This year’s 90th International Wool Textile Organisation (IWTO) Congress, titled ‘Let’s talk wool’, recently took place on a virtual platform. It touched on leading topics ranging from the sustainability of wool to the latest market intelligence.

During the event, some sobering facts came to light:

  • As much as 43% of people in the Netherlands do not believe the messaging they receive from brands in general. This means that the fashion and textiles industries clearly have some work to do on trust and transparency.
  • As a result of Covid-19, producers held back their wool, mostly in Australia, which resulted in stockpiling on farms and in stores. However, on a positive note, even when the number of wool bales offered increased and stocks came back into the system, it did not force the market down.
  • On a global scale, retail is undergoing huge changes, having experienced a 90% drop in profit margins.
  • Across all commodities, processor warehouses are filled to the brim with products, but also destabilised due to logistical issues.
  • The mills in the United Kingdom (UK), Turkey and Italy showed a decrease of up to 70% in production over the past twelve months.
  • Furthermore, the impact of Covid-19 and lockdown resulted in a 76% decrease in store sales.
  • Online shopping is the latest trend in the domestic consumer market, which continues to lead to shops closing.

The battle of a lifetime for wool

This year’s virtual event was moderated by Dalena White, secretary general of the IWTO. First in line was Wolf Edmayr as IWTO president, who referred to the world finding itself in seriously difficult times where a renewed focus on a sustainable wool industry is needed. He said consumers demand fair, reasonable and sustainable practices and that the wool industry needs to make sure it has a voice on this platform.

“It will demand individual effort and teamwork like never before. We need to ensure longevity and tenacity to weather future storms,” Edmayr said while congratulating the IWTO team in Brussels for making this year’s congress possible.

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The 100% wool bust of Prince Charles, created by fibre artist Rosemarie Péloquin for the Campaign for Wool, Canada. (Photo: Valerie Wilcox)

Scott Williams, facilitator of Australia’s Wool 2030 Strategy, presented details on the content and implementation of a ten-year plan to position Australian wool as the world’s premium sustainable fibre. The Wool 2030 Strategy was born of consultations involving 28 production-based wool grower group representatives from across Australia, as well as members of an industry consultative panel.

The Campaign for Wool celebrated its ten-year anniversary in 2020, with a host of initiatives across the UK. At the same time, the Campaign for Wool in Canada along with its parent body, the Canadian Wool Council, took some bold steps toward transforming the Canadian wool landscape. Peter Ackroyd, chief operations officer of the Campaign for Wool, has guided the campaign into key international markets over these ten years. He believes that wool will most probably be the best thing one will ever wear.

“The situation since Covid-19 has been moving forward and doors in terms of businesses and retail are opening again after a seriously difficult time,” he said. Ackroyd, like his patron, His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales, believes it to be paramount to educate consumers globally on the diverse uses of wool and how it eventually biodegrades and goes back into the earth.

Campaign for Wool highlights its diversity

The Campaign for Wool rests on five pillars, namely caring for animals and the environment, marketing the world’s most desirable fibre, communicating with customers, transforming production systems through innovation, and fostering a prosperous wool-growing community. Embedded in the strategy is the deep desire to meet the expectations of consumers worldwide, alongside the call to position wool as a rewarding, profitable, land-use choice to the next-generation landholder.

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A picture of wool in interior from the Canadian Campaign for Wool.

The campaign’s 2020 Student Design Competition has enjoyed involvement from universities in New Zealand (NZ), Canada and South Africa, which has brought about emerging talents in textile in fashion. According to Ackroyd, it enjoyed extraordinary levels of support from the retail, brand, and university partners across the UK, bringing to the forefront winners of 12 product categories of wool design and innovation.

“The Student Design Competition is the ideal opportunity for the worlds of textile and fashion education to connect with the wool industry in a series of collaborations, which showcase the environmental credentials and diverse applications of wool in lifestyle and fashion,” he said.

NZ highlights education and sustainability

Most producers and companies are involved in the fibre of wool, love wool, and enjoy educating customers on the benefits of wool with the hope that wool will return to where it should be – in our homes, at work, at schools and universities, and more. The message in the NZ chatroom during the congress was quite clear as said by Craig Smith, chair of the National Council of New Zealand Wool Interests: It all comes down to education.

On the topic of whether NZ will have 100% certified farms in a few years’ time, Smith noted that farmers in NZ are moving in the right direction regarding sustainability. “First of all,” he said, “a farm must be audited for the process to take place. There are currently 8 000 farmers signed up for the programme, about 6 000 of which are sheep farmers.”

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Also in this session, Rochelle Flint represented Bremworth, a north island-based company in NZ. She homed in on the company that designs high-performing interior products for customers. They have started the process of moving away from synthetic products to sustainable products, specifically wool.

They believe in joining the effort to help preserve nature. However, according to Flint, the cost jump from polyester to wool has been reasonably significant. “On average synthetic is much cheaper than wool as the latter follows a more complicated process,” she said.

On behalf of Big Save Furniture, Daniel Norman touched on how the large family retail group in NZ has started to investigate the wool conversation by looking at contacts in the industry, building relationships and talking to farmers, getting to know individuals in the industry to implement wool into their products such as mattresses and lampstands. They are of the opinion that farmers’ certification will be key in terms of consumerism in the future.

Market intelligence and the impact of Covid-19

During the market intelligence session, Isak Staats of BKB, who is also the new chairman of the IWTO Market Intelligence Committee, focussed on the effect that Covid-19 has had on the wool industry globally. While referring to economic recovery which is being anticipated over the short and medium term, he mentioned that fashion sales are in a recovering process.

“However, retail is going through significant changes amid some of the most difficult times ever,” Staats said. “We have seen a big move towards online sales while workspace evolution has taken place with many people now working from home. The latter has had a huge impact on the types of clothes that people need.”

European processors were destabilised, and many warehouses are currently still full due to logistical problems across all commodities, not only wool.

“During the hard lockdown, many countries had trouble obtaining containers and producers held their wool back, especially in Australia. On a positive note, we are seeing wool stocks now coming into the market, and the good thing is that it is not forcing down the market.”

In turn, Ackroyd, remarked that the way to the polyester lobby is massive and that those in support of it, will make use of any opportunity to push down the wool industry.

“Online textile, footwear and clothes sales in the UK are up, and specialised store recovery is slowly taking place,” he continued. “Unfortunately, we have also seen some UK brands entering administration due to Covid-19, like Debenhams, Arcadia and TM Lewin,” said Ackroyd. “It was a massive blow that Brooks Brothers, the oldest clothing retailer in the United States, also filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.”

For more information, contact the IWTO’s secretary general, Dalena White, on iwto@iwto.org, or visit www.iwto.org. – Carin Venter, Stockfarm