Local wool is in global demand as fresh supplies from other sources dwindle

April is the month for Australian wool to shine

Sheepmeat
The international trade relies on Australian fresh wool at the start of autumn as South Africa takes an Easter break, South America has cleared most of its latest clip and the Northern Hemisphere winter is only just finishing.

The international trade relies on Australian fresh wool at the start of autumn as South Africa takes an Easter break, South America has cleared most of its latest clip and the Northern Hemisphere winter is only just finishing.

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Global fresh wool supplies are tight, but Chinese domestic and Indian demand could keep the wheels turning.

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The Australian wool market entered this week's Easter auction sale recess in a happy state.

Exporters have mostly weathered the recent shipping storm - for now.

Hopefully the recess will allow the dumping facilities and shipping lines to clear some of the backlog and re-establish some of their typical efficiency.

The wool market appears to have almost reset to where it was earlier in the year.

Superfine types have gained the most attention, medium Merino categories have been going along in an upward direction and a few crossbred orders have been keeping that sector moving.

Overall, the wool market closed up last week by 15 cents a kilogram, which was US12c/kg and 19 Euro cents higher.

The global trade was very comfortable with that outcome.

South Africa's wool market has now closed for its Easter recess.

And in South America, growers have mostly sold all the wool they harvested - except those who intend to store it until the rules or the government change again.

Woolgrowers in the Northern Hemisphere are only just starting to have some sunny days to let their sheep out of sheds after a rather long and cold winter. So, for them, shearing is still a couple of months away.

As is typical in April, Australia is the only source of fresh Merino wool and - with India stepping-up to the crease to provide an alternative market for the fibre - it is difficult to see there will be much downside to current price levels in the coming two months.

Demand for wool in China is still generally restricted to the domestic scene, as European processors and retailers seem to be either getting locked-down again, or putting their "foot in their mouth" about the origin of some of their cotton and upsetting major customers.

Mills in China are generally busy and lead times at combing, dyeing and spinning stages are starting to push out to more than a couple of weeks.

Some mills are still struggling to wind-up to full production again after the Chinese New Year, as many workers found alternative employment opportunities during the break. So, new employees need to be found and trained.

It seems labour shortages in the wool industry are not confined to the shearing sheds of Australia, but - to some extent - exist right along the supply chain.

Dusty, noisy conditions in the early stage processing factories do not sit well with many worker's expectations, nor do the repetitive and monotonous sewing machine operations in some big factories.

The wool processing industry has been relocating around the world for decades in search of cheaper wages - and more willing workers.

It was not long ago that a combing mill in Hungary was forced to bus-in workers from across the border from Slovakia because locals preferred to work in the Audi factory down the road.

Factories in China, and worker conditions, have improved considerably in the past 20 years and these vacant positions will no doubt be filled eventually.

But it does highlight the difficulties the industry faces all along the pipeline in finding enough skilled workers who are willing to operate in the dry and dusty conditions that entail harvesting and processing of the wool fibre.

Smaller niche processing operations have some advantages, such as providing a different and more varied employment opportunity.

Perhaps this is where the industry will ultimately get to, given that it is now considered a niche fibre by some.

The world produces a pure cashmere clip of about 6500 tonnes, according to the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), and it is definitely considered a niche industry.

In comparison, the CFDA estimates world wool production is about 1.1 million tonnes.

So, while the volume of wool grown and processed each year is dwarfed by cotton and the plastics, it is still a very big industry compared to cashmere.

But chasing the dream of prices such as those paid for cashmere is something the industry will continue to do.

The fashion industry is becoming aware of environmental issues in areas where cashmere is grown and this - along with the obvious price advantage - is leading to more fibre substitution.

Superfine Merino is a very apt substitute for cashmere fibre, in terms of processing performance, and has far better environmental credentials.

So, hopefully, the trend can persist and keep pulling superfine Merino prices up.

Smaller retailers - some of which manage their production through at least part of the process - obviously have a higher unit cost of production.

But being in a more discerning customer-focused market segment may mean they can charge higher garment prices to recover this margin.

Often this involves taking the customer on a journey, and this is the latest marketing nuance - involving more explanation about the source of the fibre and its journey to the shelf.

When the target is to sell about 100,000 garments, it is possible to talk about which factories were involved in the production - and even the people in those factories who made the garment.

When the sales target is measured in the millions of garments, it becomes much more difficult to track the journey - or "individualise" the story.

Retailers are increasingly demanding source identification and traceability along the production chain to enhance their social license, and bolster their credibility with their customers.

And when the European brands and manufacturers emerge from their COVID-19-induced lockdowns, we can expect a further uptick in requests like this as they seek to re-engage with their customer base coming out of hibernation.

While many in the trade will enjoy an Easter break, others will push ahead in search of the the next customer to take an order - in the hope of keeping their stock moving through the pipeline.

Chinese domestic orders, and some increased activity from India, will only be "just enough" to keep the wheels turning.

If there is an uptick in Chinese export orders, stakeholders would be much more comfortable.

But no one can sell to a client who does not want to buy.

So, we may just have to be satisfied at this price level for now.

The story Local wool is in global demand as fresh supplies from other sources dwindle first appeared on The Land.

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