Advertiser content: WOOL is back in fashion, with a resurgence of the Australian wool industry resulting in record prices for Merino wool.
And the Merino wool industry is making the most of its return to global dominance by partnering with global brands and increasing demand for the iconic Australian fibre around the world.
Stuart McCullough, CEO of Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) - a not-for-profit company owned by Australia's woolgrowers that invests in research, development, innovation and marketing - said record prices for Australian Merino wool in the past year reflected strong and consistent demand for Australian wool.
"It is simply a matter of supply and demand - and AWI works on both," Mr McCullough said.
"We work hard to market Australian wool internationally as a desirable, sustainable and versatile fashion necessity and we work hard with Australian woolgrowers to help them supply the best-quality wool.
"Ultimately and most importantly, our marketing activities are designed to showcase Australian wool and return value to levy payers by growing demand for the product locally and internationally.
"At any one-time AWI will have up to 400 projects on the go managed by staff in 13 countries, with these projects spread across marketing and, research and development.
"We pitch Australian wool at the pinnacle of the fashion pyramid.
"We've enjoyed great success but there is still room for growth.
"There are 300 million Chinese in the middle class that were not there before - and there are another 300 million not far behind them.
"They all want luxury items and are eager to consume our products."
Mr McCullough said the market was very different from 20 years ago, with the consumers of today, particularly the Y and Z generations, increasingly conscious about sustainability and their environmental footprint.
"They were demanding to know where the fibre in their clothing came from, who made it, and what happens to it when it is thrown away," he said.
"When it comes to sustainability, our industry is well positioned.
"Through our research we know that wool, due to its inherent biodegradability, has a less significant impact on the environment than synthetics in the use-phase of their lifecycle and at end-of-life.
"This is a unique attribute of this wonderful fibre that we can market to consumers globally.
"Leading international brands and sport companies recognise that these consumers are interested in natural fibre, and in particular wool, in clothes, running shoes, and soft tailoring.
"As a result, we see demand for Australian wool remaining strong for some time into the future."
Mr McCullough said that in terms of wool production, AWI was investing in research in multiple areas, including applications of artificial intelligence and machine learning across the supply chain, electronic sheep tags that will act as virtual fences, and the use of robotics in the shearing shed.
"We recognise for the wool industry to prosper into the future we must accept that we are in a digital age and embrace this for the new opportunities that it presents," Mr McCullough said.
"We may not know where the future will lead; we do know that we must be digitally savvy.
"Our WoolQ project is future proofing our industry and it is open to all.
"We are looking forward to implementing an online trading platform in the near future, that is open and data transferable.
"WoolQ will give AWI the platform to provide tools to ease the flow of information about Australian wool up and down the supply chain.
"The first step is E Speci, an alternative to the paper specification version that is now online and available for use by all WoolQ registered users.
"A key function of WoolQ is the ability of woolgrowers to build a detailed profile of their woolgrowing enterprise.
"By including imagery together with key production data such as micron range and bloodlines, geography and conservation initiatives, woolgrowers will be able to signal to potential buyers the welfare values, animals, people and landscape behind the product for sale.
"Traceability and transparency are core features being sought by an increasing number of consumers and therefore this is also being reflected in the requests of retailers, brands and manufacturers.
"WoolQ will shorten the information gap between the final consumer and the producer, a gap that has been exceedingly long since the start of the Australian wool industry."
He said AWI was aware of the impact of the drought conditions across much of Australia, which was affecting lambing and production levels and would have an impact on the volume of production in coming seasons.
But despite the tough conditions, he said Australian Merino wool remained a world leader in an increasingly important sector.
"Biodegradable, breathable and fashionable - the wool industry is strong with a positive outlook into the future," Mr McCullough said.
Natural, renewable, biodegradable fibre
CONSCIOUS consuming is a social movement that is continuing to evolve, based around increased awareness of the impact of purchasing decisions on the environment.
As awareness of the impact of consumption choices grows, particularly among younger generations with emerging purchase power, fibre attributes of wool are coming to the fore as millennials and generation Y and Z show a purchase preference for wool as a natural, renewable and biodegradable fibre - the perfect choice for the conscious consumer.
"Wool provides the global apparel industry with the most renewable, recyclable and reusable fibre on the planet of the major apparel fibres," Australian Wool Innovation CEO Stuart McCullough said.
"Fifty per cent of the weight of wool is pure organic carbon, more than cotton and wood-pulp-based fibres like rayon, viscose and bamboo.
"The carbon in wool is sequestered from today's atmosphere via the grass sheep eat.
"By comparison, the carbon in oil-based fibres such as polyester and acrylic is extracted from fossil fuels.
"Wool degrades even more rapidly at high moisture levels, unlike synthetics which remain extremely slow to degrade and are causing widespread pollution of rivers, lakes and oceans, where small fragments or microfibres are ingested by marine organisms throughout the food chain.
"Every year Australian Merino sheep produce a new fleece, making Merino wool a completely renewable fibre source.
Mr McCullough said at the end of its lifecycle as a garment, Merino wool would naturally decompose in soil in a matter of months or years, slowly releasing valuable nutrients back into the earth.
"By contrast, synthetic fibres can be extremely slow to degrade and significantly contribute to the world's overflowing landfills.
"Farming practices are also a factor in conscious consumption with woolgrowers implementing sustainable farming practices and improving the health of the land and environment they manage, fulfilling a critical role in handing their land over to the next generation in a better state."