As Wool Week in the UK comes to an end today, Retail Gazette looks into the rising importance of natural fibres and fabrics for the retail sector.
In recent years, retailers have shifted their attention to sustainability and the use of quality, renewable resources in everything from food to fashion. The rise of organic food is well documented, though overshadows the growing trends of organic fabrics such as cotton.
According to Textile Exchange, a Texas-based global organisation designed to promote the growth of organic cotton, fashion specialist H&M was the number one user of organic cotton worldwide last year, using approximately 15,000 tonnes of it in 12 months.
This is a marked difference from previous years and in keeping with an international trend. Textile Exchange reported in January this year that global organic cotton production increased by 15 per cent in 2009 – 2010, despite the ongoing recession.
The price of cotton has increased significantly this year, and many fashion retailers have been forced to increase prices to keep up with the resulting economic pressures. Shrinking inventories and unpredictable weather conditions have affected price, proving the strength of the material as a commodity.
Wool, another popular natural fabric, has also suffered, to the point where sheep farmers were being offered less for their animal’s coats than the cost of having them shorn.
This development was greeted with outrage by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, who was this week announced as the new President of environmental charity WWF-UK and set up the Campaign for Wool in 2008.
The initiative was launched to resolve the unprecedented problems faced by farmers, who feared that the wool industry would be lost as a result of declining sheep numbers worldwide and the increase in popularity of synthetic fabrics.
A long-time environmentalist, the Prince launched the initiative to ensure that sheep numbers would remain steady, thus reducing the negative impact on land across the world.
Malcolm Corbett, Chairman of the British Wool Marketing Board, told Retail Gazette the full extent of the problem before the campaign was launched.
“It was only three or four years ago that the price of wool was so poor that we literally, in some of the hills and the Lake District, in the mountains of Wales, in north Northumberland where I am and into the hills of Scotland, we had farmers shearing their sheep and throwing the wool onto a bonfire because there wasn’t the price there for the farmers to justify rolling it up to pack it into a bag and transport it,” he explained.
“That was a terrible waste and we now get on average about £3 for a fleece, so the wool cheque to the farmer covers the cost of shearing and leaves him with a little bit left.”
The campaign aims to be inclusive and involve both globally recognisable retailers as well as specialist, small-scale artisans.
Wool Week was launched last year and garnered wide media and fashion industry interest, with high-street names such as Debenhams, Harvey Nichols and John Lewis participating in a variety of events.
This year, John Lewis has increased customer participation as a way of heightening awareness of the importance of wool, offering a series of free ‘Love Wool’ classes, allowing customers the opportunity to visit branches and receive hands-on advice from expert knitters, Rowan Design Consultants, to learn to knit.
Participants in the classes will be asked to knit one square in aid of Marie Curie Cancer Research. Knitted squares from each branch will then be patch-worked together by Rowan to make blankets for Marie Curie Hospice patients, highlighting the significance of the programme as a charitable event.
Earlier this week, Chairman of the Campaign for Wool John Thorley OBE attended an event at the John Lewis Oxford Street store. Thorley, who has been involved in the sheep industry for over 40 years, as well as being appointed CEO of the National Sheep Association, explained the importance of increasing consumer interest in the natural fibre, as the numbers of sheep worldwide continue to decline.
In Britain, the number of sheep has declined significantly over the last 20 years, from 20 million to 14 million, while New Zealand and Australia have experienced a decline from 70 million to 28 million and 200 million to 70 million respectively.
“That gives you an idea of the scale of erosion which has taken place in the sheep business globally,” Thorley told Retail Gazette.
“We are developing a campaign which raises the perception of wool as an important part of the present and the future which is sustainable, renewable annually and completely natural.
“All of those things are vitally important against the background that the big competition comes from manmade oil-based fibre and oil is running out. It’s a question of when it will run out not if it will run out, it’s finite and our wool is absolutely infinite.”
Thorley, who was approached by the Prince of Wales to participate in and oversee the campaign, acknowledges that the price of wool might be off-putting for cash-strapped consumers, though points to the quality and longevity of the product as reasons for this.
Wearing a woollen suit that he has owned for 27 years, Thorley believes that the possibility of the loss of the wool industry would have a serious impact on us all.
“Environmentally, it is very important to have something which is renewable and sustainable and natural so people are waking up to that. We thought it would be a very slow-burner over a period of five years or so but instead of that it’s just rocketed. We have to ride it and really make it work because when you have an opportunity of this kind for a product like wool it is a marvellous thing.”
Since the official launch of the charity in February 2010, the price of wool at the farm gate has increased threefold, with sheep farmers receiving higher prices for their clip. It is hoped that the varied events taking place this week will further these positive developments.
La Galleria in London’s Pall Mall is hosting the Wool Modern exhibition showcasing creations from renowned fashion designs to highlight the versatility and beauty of the product.
The exhibition, which will be running throughout September, opened on Wednesday and was attended by a number of famous faces, including the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall.
Helen Dickinson, Head of Retail Professional Services at KPMG and member of the UK’s Retail Think Tank , attended the event, and praised the high turnout. “ I thought it went extremely well; I have never seen so many amazingly crafted designs,” she told Retail Gazette.
Dickinson pointed out that the campaign is having a positive effect on consumers and feels that it will continue to broaden its scope and interest in the years to come.
“The situation with the wool trade and manufacturing in this country is in need of support and all retailers in this country are promoting the use of wool.
“It is a fibre with so many benefits.”