Bullish on Wool

By Debra Cobb April 29, 2015
Editor’s note: This is Part 4 of a four part series:
Part 1: The Wool Market       Part 2: Wool’s Renaissance      Part 3: An Interview with Icebreaker’s Jeremy Moon


There’s no question that the use of wool in apparel, particularly in the outdoor industry, has risen markedly in the past decade after a several-decade decline that began in the 1970s. Wool’s innate performance characteristics, along with its position as a natural, sustainable fiber, has endeared it to tree huggers and urban explorers alike, and it’s experiencing a comeback.

Marketing organizations and advocacy groups are working on behalf of the global wool industry to promote the use of wool in apparel. Outdoor industry stakeholders—who are focused on ensuring a sustainable future for this increasingly important fiber—are joining the effort.

Key Players

The Aussies

With Australia the source of around 60 percent of the world’s apparel wool under 24.5 microns and about 85 percent of fine-micron (under 19.5) wool for apparel, the wool advocate most familiar to the outdoor industry is Australian Wool Innovation (AWI). Funded by Australia’s wool growers, the organization supports research and innovation at the farm level, drives development with textile manufacturers and brands and interfaces with the consumer public.

In 2004 AWI launched the concept of Sportwool (wool/polyester blends for aerobic activities)—teaming with outdoor partners such as The North Face and Sugoi—and invested in the development and marketing of the MerinoPerform layering system in 2009.

The Kiwis

Founded in 1995 by New Zealand’s merino growers in an attempt to differentiate their fiber and their supply chain from Australia’s, New Zealand Merino (NZM) developed a new business model. Most of the world’s wool clip is sold at auction, but NZM transitioned to a forward-contract model, which allows growers to negotiate pre-orders and upfront pricing directly with brand and retail partners such as Ibex, Icebreaker, and SmartWool. This stabilizes purchase orders and prices and creates a more transparent supply chain.

NZM developed its ingredient brand, ZQ Merino to transmit its values of animal welfare, environmental and social responsibility, economic sustainability and transparency.

The Yankees

The American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) supports U.S. growers and producers, and has been instrumental in regenerating a complete domestic wool supply chain. American Rambouillet (a sheep breed prized in the Western U.S.) wool dominates the domestic outdoor market and is the preferred clip of brands such as Farm to Feet, Duckworth, Voormi and Ramblers Way.

Dave Petri, vice-president of marketing for Farm to Feet, explains that while the brand’s parent company, Nester Hosiery, has been developing wool socks for the outdoor industry since 1995, Farm to Feet was established specifically as a Made In America brand using American wool.

However, Petri cautions that because wool yarns are created from blended clips, it is not always possible to identify a single source for a product. “A single batch [of wool yarn] from a top-maker is a blend of clips from many ranches,” he says. “Wool fiber will vary based on the [source] sheep’s breed, diet and climate. Blending wool during the top-making process yields a better quality yarn for the specific fiber diameter. Farm to Feet specifies 22.5-micron wool, and we know it is sourced from ASI ranchers.”

Although making products that are traceable to the source is an aspirational goal the industry should strive to achieve, says Petri, “the practical application may prove challenging, based on the way wool is processed into clean top.”

A Trend Toward Transparency

Vertical sourcing models that enable true transparency are emerging, if slowly. One example is outdoor apparel company Duckworth’s partnership with Montana’s Helle Rambouillet Ranch as its sole source of wool fiber (the clip is superwashed in South Carolina, spun in Rhode Island and knit in North Carolina). Several wool spinners and textile manufacturers have even invested in wool stations in Australia to secure their supplies and to ensure traceability and quality control.

Sustainable wool advocates are also focusing on animal husbandry, land management and the environmental impact of wool processing. In collaboration with several of its member organizations, the International Wool Textile Organization (IWTO) has published a summary of ongoing efforts to develop a wool Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), detailing opportunities to improve sustainable practices within the wool supply chain.

In 2014, Textile Exchange (TE)—a network of brands, suppliers, wool specialists and animal welfare groups—conducted an initial stakeholder survey that revealed the wool industry’s need for a simplified, unified and consistent guide to best practices. In response, TE is currently working to develop a global Responsible Wool Standard, according to Anne Gillespie, director of industry integrity for TE. The discussions are currently focused on animal welfare and land management, she adds. “We want input and guidance in order to write a global standard, and because wool is grown all around the world, there are regional differences,” explains Gillespie.

A Rising Tide

Todd Copeland, supply chain environmental responsibility manager for Patagonia, is on the steering committee for the development of the TE standard. Over the past four years, Patagonia has been converting all of its merino wool to the Ovis 21 network of sustainable wool growers in the Patagonia region of South America.

“We are creating a market demand for wool grown on farms certified to the Grassland Regeneration and Sustainability Standard (GRASS) and in order to scale up the effort, we are also encouraging other companies to do the same,” says Copeland. “We recognize that wool-growing requires extensive land use and are turning it into a positive impact by sourcing from ranchers who are certified to GRASS and are regenerating or maintaining healthy land.”

In addition, Patagonia addresses the chemicals used in the processing of wool. “We avoid chlorine treatments typically used to create washable shrink-resistant wool products, and we restrict heavy metals that can commonly be found in wool dyes. Instead we utilize alternative technologies and green chemistry, and many of our wool fabrics and yarns are Bluesign approved,” Copeland continues.

Duckworth is also turning away from traditional chlorine-based superwashing and has announced a proprietary, patent-pending process to treat its wool without using hazardous chemicals.

According to Duckworth’s head of development, Graham Stewart, some 90 percent of shrink-resistant wools are treated with chlorine, which releases adsorbable organic halogen—a potential contaminant—into the runoff. “There’s a lot of interest in something that can benefit both the industry and the environment,” says Stewart.

“There’s a lot of interest in something that can benefit both the industry and the environment.” —Graham Stewart, Duckworth’s head of development.

Achieving Best Practices

As with any fiber that is an animal by-product, the OIA Sustainability Working Group (SWG) is committed to ensuring that wool is being produced and sourced using responsible and ethical practices. The group leverages its presence in the wool supply chain to collaborate with all involved stakeholders, not only among member companies but throughout the outdoor industry, to achieve these best practices at scale.  One way they’ve done that is through the creation of the Wool Traceability Matrix.

OIA Sustainability Working Group (SWG) is also collaborating with TE to establish traceability systems and standards for wool as well as for other raw materials through the Materials Traceability Working Group (MTWG).

“OIA SWG members represent and speak for the various manufacturers and retailers who produce wool products—mainly apparel and footwear—for outdoor consumers,” says Nikki Hodgson, OIA’s corporate responsibility coordinator. “TE represents stakeholders from various industries and textile sectors. The MTWG, therefore, is a collaborative effort with exponential reach. Together, OIA and TE have the critical mass necessary to provide far-reaching education and stewardship. Our open and transparent shared platforms allow both groups—and by extension a huge swath of companies—to leverage each other’s expertise to achieve shared goals.”

Beth Jensen, OIA director of corporate responsibility adds: “Once the Responsible Wool Standard is released, it will become part of the suite of tools that we provide our members to help them: a. manage their supply chains, b. increase the use of responsibly sourced wool, and c. ensure best practices around animal welfare and environmental sustainability.

“TE is doing incredible work to create traceability systems and to write materials standards that all wool stakeholders can follow. Members of the OIA SWG have been—and will continue to be—at the table the whole way, participating in collaborative discussions to develop those systems and standards and ensuring that the outdoor industry’s specific supply chain priorities and challenges are addressed.”