‘80% of Dutch wool goes to China’, I was told by Douwe Sibma of the Nederlandse Wol Federatie, during a tour a couple of weeks ago. The wool is collected from hundreds of Dutch farmers, and bought by the Wol Federatie, where it is then sorted for quality, unwashed and pressed into bales of 450 kilos.
I visited off season, in October, but in high season this warehouse is packed to the roof with wool. It’s an extraordinary amount to see, no matter what time of the year you are there.
One lot is 28,000 kilos. An independent quality control is done by a British company by inspecting the wool (by sticking a pin in each bale), and through computer analysis tests the dirt, water content and the thickness of the thread. If approved, the wool can be sold.
It is then sent off to the Rotterdam harbor to be loaded onto ships for China. The amount of travel miles for wool must be massive and has impact for the environment:
-the collection of wool from farmers (some can bring it themselves by truck to various drop off points, but most get it picked up)
-the delivery in huge heavy lots by truck to the harbor
-shipping by ship thousands of miles away for processing (which has its own input of chemical treatments for cleaning and dying, a lot of water, mechanical manipulation, including mixing with synthetics)
-distribution by ship all over the world for further processing (although most is manufactured into final products in China due to cheap labor and easement of environmental and labor laws).
photo: when wool arrives it goes up a large ramp to be sorted manually
photo: Darker wool is separated, and gets less of a price because it cannot be dyed.
Washing Europe’s wool is becoming less frequent, as it is a very dirty process using chemicals. There is only one factory in Belgium that can wash wool, in Verve. China does everything now.
The amount of Euros a Dutch farmer gets for his wool fluctuates, as it is tied to the International market where prices (and grading (!) I heard from another source) are determined by China. The price for wool in 2017 was very low. And years before that, it could run at 1.50 – 1.60 euros a kilo. Now, in 2018, wool from Texel, Swifter and Noord Hollanders sheep (those seen on farmers’ fields) runs at about 60-70 cents a kilo. Heidseschaap (open land sheep) gets only 10 cents a kilo. And shockingly, wool has been rated at negative cents per kilo. If you want a ‘good price’ for your wool, a farmer needs to supply it clean and sheared properly. Australian wool gets much higher prices for its Merino wool, which is very fine, 17-18 microns, and reaches 15 Euros a kilo. In general, Holland rears sheep mainly for meat; the wool is secondary.
It costs more to get wool off the sheep than what is paid for it.
At one point in history, up until the 1950’s, most manufacturing of wool was done in The Netherlands. But now China takes most of it, processes it and creates products to go back into the world. Also with the introduction of nylon, many wool manufacturers disappeared. Cotton also has a huge role to play in the fast fashion industry, which seems questionable from an environmental perspective (uses a lot of water in the growing and manufacturing process). Seems a ridiculous oversight to over step a beautifully sustainable material, such as wool, and when there are vast amounts and varieties available around the world.
It’s incredible that a raw material is so value-less that even shipping it thousands of miles away, and trucked back in final product is the way to create value. But, even then:
From research of KABK Industrial Design Students in The Hague, a sweater costs less than the wool in it. Wool is considered of negative value.
So how do you turn a negative value into a positive one? It’s a complex and difficult problem. I think it has to do a lot with changing the mindsets of fast fashion consumers and producers, and single use in general. Just as a sweater from H+M is used once and then thrown away, an animal bred for just one of its outputs, such as meat, seems wasteful when its milk or wool could also be of value. Holistic thinking from start to end is a promising direction for more sustainable practices.
photo: at one point the Wol Federatie made wool products such as thread from Dutch wool. They drove around the countryside in trucks, and pit-stopped in towns to visit housewives. With women going to work, the housewife disappeared, so no more customers. Also nylon disrupted the wool market, and companies like the Wol Federatie could not compete, even with products mixed with some nylon and spun in Romania (as shown above).
China has bought most of Western Europe’s machinery for wool processing, which is startling.
If we were to start our own manufacturing again, Europe would have to buy back machinery. But maybe this day will come, as China’s population becomes more affluent, and Europe the lesser of the two economies? Upon further research, it would be interesting to see effects on world manufacturing as China’s wages rise. What impact will this will have on wool, such as where and what countries will process it? Could we see a day where this happens closer to Europe?
*Thanks to Bart Hoogeboom and Tanja Hendrix of Wollust Kaarderij who introduced me to the Nederlandse Wol Federatie. Wollust is of the only places left to card and process wool in The Netherlands. With original beautiful machines saved from the auction house, they carded and cleaned all the wool I used for the Sweat(er)shop at the Utrecht Science Park project. Bart is also an acoustical sound designer where wool is an important material. http://kaarderijwollust.nl/ and http://www.bigtreeacoustics.nl/
*Thanks to Douwe Sibma of the Nederlandse Wol Federatie for a great tour. https://wolfederatie.nl/