are encouraged by the funding that government has suggested will be available."
Shadbolt said it was also an opportune time to consider structural industry changes. "No wool company will turn a profit this year. We've known consolidation is needed for probably 15 years, and I would see that as a non-negotiable part of our industry going forward."
The challenge now is to "roll up our sleeves and make it work, and that requires investment from all of us."
Paul Alston, chief executive of carpet manufacturer Cavalier Corp, said the report was "spot on" in identifying opportunities for NZ's quality strong wool as the preferred choice for leading fabric, carpet and materials companies.
He said it was now incumbent on Kiwis to support and own their own industry, by considering sustainable and environmentally friendly products as part of their purchasing decisions.
"A simple opportunity would be replacing worn out synthetic carpets in Kainga Ora homes with wool carpets, providing warmth, comfort and fire retardant qualities while supporting the NZ wool sector."
He said while the quantity of wool involved is "modest" in the context of the overall NZ strong wool clip, it would be another step in the government's drive for a better NZ for future generations.