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The strong wool industry in New Zealand is in crisis — and has been for some time; its demand for and pricing completely undermined by the availability of cheap synthetic fibres over the past 20 to 30 years.
There has been talk of farmers dumping wool and of merino dags fetching more than crossbred fleece, as shearing costs continue to accelerate amid the backdrop of woeful returns.
Meanwhile, the Wool Industry Project Action Group — established to look at opportunities to improve returns for the sector — has finally released its report. The group met for the first time in late September 2018 and was to develop a pan-sector action plan before the end of that year.
Nearly two years on, a report was released last week in which it said natural fibres were ‘‘on the cusp of a renaissance’’ and a new approach was needed. Nobody will argue the latter — whether it should take two years to come up with that is another point.
Frustrated South Otago wool grower Amy Blaikie recently decided to do something about the state of the industry herself, launching a petition calling on the House of Representatives to ensure all publicly funded buildings and KiwiBuild homes were built or refurbished with New Zealand wool carpet and insulation. To date, it has attracted more than 8000 signatures.
Hot on the heels of that, New Zealand First MP and South Otago farmer Mark Patterson has called for New Zealand wool products to take priority in procurement decisions for outfitting government buildings.
Yet his leader, Winston Peters, on the campaign trail in Southland back in 2017, vowed to stop synthetic carpets being installed in government buildings.
Mr Peters said planned Government build houses should be a ‘‘bonanza’’ for New Zealand wool. However, that would not happen because National was turning its back on wool.
But the current Government doesn’t seem to have delivered much more for the sector, aside from the Ministry for Primary Industries hosting a wool summit in July 2018 and Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor subsequently setting up the wool working group.
In this year’s Budget, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced an extra 8000 public houses; last year, her government delivered the ‘‘wellbeing’’ budget. What better product could be used to insulate those homes than with the natural, sustainable and environmentally friendly qualities of New Zealand-produced wool — aiding the wellbeing of their inhabits and supporting a homegrown industry?
The wool working group is right when it says there is an opportunity for Government and all New Zealanders to show greater leadership by incorporating criteria requiring sustainable and environmentally friendly products into purchasing decisions.
Education is a key to lifting the state of the wool industry; with the growing disconnect between rural and urban, there is a generation or two that is not aware of the fibre’s many properties.
Nor do they realise their highly flammable polar-fleece jacket or nylon carpet is petroleum-based; a study by outdoor clothing company Patagonia showed a single fleece jacket shed as many as 250,000 synthetic fibres during laundering and the amount of fibres released into public waterways by laundering 100,000 jackets a year was equivalent to the amount of plastic in up to 11,900 grocery bags.
In a world where the environment is front of mind, wool is an option to help solve some of its problems. So let’s hope the wool working group is right and that we are on the cusp of a natural fibre renaissance.
Let’s also hope that its report isn’t left to gather dust on the shelf and that action is taken to ensure a sustainable future for New Zealand’s crossbred wool industry. The time for woolly thinking is over. It’s time for doing.