25 Aug 2023

NZ merino wool sellers attract new ethical producers in Australia to stem shortfall

4:15 pm on 25 August 2023

By Laurissa Smith for ABC Rural

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Photo: NZ Merino Company

New Zealand is known for its jaw-dropping scenery, first-class food and wine, and sheep - lots of them.

It stands at less than a third of what it was four decades ago, about 20 million sheep, as the industry competes with other land uses like dairy and beef farming.

That is an issue for a number of businesses, including marketing and innovation firm New Zealand Merino Company.

It has built a reputation for sourcing ethically produced merino wool for the rapidly expanding outdoor apparel market.

It now sells wool to more than 130 brands, covering everything from luxury fashion to footwear.

But demand for merino wool is outstripping supply in New Zealand, despite wool only making up 1 percent of the the world's textile fibres.

New Zealand Merino Company's Australian regional manager Steve Wainewright said that for the past five years, the company had been sourcing additional wool for its customers from Australia.

It now has about 130 Australian woolgrowers on the books, providing the business with 15 percent of its needs.

The company has 75 percent of the market share of apparel wool grown in New Zealand.

"In the past two or so years, New Zealand Merino has really stepped up and that's aligned with the growing demand from brand partners for wool in this space," Wainewright said.

"We've got orders from 10 micron to 40 micron wool, anywhere from that luxury fashion space to interior textiles and carpet."

Sending Australian wool to NZ

Tasmanian woolgrowers Chris and Claire Headlam started supplying New Zealand Merino three years ago.

The couple who farm at Woodbury, halfway between Launceston and Hobart, were eyeing the market for some time.

They run just over 8000 merino sheep on their 1800-hectare property, Ratharney.

"This country lends itself to growing good, healthy sheep," Headlam said.

"It's just a good fit with some native run country and improved paddocks, as well as irrigation.

"It gives us a few options to run those stock."

New Zealand merino sheep in rural livestock farm.

Some farmers have had to change their practices to meet New Zealand standards. File pic Photo: 123RF

To qualify for a three-year contract with New Zealand Merino, the Headlams ceased mulesing, a one-off procedure to remove folds of skins around a lamb's rear and tail.

They also have to meet a globally recognised set of standards that cover fleece quality, animal welfare, environmental sustainability, and social responsibility.

"The Kiwis ceased mulesing quite early in the piece because they could see the markets [they] could gain access to," Headlam said.

"It was quite clever on their behalf."

The pair recently spent some time in New Zealand as part of a study tour of its wool and textile industry, including its biggest outdoor merino brand, Icebreaker.

"I've always been a fan of wearing their Icebreaker apparel for nearly 20 years," Headlam said.

"It's cool to see that finally we've got some connection with a consumer through that channel, with New Zealand Merino and AWN."

Claire Headlam said it was encouraging to see the entire supply chain on the same page.

"Icebreaker have been manufacturing quite sustainably for quite some time now," she said.

"But their real goal is to remove plastic from their garments.

"It fits with some of our values as well, because we're really trying to reduce the amount of plastic we use."

This story was first published by the ABC.

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