There was a time when strong wool was used widely for garments. That included woollen underwear, woollen shirts, woollen jerseys and woollen jackets. Apart from the fine wool produced by Merino sheep, those markets have largely been swept aside by synthetics.
There was also a time when carpets were predominantly of the woollen type. Then some lower cost but inferior synthetic carpets came along. And then some superior synthetic but still lower cost carpets came along. As with garments, the strong wool carpets have been largely swept aside. Strong wool carpets do still exist, but they are now a niche.
Here in New Zealand, Cavalier has recently announced that it is transitioning away from synthetic carpets and within a year all of its carpets will be made from wool. That is exciting news for woolgrowers, but only time will tell whether it is a wise as well as brave decision.
Merino wool sits in a different category from strong wool and Merino wool is doing well. That is because the fine wool produced by Merino sheep does not itch against the skin. But alas, Merino wool can indeed only be produced by Merino sheep. And Merino sheep were not designed by nature to live in the higher rainfall zones of New Zealand. They do well in the dry lands of Central Otago and in the drier parts of the High Country. It is a brave farmer who tries to run them elsewhere.
Some weeks back I wrote in somewhat dismissive tones about the latest report released by the Government in relation to the future of strong wool. I described that report here as “aspirational high-level fluff”. I was trying to be polite. I made a passing suggestion that if strong wool does have a big future it could be as building insulation, but I could see no mention of that or any other specific in that Government-sponsored report. I also noted that in relation to mainstream acceptance of woollen batting for building insulation, as opposed to a niche top-end market, there is a need for additional technology that is yet to be developed.
My comments about wool in that previous article were largely some passing blows that I was making in the bigger context of food and fibre innovation. But it led to an email from Andrew Everist of Terra Lana. As a consequence, I spent a morning with Andrew and his co-owner and general manager James Gallagher. They showed me over the factory, we talked out the future, and we shared our passion about what the future could hold.
For those not familiar with Italian, ‘lana’ means ‘wool’. So Terra Lana is about wool and the land.
Two key products that Terra Lana produces are insulation batting and biodegradable groundcover matting, with the latter used instead of plastic for weed control and erosion management within landscaping projects. Currently, these products are made predominantly from off-cuts in woollen carpet manufacture. If it were not for Terra Lana, these offcuts would go to landfill.
If this reference to off-cuts makes it sound as if Terra Lana is a bit like a cottage industry, then that gives the wrong impression. Terra Lana is a significant and fast-growing business with some big machinery. But it is not all easy sailing.
In searching for a new ‘El Dorado’ for strong wool, it is these and similar new uses where we have to be thinking. The big question is whether these products can become mainstream or are they always destined to be no more than niche products.
Another related use is in acoustic materials. Wall panels incorporating wool can do marvellous things for the acoustics of public buildings such as schools, open-plan offices, hospitals and theatre facilities. These panels can also look very attractive. Architects working on high-end buildings are already onto this use, and it is something to get excited about.
So, things are happening but nowhere near fast enough if the wool industry is to be transformed. A lot will depend on how committed society is to sustainability versus petrochemical-derived products.
If society wants the lowest-cost options then the petrochemical-derived products are going to win out for a long time. My rough calculations indicate that even if the price of oil were to increase by a factor of five, then a wool-based batt will struggle to compete if price is the only criteria.
However, if the question is posed another way, and we ask what would be the cost of new public buildings if wool-based insulation was used, then the increase would be trivial as a percentage of the total cost.. We would also have buildings that were much more environmentally friendly and less likely to experience sick-building syndrome.
Right now, it is not possible to make insulation batts that are 100 percent wool. This is because over time the wool will slump or settle. So, unfortunately there has to be some polyester or similar in the mix. Getting to 100 percent wool requires an R&D program, but that is beyond the capacity of Terra Lana or anyone else in the industry. It needs a couple of passionate scientists, most likely chemical engineers, who are tasked with working alongside industry to find the solutions using trial and error investigations.
There needs to be another couple of scientists tasked with further development of acoustic tiles. That is more of a fine-tuning task and development task, and minimising the need for non-natural components.
When it comes to R&D, there is something wrong with the balance within our existing R&D systems in the universities and Crown Research Institutes. They need to get closer to industry. The charge rates for contract research are also inordinately high, with overhead charges typically in the order of 130 percent. Applied research requires a focus on cycles of trial and error, driving through to outputs rather than reports.
For landscaping products, the path forward seems simple. It depends on a requirement that landscaping materials for public projects must be biodegradable. It is remarkable how quickly plastic has been replaced in our supermarkets and it could be the same for groundcover products.
Whether the above uses can ever bring wool back to its glory days is debatable. However, there is potential for them to make a real difference on the journey to increasing sustainability within our society. We don’t need any more reports. What we need is a combination of action and applied R&D that can underpin consequent marketing.
*Keith Woodford was Professor of Farm Management and Agribusiness at Lincoln University for 15 years through to 2015. He is now Principal Consultant at AgriFood Systems Ltd. . He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.