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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.

Coarse wool’s new course weaving a different path

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