Wool offers a solution to our plas­tic prob­lem

Otago Daily Times - - OPINION - Anna Camp­bell is manag­ing di­rec­tor of Aba­cusBio Ltd, a Dunedin based agritech­nol­ogy com­pany.

MOST of the agri­cul­tural in­dus­try is weath­er­ing the Covid­19 storm and play­ing a role in keep­ing the econ­omy afloat.

Un­for­tu­nately, the same can­not be said about the strong­wool in­dus­try which was in trou­ble be­fore the Covid­19 pan­demic but is now in dire straits.

More than 80% of wool pro­duced in New Zealand is greater than 30 mi­crons and has tra­di­tion­ally been used for car­pets.

The type of sheep best suited for strong wool suit the ma­jor­ity of New Zealand’s farm­ing coun­try, with finer wool breeds (where the wool is used for cloth­ing), such as merino sheep, bet­ter suited for high coun­try.

The re­turns for strong wool mean wool has turned into a cost cen­tre for farm­ers — there are no prof­its, in fact by the time farm­ers cover shear­ing costs and their own labour, they are mak­ing a loss on wool pro­duc­tion.

The sit­u­a­tion has wors­ened with Covid19, but wool woes are not new. Con­sumer moves to­wards cheaper plas­tic car­pets (let’s call them plas­tic, not syn­thetic) and a lack of prod­uct in­no­va­tion by the wool sec­tor has been the cat­a­lyst.

Un­for­tu­nately, much of our high­qual­ity strong wool is still sold in bale form to in­ter­na­tional traders who on­sell on a com­pet­i­tive com­mod­ity mar­ket — it’s heart­break­ing stuff.

There have been many re­ports and ac­tion groups over the years es­tab­lished to rem­edy the sit­u­a­tion.

The lat­est, the ‘‘Wool In­dus­try Project Ac­tion Group’’, rightly recog­nises that times are fi­nally chang­ing in that consumers are start­ing to re­alise the scale of the plas­tic prob­lem.

How­ever, we have chal­lenges to over­come — a lack of co­or­di­na­tion of ac­tiv­i­ties, a lack of govern­ment sup­port, a lack of farmer levies go­ing into wool and a lack of com­mer­cial new prod­uct de­vel­op­ment. These have all con­trib­uted to the wool de­cline.

It’s easy to look back and crit­i­cise but un­for­tu­nately we have been our own worst en­e­mies. For too long sci­en­tists fo­cused on turn­ing wool into some sort of phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal/cos­metic prod­uct — at sig­nif­i­cant costs for poor tan­gi­ble out­comes at the scale we need. Some en­ergy was put into de­vel­op­ing al­ter­nate in­su­la­tion prod­ucts, but not enough to make these re­al­is­tic main­stream op­tions.

The wool in­dus­try is lit­tered with great plans and greater dis­ap­point­ment. In protest, farm­ers voted against wool levies in 2009 caus­ing a dwin­dling in wool re­search dol­lars and in 2014, farm­ers voted against a wool levy re­in­state­ment. The ra­tio­nale be­hind the ‘‘no’’ vote was un­der­stand­able — too many prom­ises, too lit­tle ac­tion, how­ever, it was short­sighted. Much of the Govern­ment’s in­vest­ment into re­search and de­vel­op­ment has to be sup­ported by com­mer­cial ac­tiv­ity — if these are not co­or­di­nated and of sig­nif­i­cant scale then the Govern­ment won’t in­vest ei­ther. It’s a pretty sim­ple equation.

Is the in­dus­try then doomed, or does the lat­est Wool In­dus­try Project Ac­tion Group sug­ges­tion of de­vel­op­ing wool as a fi­bre ‘‘fit for a bet­ter world’’ have legs?

I use the su­per­mar­ket plas­tic shop­ping bags as an ex­am­ple of a ‘‘tip­ping point’’. For years we knew we should re­place them, yet it felt quite sud­den when we fi­nally stopped us­ing them. Have we reached a plas­tic tip­ping point yet?

How long will consumers put up with plas­tic be­ing in­sid­i­ously placed into ev­ery prod­uct and ev­ery place we turn? Even teabags con­tain mi­cro­scopic plas­tic — enough is enough. When consumers de­mand change, gov­ern­ments will fol­low.

Wool re­search and de­vel­op­ment has to be fo­cused at the ‘‘de­vel­op­ment’’ end into large­scale new prod­uct de­vel­op­ment. Com­pa­nies such as NZ Yarn, com­bin­ing wool with hemp fi­bre, Terra Lana, de­vel­op­ing wool in­su­la­tion prod­ucts and Cava­lier Brem­worth who have an­nounced they will not be pro­duc­ing plas­tic car­pet any­more, should all have Govern­ment of­fi­cials knock­ing on their doors ask­ing ‘‘how can we make your pro­duc­tion costs cheaper? How can we help your boat go faster? How can we help you suc­ceed?’’

Com­mer­cially­led in­no­va­tion is our great­est chance of re­vi­tal­is­ing the strong­wool in­dus­try. For­get about es­o­teric car­bon trad­ing schemes — let’s in­vest in prac­ti­cal so­lu­tions that ac­tu­ally make a dif­fer­ence to con­sumer be­hav­iour. Let’s has­ten the plas­tic tip­ping point. New Zealand’s plas­tic prob­lem is ev­ery­one’s prob­lem and in the wool in­dus­try we have a solution wait­ing for up­take.


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