Coarse wool’s new course weaving a different path


New Zealand’s forgotten fibre’s doing its best to get itself off the mat.

Coarse wool’s course over the past five decades has been almost unremittingly down – both in price and perception.

There’s been numerous, mostly ill-fated, attempts to reverse this trend.

A couple of innovative moves last year by the industry might be showing some green shoots of promise however.

1. Wool Research Organisation of NZ Inc/Fahrenheit 212 – new uses venture
2. Wool Industry Research Consortium – new projects (see separate story)

Wool Research contracted New York-based, New Zealander headed Fahrenheit 212 to investigate new market uses for wool at the beginning of last year (see stories here and here). After a hiccup or two, mostly Christchurch earthquake related, F212 reported back last October to self-selecting people who wanted to hear what they’d come up with.

F212 matched coarse wool research products with potential market applications, and came up with the following four areas, (there’s still a bit of confidentiality around this, so apologies for vagueness).

1. Beauty care applications
2. Active apparel applications
3. Bedding
4. Infant care

F212 usually works with large corporates assisting them to identify and develop new products or value propositions. In this wool case a large part of F212’s success fee is seeing new businesses get off the ground and producing products. One of its main recommendations was not to attempt to take a final product through to market, but to produce a new ingredient to on-sell in a business-to-business proposition to marketers. (Goretex, used by many different clothing manufacturers and supporting a US$6 billion market was given as an example).

Well, four months after F212’s Christchurch and Auckland show and tells, commercial propositions for three of the four are being put together.

Four separate groups expressed interest in the beauty care concept.

“We’re encouraging a value chain approach, linking supply, manufacture and marketing,” says Wool Research’s general manager Ian Cuthbertson.

Somewhat ironically, and as an aside, as NZ sheep numbers fall, the guarantee of wool supply is something that will have to be carefully monitored.

Cuthbertson says the business cases for all four areas are still being worked on. Wool Research will financially assist the R&D required by the interested parties looking at the opportunities.

Each of the areas requires further investment in R&D as well as commercial analysis to scientifically back up the consumer benefits claimed within the products, and to support development of the market opportunity.

Companies assessing the opportunities are keen to identify appropriate international market linkages before they commit to investment in the concept says Cuthbertson.

The baby product needs more work on its business case in order for NZ industry to consider it a compelling proposition, but it is agreed that this is an area that wool should be excelling in. If necessary, Wool Research will invest further through the wool consortium to flesh out the infant care opportunity, but prefers to do so with the support and direction of a potential commercialising company.

However the concept that has most opened New Zealanders’ eyes has been that of ‘ingredient marketing’.

Making an added value product with attributes and functionality at the right price, and taking this to brand owners isn’t rocket science.

But it hasn’t been done by the NZ wool industry in significant scale – apart from carpet yarn spinners.

Normally we have attempted to export consumer ready goods – a hard thing to succeed in from New Zealand without excellent international distribution networks.

Generating a consumer brand costs heaps; partnering with European and American companies to carry out this end of the operation means value can ideally be produced at the ingredient level in New Zealand says Cuthbertson.

Footnote: sticK has a stronger than average interest in wool, coming off a Southland sheep farm, and having ‘gained experienced (i.e. failed) in a wool product venture, ‘Funkball’ himself (see here for an old website). But, as a product that we do well, there’s potential yet in the fibre and in matching its attributes to different applications. If some of these potential wool ‘ingredients’ take off, sheep farmers and the country will have a significant ‘new’ valuable product.

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About sticknz

sticK is by Peter Kerr, a writer for hire. I have a broad science and technology background and interest, with an original degree in agricultural science. My writing speciality is making the complex understandable. I am available for outside consultancy work, and for general discussions of converting a good idea into something positive
This entry was posted in high tech, Innovation, Prototyping, SciBlogs, Science, sustainability, technology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Coarse wool’s new course weaving a different path

  1. Derelee Potroz-Smith, Managing Director of Potroz-Smith Technologies Ltd says:

    Peter, great post! We are a start-up business developing baby nappies using coarse wool and we first gained momentum when we made the top 20 ideas of the 2010 Bright Ideas Challenge established by Grow Wellington. We attended the F212 presentation and we were surprised and yet pleased that our idea wasn’t already identified in the babycare market. While our idea may not seem new to others, we believe we have innovated a product that we can truly say is toxic free, biodegradable, compostable and super absorbent in a market that is heavily reliant on non-renewable materials such as oil and toxic chemicals. I think in the current international economical climate we need to be developing products that solve problems and not focus so much on “luxury” items. We are purposely focusing on delivering a product that is disposable, that is a necessity to human health and well being, and above all uses NZ coarse wool which has typically only been used for carpets. I was raised in a dedicated sheep farming family and although there will be challenges ahead we are determined and passionate to raise the bar for NZ coarse wool.

  2. Hebe says:

    We need a sizable investment in wool research and development. A sheep farmer living near me got $5.10 a kg for his wool last year. This year he got $3.60 a kg. Sheep farm prices were on the “up”, and suddenly don’t look so good.

  3. Wool unfortunately suffers from decreasing real prices, decreasing faster than productivity improvements. Prof Henderson ex Lincoln thirty years ago predicted that wool would be valueless by 2020, His trend line has been closely followed by wool. Unfortunately this product has not benefited from world food supply/demand tightening. Wool that in the past was often a sheep farmers largest part of income now often accounts for little more than 10% of income. The hundreds of millions of dollars spent on wool research and development to date have not produced a magic bullet to save the industry. Apart from niche markets it’s hard to see any other place for wool in todays world.

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