Going Slow before you can Grow Fast

Merino innovation

Australia leads the world’s production of apparel based Merino

In business circles Australia has a monopoly in terms of its production of superfine Merino Wool suited to the next-to-skin market. However the Wool industry’s marketing strategy has taken a broad-brushed ‘commodity approach’ and is failing to support local cutting edge product innovation. Supporting the continued notion that ‘all wools are the same’.

The worlds fastest growing apparel segments are not what you think. Suiting has been diminishing for years, fashion continues to be a core staple for much of our wool producing segments based upon consumption from China, but the Active & Outdoor segment is the one growing the fastest at over 8% per annum.

Australia has long held a global leadership position for its fibre quality, production volumes and product innovation, at least up to the early 2000’s.

Our country’s merino wool producers are without a doubt some of the most passionate and skilled agricultural professionals that exist in the global industry. The current drought conditions spanning much of Australia are just a key indicator or their steadfast commitment to continuing to grow high quality and consistent fibres for the global apparel market, albeit accepting that the volume, strength and micron range will be affected by environmental conditions. But still they remain positive in their outlook, receiving some of the best prices in decades.

As a locally grown Australian Made brand we are totally committed to sourcing direct from these certified ethical growers a consistent, ultrasoft and strong fibre for our growing range of active and outdoor apparel. Growers’ like the Blomfield family from Walcha, NSW who have demonstrated their approach to producing this style of merino wool is perfectly matched to the outcomes we look to achieve – year on year.

Andrew Ross, the Founder of Bluey Merino embarked upon a business model 7 years ago that has grown into in a digital and vertically integrated consumer facing business, that spans the entire value chain; from farm to finished product. As an Australian brand engaged at every step in the fibre transformation process, owning the outcomes and managing this risk has often meant the business has had to go slow and learn before it can produce the innovative products it aspires to create.

“Our innovation must build on a combined Australian fibre & tech advantage,” says Bluey Merino founder, Andrew Ross

Since 2000 when innovative CSIRO fabric technologies like SportWool was used to create the Australian Olympic Team uniforms and more recently the development of the CSIRO researched outdoor apparel fabric called Optim, there has been little focus on developing Australian owned IP, especially suited to the active and outdoor industry. This has left Australia at a disadvantage competitively when it comes to designing, capitalising and marketing the merino fibre that is our natural advantage. Instead we have left this to international brands who saw its value and sourced it elsewhere.

Consider Allbirds a San Francisco-based direct-to-consumer lifestyle startup aimed at designing environmentally friendly footwear. Allbirds first shoe was the Wool Runner, which is made from New Zealand superfine merino wool. Within 3 years of creation it’s now managed to achieve a business valuation of over $1.4B USD. Even Icebreaker when sold for $288M USD in 2018 had created a leadership position in the global outdoor apparel market, one that Australia could have capitalised on.

“For a brand to startup, innovate from scratch, commercially produce and sell products direct to consumers in a rapidly growing market, where we monopolise the world’s raw fibre production without industry support, makes no good sense” says Andrew Ross. “So innovate vertically at all levels we must – from sourcing greasy wool, seeking global processing partners who are patient and then manufacturing locally; means that unlike other industries there is an extended period of repeating the test & learn innovation cycle,” Ross says before customers get the benefits.

Working outside the Wool industry mindset reaps rewards.

Todate Bluey Merino has found support through the Federal Governments R&D programs and an unlikely but aligned material development and research partner, the University of Wollongong. With limited fibre research now occurring in Australia due to the closure of the CSIRO fibre research capability, Bluey sought specific technical skills in intelligent polymer research.

This collaboration has now completed its first project focused on bridging technologies and fabric innovation, which will support the generation of new Smart Fabric technology leveraging all the natural attributes of Australian superfine merino wool. Surprisingly these innovations are not supported by an industry so steeped in history and one that generated over 50% of Australia’s GDP right up to the 1950’s, and which now continues to decline year on year in terms of production output.

Smart Fabrics represent a niche that is still forming, however with Google, Apple, Heisel and Levi’s all working to create a new technology led apparel segment, Australia can build on its competitive fibre advantage when combining this with its own local innovative technology startup culture, and its materials science capability, or not. Potentially missing out on creating a platform for the next Allbirds equivalent startup.

This first collaborative project centred on creating a washing machine safe and outdoor abrasion proof NFC label, backed by scientific lab testing and validation at the UOW Applied Institute of Polymer Research. The next phase of Bluey Merino’s Smart Fabric journey now seeks to solve the challenge of conductive fibres and body sensing.

NFC Testing

The joint project has been funded jointly through the NSW Tech-voucher program and Bluey Merino in partnership with UOW Intelligent Polymer Research Institute (IPRI), led by Dr. Javad Foroughi. UOW supports innovation through its Advantage SME program which is the platform for continued collaborative and trusted working relationships. In the long term these commercialisation efforts will be transformed into consumer products creating new intellectual property that all Bluey Merino customers will get access to with unique health, wellness and lifestyle benefits.

For Bluey Merino value-adding in the country of origin is key to its future, not accepting of the fact that international brands continue to be commonly supported whilst non at home are invested in. Accepting a commodity price when you have a monopoly may make sense in some circles, but as the world starts to support more localised sovereign production, Australia has a unique opportunity to capitalise once more on what was once a great industry that shaped much of our country’s founding values.

See more about the Bluey Merino’s and UOW Advantage SME collaboration video here.