Natural or man-made, no other fibre can contest with wool’s fundamental benefits. For more than 50 years The Woolmark Company has championed and evolved the biodegradable, natural, renewable fibre as the ultimate ingredient in luxury fashion and a key to performance apparel as both the prerequisite for style and ultimate blueprint for sustainability.
Vowing to be part of the solution, the Woolmark brand is working to align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, from responsible farming to end-of-life garment disposal. Since 2001, AU$75 million has been invested in research and development that focuses on the health and welfare of sheep, by Australian woolgrowers through Woolmark’s R&D.
And as consumers grow more conscious, aware of not only what they put in their bodies, but what goes on it, the company’s commitment has only strengthened. By partnering with like-minded designers and brands to working with supply chains for ensured responsibility in all areas of operation, The Woolmark Company has seen that garments are made sustainably from fibre sourcing through production.
Here, Stuart McCullough, managing director at The Woolmark Company, discusses the sustainability of wool, ongoing innovation, and consumer-driven trends.
WWD Studios: What role does Woolmark play in the industry and how has it evolved?
Stuart McCullough: The history of The Woolmark Company is built on innovation. Initiated by Australian woolgrowers who recognized the need for a collective body to represent their fibre globally, the Woolmark brand represents a commitment between woolgrowers, brands and consumers on the authenticity and quality of the fibre that connects us.
Our business is constantly evolving through innovation both on-farm and across the entire supply chain.
WWD Studios: What impact does climate change have on wool production?
S.M.: Climate change and the associated climate variability can disrupt the growth of pastures that sheep rely on to survive and thrive. It increases the risk that is inherent in farming operations and reduces the confidence to invest in farm improvements. Slight changes in temperature and rainfall over the year is changing what pasture type, quality and quantity farmers see growing on their farms. Because Australia is so vast with such a diversity of climatic and ecological zones, some farmers are growing better pastures, and some are having to change their pasture type.
Australia is a dry continent and farmers are used to drought occurring at any time in one part of this vast country, although farmers are worried if climate change is making variability of the climate worse.
WWD Studios: As you look at the entire wool supply chain – from the meadow to the consumer’s closet – what has changed? Where can improvements be made?
S.M.: Innovations – both in product and process – have changed wool for the better. Today’s Merino wool fibre is a far cry from wool fibres of 20-30 years ago. Years of refinements in breeding has resulted in a luxuriously soft fibre that is gentle next to the skin. Most wool garments these days are machine washable, meaning wool garments are easy to care for – it’s a common misconception that wool is difficult to care for.
We are also seeing Merino wool enter new markets our ancestors would never have dreamed of – such as wool performance shoes, wool board shorts and even providing a natural alternative for fur.
We are constantly seeking to improve the industry – working with our supply chain for production processes with a lower environmental impact, such as waterless dyeing and zero-waste yarn.
WWD Studios: What differentiates natural wool from other fibres?
S.M.: No other fibre can match wool’s inherent benefits. Wool has long been heralded the original eco fibre, but concerns had been raised about the machine-washable finish applied to wool and whether it added to the microplastic problem, so we wanted to clarify that issue with the Microplastics Study, which found that machine washable-treated wool fibres biodegrade in marine environments.
During these ever-changing troubled times, it’s important to consider how well-intentioned consumers can make purchasing decisions that help look after the health of the environment. Choosing natural fibres, such as Merino wool is an important place to start.
WWD Studios: What role does transparency play in communication with consumers? Why is this so important?
S.M.: These days transparency is everything. Consumers don’t just want a product, they want the story behind the product. There are a number of ways we help brands communicate this to their consumers, such as the inclusion of NFC chips in a garment to map the supply chain, or tracing a product back to the very farm where the wool was grown.
WWD Studios: How has the consumer demand for traceability and sustainability changed?
S.M.: We see traceability and supply chain integrity as a way to empower brands and customers to make better choices. Last year we asked our International Woolmark Prize finalists to present fully traceable collections and we ensured they were equipped with the knowledge, support and access to the most advanced supply chain partners to push the agenda for best practice.
We’ve seen consumers become increasingly aware of what is in their food and where it’s made. And now this consideration has entered the fashion industry, particularly with younger, more conscious, consumers. We can provide traceable supply chains to boost consumer confidence within the industry and meet this growing demand for sustainability.
WWD Studios: How would you describe the future of the wool industry?
S.M.: The future remains bright and dynamic. Woolgrowers are a resilient bunch who have battled many droughts, fires and now this global pandemic. They raise sheep and grow wool because it’s their passion. It’s more than just a job, it’s a lifestyle. Every industry has its own set of swings and roundabouts and you take the good with the not so good. As consumers – particularly millennials and Gen Z – become increasingly conscious, they will naturally turn to Merino wool.