Backing strong wool

A casual chat over a few beers at Akitio Beach with a local farmer about the dire state of the New Zealand wool industry was the catalyst for iconic Kiwi company Big Save Furniture's foray into strong wool. Rebecca Greaves reports.

In Business16 Minutes

A casual chat over a few beers at Akitio Beach with a local farmer about the dire state of the New Zealand wool industry was the catalyst for iconic Kiwi company Big Save Furniture’s foray into strong wool. Rebecca Greaves reports.

A commitment to pay its farmer suppliers $4.50 for strong wool is just part of Big Save’s pledge to play its part in reviving the NZ strong wool industry. The company has plans to incorporate wool into a range of its products, and hopes the move may spark other retailers to consider doing the same.

Big Save is the country’s largest privately owned furniture and bed retailer. The family owned and operated business opened its first store in 1973 and has 25 stores nationwide. Sustainability is now the driving force for Big Save, ensuring a strong commitment to the future (both that of the company, and the planet).

Big Save’s national buyer, Dan Norman, says the move towards more sustainable products, like wool, has stemmed from two things.
The first was the customer response to Seaqual, an initiative that turns discarded plastic in our oceans into an upcycled marine plastic yarn. Big Save incorporated this high quality Seaqual yarn into several of their new beds.

“It has a fantastic story driven by the layer of fabric we are using, made from upcycled plastic. The plastic is upcycled into pea-sized ball bearings, and can then be used in all sorts of textile products. Seaqual is one of the world’s most known and innovative sustainable brands, helping to fight marine plastic pollution. Many well-known global brands use Seaqual in their products and we are very proud to bring it to NZ.”

Norman says they were blown away by the uptake, and have observed a shift towards conscious buying. By this, he means people using their money to make an active decision to choose products that are sustainable, and therefore kinder to the environment.

Secondly, the owners of Big Save have a relationship with the Ramsden family, who farm at Akitio. They were talking about the fact that shearing sheep had become more costly than the price achieved from selling the wool.

“It had become a cost, driven by the welfare of the animal. In talking to Hugh (Ramsden) and others, we soon realised that this was a real problem for NZ farmers and their families.”

Norman had no prior knowledge of the wool industry but assumed Merino, which has been well promoted and incorporated into clothing particularly, covered all of the wool in NZ. He soon learned strong wool forms a massive part of the country’s wool clip, and that prices were at rock bottom.

Norman wondered what Big Save could do to help, and decided it was time for Big Save to go back in history and start using more natural and sustainable products again, while at the same time helping the NZ farmer, and play their part in impacting the strong wool price.
It’s been a boots and all approach for the Kiwi retailer, which is putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to embracing wool.

Making it viable for everyone

He says they have had some meetings with Wool Works (Napier based woolscour). There are a lot of great ideas in the wool industry, a lot of push, but they needed interest at the retail level.

“We thought, we can use wool in our furniture – let’s just figure out how.”

It was important that incorporating wool was viable, for both the farmer and the company.

“We asked, what do we need to pay the farmer so he can shear his sheep so it’s not a deficit?

Norman asked how they could reduce the supply chain, have the product scoured and manufactured, and then looked at what the market price would be for the product, and it worked.

It was a quick turnaround, from the initial conversations in June last year to launching the Akitio lounge suite just before Christmas. Working with Auckland manufacturer EJP they have created a range of wool options for the lounge suite, from the foam cushions wrapped in wool to choosing to have the entire suite covered in 100% wool fabric.

Norman says sustainable products have a real place in the market and wool ticks many boxes.

“Everything we discovered about wool was a massive benefit to furniture .”

It was biodegradable, hypoallergenic, fire retardant, the list goes on. The piece of furniture has to be good, and it does work.
“The wool has a great impact on the product and a great story as well.”

The company has plans to introduce wool into more products, while keeping the supply chain tight and drawing a line in the sand for the buying price at the farm gate. A new wool bedding range is due in store in coming months, which features wool insulation layers, and they are investigating foot stools and floor cushions too.

“It’s about tweaking the furniture, taking something out and putting something wool in. We’re looking at how we can change our whole range to incorporate wool, so it becomes standard.

How can they make an impact on the strong wool price?

“We’re always trying to come back to that.” Norman says this move has been driven by the Big Save family. It was a family and company decision and everyone has bought into it.

Commitment to farmer suppliers

While Big Save is a large retailer, it can’t take the country’s entire strong wool clip. Unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of farmers who are keen to supply them.

Their commitment to farmer suppliers is $4.50/kg of strong wool.

“If that goes up, great. “

Norman says they talked to people to gauge if that is a fair price, while allowing us to make a sustainable product.

“We wanted to put a number on it, and we’re proud of it.”

Working with the group of local farmers who initially highlighted the wool problem to them, Big Save is utilising their wool clip.
Norman says they have enough wool to work on the products in the pipeline until the end of the year.

Working directly with the farmers adds the element of single-source traceability, being able to market a product and pinpoint exactly where the wool came from.

He believes farmers are interested in where their wool goes once it leaves the farm, and what it’s used for, too.

“We are lucky there’s lots of people putting their hand up and wanting to be part of it. We have forecast what we will need, and know where that will come from.”

He says Big Save isn’t the only retailer working the wool space, but it is great to get positive feedback and support from the farming community.

“We asked, what do we need to pay the farmer so he can shear his sheep so it’s not a deficit?”

He hopes the quantity of wool they use will increase over time, and says they want to be more than a small drop in the ocean. He hopes Big Save’s actions may act as a catalyst for other businesses who are interested in using wool, too.

“Having the farming community aware there are big retailers trying to make an impact and utilise wool in a positive way to impact that wool price, that might help farmers stick with wool and that’s a message we’d love to get out there. We will get there with the volume (of wool), but it’s a process.”

Norman qualifies that the wool project is still in its infancy, but so far the response from consumers has been overwhelmingly positive.
“Our New Zealand made wool lounge suites are cranking.”

He says people ask for them by name, which is exciting for them to see the awareness of their wool furniture range, and that there is demand out there for quality NZ-made furniture. Consumer decisions are now looking at many different factors when making a furniture buying decision, especially looking at how sustainable a product is, and how it impacts at home and far away. From our local community to the world, we all have to do our bit.

“A lot of people talk about doing something. We wanted to do something, and do it quickly. We want to keep the momentum up and get products out there, not just talk about it.”

Becoming farmers too

Not content with just incorporating wool into its products, the family has gone a step further, getting some skin in the game. Big Save bought four farms in the last year, all located in Akitio, southern Hawke’s Bay, totalling about 3000 hectares. The farms are focused on sheep and beef farming.

Norman says part of their buying decision-making process when researching to buy farms was they believe in learning and being involved in any business units from the ground up.

“There is no point in us telling farmers what to do, or what we need, if we’re coming from an uneducated position.”

They believe with the right use of technology and the right mix of traditional farming methods, the strong wool industry will prosper and wool will return to being a high yielding income stream for farms.

Norman says buying its own farms shows the company is totally committed to what it is doing with NZ strong wool. Campaign for Wool (CFW) chairman and farmer, Tom O’Sullivan says getting commercial entities on board is the key to reviving the dying strong wool industry and Big Save is a shining light,

The CFW is a global trust, launched in 2010, with a mandate of education and awareness. O’Sullivan says CFW has been in talks with Big Save for about eight months, supporting and promoting what they are doing, and providing any help possible to smooth the way.

He says Big Save is an early adopter. It has gone in boots and all, which is pretty courageous. It’s a good signal that a proactive, successful company is getting into strong wool.

He hopes it will be followed by a number of other companies.

“If that’s true, and I believe it is, the future for wool is bright.”

“Our New Zealand made wool lounge suits are cranking.”

O’Sullivan says CFW is talking to other retailers who are interested in incorporating wool into their products too.

He says there is a great opportunity to recapture market share for carpets and rugs (strong wool has sunk to about 10% of the market) and points to Bremworth, who announced last year it would ditch synthetic fibres in favour of pure wool carpets. However, what is really needed is a suite of strong wool products for the home and office environment.

He says commercial entities are the key and give him hope.

We back everyone, but those bigger entities are the ones who could really move the dial and move volume.”

Despite many farmers writing wool off as a lost cause, O’Sullivan says he actually feels optimistic because the industry has reached such a do or die point that action will be forced.

Last year on O’Sullivan’s farm it was nearly $27,000 net cost to shear the sheep. He says if something isn’t done there’s the potential that wool could be lost to forestry, other changing land use or shedding sheep.

“Farmers are not going to carry on with this for much longer because we’re all losing a lot of money.”

Like Norman, O’Sullivan agrees climate change and the ground swell from consumers can play into wool’s hands.

“Globally, people want to know what’s in their products – wool is perfect.”