Making traceable wool a reality
“When you think of the farming industry, you often think of it as just that, ‘big industry’, as in ‘factory production’ with lots of animals cramped into a small space. But ZQ Wool is different.”
Wool has been part of the Fjällräven aesthetic for decades. We use it to make shirts, sweaters, base layers, even t-shirts. But the more we used the less we knew about its origins. As we started to try and lift the lid and delve deeper into our supply chain, we soon realised we had no idea about the lives of the sheep that produce all this wonderful wool.
“We always want to know where our products come from, particularly those that come from animals. We can’t talk about the sustainability of our garments, without knowing about the welfare of the animals, the land use practices and economic viability on the farms we source from. We couldn’t trace the wool back to a specific or even a group of farms.” Says Johanna Mollberg Sustainability Manager, Materials. “So we knew we had to change how we worked.”
Cue ZQ Wool
New Zealand-based ZQ Wool is basically a wool broker. They accredit and work with farms globally and ensure wool supply, quality and integrity for a variety of brands across the globe. But above all else, ZQ Wool’s main goals are about ensuring animal welfare, and environmental and economic sustainability.
“The scale of a typical ZQ Wool-accredited farm is vast,” explains Product Developer, Johanna Mollberg, who visited a selection of New Zealand farms in 2018. “It’s a real family business that’s been held for generations. But despite the small number of people working on the farm, there can be anything from 1,000 to 10,000 sheep to manage, with the help of a few dogs. The family has a close relationship with the sheep and land they graze on.”
ZQ Wool takes The Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare as its baseline. But it then goes a step further. For example, dogs and horses used for herding must also be covered by the five freedoms and the herding itself must not cause any stress to the sheep. Mulesling is not allowed. ZQ Wool also stipulates that farms exposed to heavy rainfall, unseasonal snowstorms and droughts that can cause significant stress to the sheep must have contingency plans in place to lower potential stress. Shelter must be provided for the sheep in cold, wet, windy weather, at lambing times and after shearing.
“You can see if a sheep has been treated well by looking at the wool fibre. If there are kinks of discolourations, it’s a sign of distress. This can be an indicator of things like a painful birthing or a lack of food. ZQ Wool ensures farms check all this to monitor the welfare of the sheep,” says Johanna.
Then there’s the environmental part. ZQ Wool farms practice wholistic management. This is a special way of farming that actually improves soil quality and local biodiversity, rather than depleting, damaging and potentially even destroying it.
“Wool farming often scores poorly when it comes to its CO2 footprint. Aside from the obvious methane release from the sheep, a big part of the footprint comes from environmental degradation. Degraded soils absorb less CO2. Regular sheep farming involves large herds grazing intensively on small areas of grass. This can degrade the land and lead to erosion and the inability of the ground to absorb CO2,” explains Johanna. “Wholistic management, on the other hand, not only minimises the negative aspects of sheep farm by using fewer chemical fertilisers and pesticides, but it also improves grass and soil quality. Sheep are frequently moved around to give the grass and soil a chance to regenerate. If done correctly, healthy soil and grass mean carbon is captured, rather than remaining in the atmosphere.”
The final aspect is economical sustainability. A company, brand, project or initiative has to be viable. The people working there need to be treated and paid fairly. Brands need to see the value and the company needs to be self-sustaining.
“Economic sustainability is also very important,” says Christiane. “You can’t really say you have a sustainable solution unless there’s a balance between economic and environmental sustainability. A project might be great for the environment but not sustainable financially or physically for the people working there. For example, longterm contracts can play an important role and motivate farmers to invest in the time and work that is needed. This balance is sometimes forgotten.”
Each shearing – which happens twice per year – is quality controlled. And when we say each shearing, we mean the shearing of each sheep. Every fleece is scanned for a variety of markers including fineness, measured in microns.
Many farms focus on a limited micron range – fine merino is around 18-19 microns, for example – if this is noted to have changed, sheep are cross-bred with other farms to get back on track for future generations. However, ZQ Wool ensures that we still get our agreed upon wool quality by sourcing from a group of farms, rather than relying on just one. That might means we get wool from farm X one year, but the next year they may not have enough or the fineness has changed, so it might come from farm X and farm Y. We get a certificate from ZQ Wool with all the names of the farms where our different types of wool come from, this includes a tracking number going all the way back to the farm.
This means we get the wool quality we need, we can trace it back to the farm and even run our own spot checks if we need. But it also means the farmers are paid a good wage and supported in looking after their sheep and land. This obviously is good news for the sheep, too. They are assured a healthy, ethical life roaming on thousands of hectares of wilderness.
“The farmers know their buyer and they know that we commit to their wool and treat it with respect. We all share the same vision and love for wool. And, of course, a love for the sheep and land they live on,” says Johanna.
Images: ZQ Wool