WITH a corporate career in information technology and supply chain logistics spanning three decades, Andrew Ross’ recent entry into the wool industry was never going to be without digital disruption.
When helping out on his father’s ultrafine wool property in Guyra, Northern NSW, nearly six years ago, a seed of passion was planted for the Merino wool industry which made him dissatisfied with his corporate life.
His simple ambition to establish an Australian grown and made active and outdoor clothing brand started a complex rewriting of how Merino wool will be sourced and traced in years to come.
TRACING THE FIBRE
His fledgling Bluey Merino’s core goal was to provide customers with the garment’s original fibre provenance as well as assurance that every garment was ethically produced.
“Provenance throughout the supply chain was critical to our line of clothing but because of the silo nature of the industry, we couldn’t easily do that,” Mr Ross said.
Bluey Merino, founded in 2014, is adopting the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) as the cornerstone of its brand’s ethos.
“We decided to trace every garment from farm of origin to the end product – that’s when we started dealing with Microsoft and the new technology required to provide that traceability,” he said.
Tracing wool through Australia’s complex and fragmented supply chain is notoriously difficult, often becoming disconnected with the wool grower once bales hit the market.
AGTECH TRACEABILITY PLATFORM
Mr Ross identified this need to connect consumers with where their fibre came from and has since begun designing the AgtechTraceability Platform.
The start-up was recently pitched on agriculture technology accelerator SproutX, seeking financial backing of $550,000.
The platform will be a subscription-based cloud computing program which can be utilised by wool growers and brands.
The idea is that growers will be able to upload their fibre production information, as an environmental and animal welfare declaration, which enables traceability across the supply chain for brands as well as future certification to the RWS.
“Why now? Because the Australian superfine Merino industry is declining in terms of total production, however we have seen ethical supplies of wool increase year-on-year which is critical,” Mr Ross said.
“One of our issues is about provenance of data across the supply chain and being able to have transparency and assurance which means brands meet their regulatory standards.”
The market opportunity is pretty awesome, he said, with the share of the ethical addressable retail market worth $568 million annually.
Mr Ross said the start-up could be operational within 12 weeks once it receives funding.
While this is the latest in Bluey Merino’s quest for continuous innovation, the company has been redefining industry potential for more than four years, starting out as the first Australian Merino wool brand to use Quick Response Codes so customers can scan a product’s barcode with their smartphone.
They are then shown production information and a link back to the farm of origin.
Bluey Merino sources from a select group of three Australian Merino wool growers who adhere to the brand’s strict Merino wool specifications and production standards.
These terms go far beyond the micron profile and require environmental responsibility and a connection to Australia’s Merino wool growing heritage.
The Bluey product range is made from 100 per cent Australian superfine 18.3-micron Merino wool, while the newly launched collection is made from ultrafine 16.3-micron Merino wool.
The fabric in the new range has been tested by the Australian Wool Testing Authority using the industry’s new ComfortMeter.
While fabrics which are rated as providing “everyday comfort” require a score of less than 600 and elite performance activewear less than 250, Bluey Merino’s new range scores an impressive 103 to 109.
The super soft Merino wool is sourced from the Blomfield family’s “Karori” property, north-east of Walcha on the NSW Northern Tablelands.
Mr Ross said woolgrowers were selected for their ethical and sustainable production methods and, most importantly, the softness and consistency of their fibre.
Their reward is a healthy premium well above market averages for ultrafine and superfine wool in Australia.
ETHICAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL STANDARDS IN PRODUCTION
“We pushed hard on ethical production and we ended up buying from “Karori” because they had science and evidence around softness which we were interested in,” he said.
“We are now also buying from the Bruny Island sheep station “Murrayfield” because the wool is grown on the indigenous land of the Weetapoona people.”
“Murrayfield” runs about 14,000 sheep off the south-east coast of Tasmania.
In an endeavour to ensure “Murrayfield” operates its Merino enterprise in accordance with global animal welfare and land management standards, farm managers work closely with Peter Vandeleur from the NewMerino independent ethical and environmental accreditation program.
“We don’t expect farms to be perfect in every way, but what we do expect is a total commitment to continuous improvement and transparency of their production methods,” Mr Ross said.
“We look for farms that implement a high level of environmental standards.
“That evidence comes from their approach to land care – tree planting or care for wildlife – and it certainly comes from high standards of animal husbandry practices because we don’t buy wool from mulesed sheep.
“On-farm practices are also very important – we visit at shearing times and provide feedback to growers on their fibre.
“We need growers that are open to feedback and working with us long term.”
NEW BRAND LAUNCH
Next year Bluey Merino will launch a brand of coastal outdoor clothing made from Merino wool grown at “Murrayfield”.
The wool is spun into yarn in Biella, Italy, and the rest of the manufacturing process is in Australia.
“We track the progress of our fibre from its origin through to every stage of production, seeking to integrate the best partners at every phase of this process,” Mr Ross said.
“The technology will provide visibility at each stage of the process and that is where we are at now - making it available to more brands so they have confidence again in Australian Merino wool.
“We’re excited about changing the Merino wool industry forever.”