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A great yarn for New Zealand: The New Zealand Merino Company on Studio ZQ and its vision to create more Allbirds and Icebreakers

When you ask people what they associate with New Zealand, alongside Lord of The Rings and the All Blacks, the answer is often sheep. The animal has become as synonymous with our national identity as the rolling green pastures they reside in.

Which makes sense, then, that the unique type of wool grown here is garnering worldwide attention and has been tipped for a revival.

From the 1850s through to the start of the 20th century, wool was New Zealand’s main export earner, making up almost 90 percent of total export income. By 2006, this had dipped to just under three percent of New Zealand’s exports.

But while wool used to be more closely associated with your grandmother’s knitting needles, the natural, renewable fibre is soaking up renewed interest from a new generation of conscious consumers who want to move away from synthetic plastics, due to a slew of innovative new companies emerging out of New Zealand.

Thanks to new technologies and a new way of looking at wool (shoes? Who would’ve thought?) the local unicorn story everyone knows and loves – Allbirds – was recently valued at NZ$2 billion.

Meanwhile, outdoor retailer Icebreaker was recently bought by US retail giant VF Corporation for NZ$288 million and is on track to turn over close to $300 million this year, with chief executive Greg Smith saying it could become a billion-dollar company within five years.

And then there are the promising new start-ups emerging, such as Paul Barron’s merino wool collaboration with Firewire Surfboards, which has led to wool being weaved into a very unexpected product – surfboards.

The New Zealand Merino Company is the wool partner to these three aforementioned companies, and CEO John Brakenridge says it’s facing unprecedented demand for its ZQ accredited ethical wool globally as the world wakes up to the potential of this material New Zealand produces in abundance.

However, he says the business community is just skimming the tip of the iceberg when it comes to new uses for wool.

“If you look at the innovations that have come out using a natural product like merino wool – they’ve been some of the more exciting out of this country and if you take Allbirds, out of this world,” Brakenridge says.

“This is all anchored on the notion of taking merino wool through to the world in a different way, like Jeremy [Moon] with Icebreaker and where he’s taken it. Design is an area New Zealand has so much advantage in and while some people thought that these natural products like wool were old fashioned, we think it’s fashion by nature – man is trying to make what nature’s already perfected.”

To kickstart more innovation using this material, New Zealand Merino has opened Studio ZQ in the heart of Christchurch. Named after its on-farm accreditation programme, the space will act as an R&D space and be part incubator, part accelerator and part think tank of future business ideas and consumer research.

Studio ZQ

Brakenridge says this space will help New Zealand take advantage of growing interest in this sector on home soil by getting the business community seeding ideas around new uses for wool.

Of particular interest is crossbred wool, which farmers are facing increasing economical challenges with. 

“It’s about getting entrepreneurs capturing the essence of our natural capital and getting it into a whole range of products, whether they’re finewool or strong wool,” Brakenridge says.

“If we can get smart young designers working with a natural product with incredible attributes into new areas, there’s huge potential. It’s about having a space that can inspire and provide a forum where people can not only come and kick these projects off, but then to have a team we can bolt around those people – these creative storytellers – as well as the ability to connect through to financial backing, we can enable the next wave of these products.

“We think this is incredibly important from a New Zealand Inc perspective, to go from volume to value.”

Conscious consumers driving change

With Grand View Research predicting that the world textile market will reach USD$1.2 billion by 2025, and the apparel industry accounting for 10 percent of global carbon emissions due to being the second largest industrial polluter – second only to oil – Brakenridge says there is ample opportunity to win over environmentally conscious consumers with wool.  

“The average wear of a garment is seven times then it’s disposed of and the fossil fuel products don’t break down, or if they do, they break down into microplastics that end up in waterways,” he says.

“The notion of something made from natural fibres that’s part of a circular economy is really capturing people’s imaginations.”

Brakenridge says New Zealand Merino has already been leading in this regard thanks to ZQ, a programme launched in 2005 which has an accreditation farmers can earn by meeting the highest standards of animal welfare, environmental care, and social sustainability, along with delivering premium quality wool fibre. 

Studio ZQ

“We only want to work with the wool producers that buy into the ethos of what we’re talking about, doing the right things from an animal welfare perspective as much as possible, and leaning into their environmental footprint,” he says.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a finewool grower or a strongwool grower, that kind of stuff has to happen.’”

Studio ZQ is already fielding interest from parties from Denmark, Italy and the United States, among other countries.

He says the most exciting part is that those who are coming to the space with ideas are genuinely purpose-led organisations, rather than being led by tokenism.

“Markets now reward restorative practices rather than exploitative, high-growth practices that are detrimental to the world, and we have products being produced that are restorative,” he says.

As well as this, he says this new space aims to bridge the gap between the urban and rural communities in New Zealand, as people in Christchurch city can come in and see the great things that are happening on the farm.

There has been pushback in recent times towards livestock farming, as consumers become increasingly concerned with animal welfare and the environmental repercussions. A survey in 2017 showed a drop in support for farming from both rural and urban respondents, while media coverage of farming issues, such as polluted waterways, hasn’t been the most favourable.

But Brakenridge says the wool industry is upholding high ethical standards while at the same time, not shying away from the harder conversations around carbon footprints. He says more innovative companies playing in this space will help communicate that to consumers better.

“Ideally, it’s something can restore the pride in wool in this country and in terms of bridging that urban/rural side so that urban is genuinely proud of what’s happening in terms of what we do in the rural communities. It’s showing how that sustainable farming can link through to products people love to wear or use in this country or overseas.

“To that, in our own little way we want to be something of an exemplar for the rest of New Zealand’s food and fibre industries in how they adjust to a new world and take their products to market. Largely, New Zealand takes a commodity approach, but the growers who set this business [New Zealand Merino] up said we don’t want to go down that route, we want to go down a value route that connects us to consumers.”

As for StudioZQ, ideation is already underway at the innovation space. Brakenridge says it will be announcing a start-up in the next month who’s on board with the space and will be taking a product to market.

He says to put it simply, New Zealand needs more companies harnessing the power of the agriculture industry to create ethical products, like Allbirds.  

“We used to talk about this [the potential for wool] and it was all hypothetical, but now we have proof points, so the simple answer is we need more Allbirds, we need more Icebreakers, we need more Firewires. There’s real evidence there of rewards for the entrepreneurs so I think in so many ways, it helps to engage the young, so they see they can be entrepreneurial and make a difference.”

Elly is Idealog's editor and resident dog enthusiast. She enjoys travelling, tea, good books, and writing about exciting ideas and cool entrepreneurs.

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