Woolmark is the iconic fibre brand symbolising the finest wool in the world. Dr Paul Swan, General Manager, Research, The Woolmark Company shares insights on recent developments related to wool, key global trends, market strategies and the company’s initiatives for India.
Share some insights on The Woolmark Company’s on farm research and development strategy?
Our on-farm investment strategy is built on four pillars, and the first; which accounts for half of our budget is the health and the welfare of sheep. It ensures that our sheep are healthy and also communicates good management practices.
We also focus on efficient harvesting and quality preparation, and it is a big challenge for us as Australia has high labour costs. As a result, the cost of getting wool from sheep is very high. We have developed a number of strategies in this area related to productivity and quality of shearing sheep.
The third key criterion is production systems and ecocredentials, and for the broader fibre industry a key focus, too. The modern consumer often purchases in an ethical way, in terms of the product and the fibre they select, and to ensure that they care for the planet. And finally we pay attention to education and extension, and invest around a quarter of our budgets on this aspect.
The activities include working with scientists and transferring knowledge and expertise to wool growers, so that they can improve their productivity, sustainability and understanding of the market. We also help the next generation of farmers to understand and utilise the technology available for their day-to-day farming activities.
What are Woolmark’s initiatives for India?
Our investment in India is primarily post-farm gate, and it involves working with wool processes here. We have been working with our partners here via marketing and quality assurance programs as well as in product development. I am also keen to focus on our investment in R&D, post fibre, and we primarily focus on two aspects; we invest in technology transfer, and work with our processing partners across the globe including India.
This helps our partners to adopt the latest yarn and fabric innovations. We can also help companies to create their next collection as well as adopt new technologies that are advantageous for them. For instance, in several countries we are doing a lot of work related to improving processes and effl uence, and also have partnership with a Chinese university, in a bid to train the staff. Our second key area – ‘Father Advocacy’ and ‘Ecocredentials’; which I am also personally very interested in, covers; developing health and wellness evidence for supporting marketing as well creating new medical product opportunities or new categories for wool products.
Our research covers medical and dermatology products along with sleepwear. The third aspect which specifically suits the Indian climate relates to developing wool knitwear for humid climates. There is an enormous opportunity in the usage of wool as well as blending of wool with other fibres. We help brands and retailers in India to be an incubator of new; ideas, science and opportunities, and companies can partner with us.
Demand for wool is often irregular as it is viewed as costly and consumers are very price sensitive. Share your views?
With regard to cost of wool, it depends on the quality of the product and what consumers are prepared to pay. Our strategy has been to promote quality, value for money and the luxury of wool. Wool has its history and heritage, and we have worked with a number of leading brands in Europe.
In addition, we have launched several global campaigns including ‘Cool Wool’, and there is a rather demanding criterion for partnering in this program. Wool is a small, rare and definitely an expensive natural fibre, which is competing against cheap and synthetic fibres.
It is very important for us not to compete on price and work toward ensuring that wool is perceived as a value purchase and a product, which can last for long. It is classical, comfortable and has features that other fibres can’t imitate. I would also like to emphasise that we are associated with prestigious brands from across the world.
Can you throw some light on the potential demand for pure wool compared to other competitive fibres?
At the outset I would like to highlight that the supply of woolwill remain tight in the near future, and in contrast, other fibres like cotton and polyester are in a global over supply, as production can be easily expanded.
However, wool obtained from sheep is limited, and it requires suitable conditions to grow. In addition, sheep offers outstanding meat and with demand strong, it restricts our ability to expand the production of wool.
As a result, our focus has been to help growers produce wool more efficiently from the existing sheep they have as well as in rearing. And about 60 percent of our investment goes in marketing and market development. Wool accounts for about 1.3 percent of the global fibre market, and it is five times higher than the cost of cotton on a per kilogram basis.
What is the total global capacity for wool? Also what is the conversion ratio, from raw material to the final product?
The production of wool has been static on a global basis for the past five years, with total capacity of around 1.05 million tonnes. Wool consumption is still concentrated in affl uent western economies including the USA, the UK and Germany.
We undertake consumer surveys every six months and these report suggest that consumers tend to buy wool that is fashion-focused and they want to use natural fibre. And a key focus for us is to showcase wool as an affordable luxury Product.
What are the latest trends in the wool industry, and innovations globally?
Over the last couple of years there has been a strong demandfor traditional 3D styles in jackets with coarser construction and these jackets are lighter, softer and much finer. And consumers are opting for a more traditional classic look but in a modern avatar.
We are also seeing greater consumer attention toward health, lifestyle and sustainability, with their concerns regarding the origin of fibre and their health. Wool is like any other natural fibre, which is bio-degradable, and it is made up of 50 percent carbon that is captured from the atmosphere. And the above has a strong link with casualisation, with consumers working from home and dressing informally, which has an impact on fashion and design trends.
What have been the recent innovations in wool, and share the research on blending with other fibres?
Wool is a relatively expensive fibre and has thermal, moisture management and fire resistant properties. Wool can also be a key fibre to blend, in a bid to create a particular aesthetic or effect. So if you combine wool and its properties with the growing trend of casualisation, a combination of denim with cotton and wool is gradually becoming popular, and is currently viable on a commercial basis, too.
In addition, on blending wool with water synthetic fibres, you can make light weight products as you can make very light yarns and make them into a woven fabric. I would like to point out that there are novel ways of using blends to achieve extremely light weight products, and a number of innovations that we are addressing.
Apart from that, there are functional finishes where we complement wool’s attributes with new treatments, and create new effects, and we work on handling modification treatments. One of our technologies which has been used by the industry for knitwear is mercerisation. We are also using clever blends which can give textured effects to knitwear.
Is there increased usage of wool in home textiles?
Interiors, is one of the few rapidly growing segments of the global textile industry, and affl uent consumers in Greater Asia are increasingly utilising woolen; upholstery and carpets in homes. We are also seeing the demand for wool rising in certain non-traditional areas. Recycled wool is being used in geo-textiles and demand exceeds supply, given wool’s flame resistant properties. Demand for recycled wool is also growing in mattresses owing to the above reason. Wool also has health benefits, and sleeping below a wool blanket is quite popular.
Globally, recycling is en vogue, and how does wool achieve this objective?
India is one of the two global hubs for fibre recycling and reuse. The other is northern Italy. Consumers are today paying greater attention to products which are made from recycled and reusable materials. I view this as an enormous opportunity for India.
Also, there are several brands in this country and there is rising awareness for eco-friendly products in India and overseas, and consumer demand for purchasing healthy and natural clothing is on the rise.