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Interest in Regenerative Wool is Growing—As Is the Platform Tracking its Farmers

The ZQ Regenerative Index (ZQRX) was founded last year by New Zealand Merino Company, spurred by discussions about ecological and social impact that ramped up across the fashion industry. Now, the platform—which acts as a gathering ground for conscious brands and producers of regenerative, ethically sourced wool—is expanding its ranks, with 152 farmers added over the course of 2021.

Tim Loftus, the platform’s general manager of sales and marketing, told Sourcing Journal that wool has historically been treated “very much as a commodity,” with little regard paid to its provenance. But brands have become increasingly invested in the sustainability profiles of their upstream suppliers in recent years, largely due to a consumer push for more ethical and environmentally friendly products. “There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that millennials and the younger generation are absolutely adamant in seeing results and proof that brands can be trusted,” he said.

ZQRX measures farm performance across environment, animal welfare and social impact, using 15 index points that span carbon emissions, land and soil sequestration, waste management, water use and animal well-being. The group has worked with a Palo Alto-based firm to develop a “deep-science approach for aggregating those metrics,” seeking also to create an open, manageable dashboard, Loftus added.

Farms are accredited by third-party agricultural auditors AsureQuality and ControlUnion every three years, along with random audits throughout the shearing season. These check-ins ensure that sheep are non-mulesed, left with enough wool covering to keep them warm, and shorn with fast and efficient machine shears that cause less distress during the process, among other criteria. In addition to the formal audit process, the ZQ team maintains regular contact with growers, visiting farms and conducting field days and workshops.

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With interest growing, the group has established a large-scale team “that goes out to farms and works on culture and change management with growers who may not be exposed to this work in the past,” he added. Many farmers are “very interested in regenerative agriculture,” but may require guidance in developing best practices and reporting structures. “They see this is where the industry is going,” Loftus added, “and so they’re keen to make changes for the betterment of their businesses and the planet.”

ZQ has certified 450 growers through its program in total. “Our whole program centers on making it easy for farmers to lean in, learn from their neighbors and apply technology driven metrics and monitoring systems that allow them to model a better future for their farms,” he said. Additionally, the platform serves as a means of tapping into the global appetite for wool. “We’re able to go to the farmers and say to them, ‘This is what the demand is in the marketplace,’ and we can illustrate to them exactly what brands are looking for,” Loftus added.

Thus far, 22 international brands have joined the ZQRX platform, including Allbirds, Icebreaker and Smartwool, which helped the group launch the platform last year. “Brands often come to us looking for specific outcomes, and our objective will be to align them with the right producers,” Loftus said. Allbirds, which sources the wool for its Runners, Loungers and other footwear sytles from New Zealand, has been laser focused on its carbon output from day one, for example.

Meanwhile, other labels are more interested in animal welfare and social outcomes. “We have growers that are progressive in all areas, and our objective is to create long-lasting relationships between the brand and the producer that share common values,” he added. In some cases, brands come to ZQ with already-established supply chains that they would like to enhance with new producers, or have their existing partners incorporated into the ZQRX program. Those farmers are analyzed, audited and added to the index, where brands can track their performance through the platform.

While ZQRX provides brands with the back-end assurance that their wool supply chain is ecologically and ethically sound, consumer interest in these issues only stands to grow. Loftus believes the next frontier for brands will be communicating their efforts clearly and effectively to shoppers.

“The big challenge for brands is that they obviously don’t want to make unsubstantiated claims,” lest they be labeled greenwashers. Because the standards and best practices for regenerative farming are still being developed across the industry at large, “brands are really concerned about saying the wrong thing,” he added. As the platform grows, ZQRX hopes to work with brands to find effective ways to talk about a complicated issue.

“I think most brands like to defer to us because we have a team of 16 scientists who are working on this every day and can speak very well to an area that is quickly evolving and changing across the industry,” he said, but many are invested in publicly sharing their progress. “There’s a growing demand from consumers for reporting, compliance and proof that brand are proactively working toward solutions,” he added.