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New Tech-Forward Platform Pushes For Regenerative Wool Across New Zealand

Given that wool is one of New Zealand’s largest exports, and a slew of global brands have become famous on their New Zealand origins, using this wool, there’s greater scrutiny on whether or not it is truly better for fashion and for the planet.

“The global fashion industry is responsible for 10% of annual greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and we can’t ignore the role that wool production plays in that staggering statistic,” says John Brakenridge, CEO of The New Zealand Merino Company. “While wool is 100% biodegradable, and is an entirely natural product, the most often quoted issue with wool is its greenhouse gas footprint. This is because sheep, as part of their natural digestion of pasture, produce methane, a greenhouse gas. This is the case with all sheep, so is not specific to New Zealand.”

ZQRX, a collective focused on the sustainability of New Zealand wool, is building what it calls the first regenerative wool platform — and hopes to offer a different narrative, arguing that wool can indeed be sustainable, or rather regenerative. About 460 farms which sit across 3.7 million acres of land are part of this new initiative, hoping to offer greater traceability in what can be a convoluted global supply chain.

On the other end, over 20 brands have joined ZQRX such as Maggie Marilyn, Helly Hansen, and John Smedley alongside foundational partners, Allbirds, Icebreaker, and Smartwool. “All of them have looked past their competitive product offerings with a shared mission to take action against climate change and produce the highest quality, most ethical wool in the world,” says Brakenridge.

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This winter, in collaboration with Actual, a US-based tech company offering ESG solutions, ZQRX wool launched a new platform that uses real-time metrics, machine learning, and user-friendly modeling to help growers and brands accurately plan, predict and improve their environmental, social and governance (ESG) outcomes, explains Brakenridge. Each grower is provided their own personalized results to help them monitor their impact, measure carbon emissions (and sequestration) and look ahead at how they can make their farmers more eco-friendly by modeling out future investments.

To join the ZQRX program, a grower must first be certified to the ethical wool standard, ZQ. All growers are audited by a third party to ensure that they meet the requirements of the ZQ grower manual before becoming ZQ certified. Textile Exchange and The New Zealand Merino Company have also created a combined audit process and checklist which means that farms audited and compliant to ZQ are also certified to the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS).

That means they’ve done the groundwork; now with this platform, they can keep track of the sustainability efforts — and communicate them to brands. ZQRX also works with each grower in their network to develop unique strategies for their farming systems, he adds, stating that it’s a customized approach, not a one-size-fits-all method.

Going back to the issue of sheep emitting methane, Brakenridge argues that they are also being farmed as part of a broader ecosystem. “Their grazing and management also enables the sequestration (or storage) of carbon. This is where carbon is stored in woody vegetation, like trees, and in soil.”

Thus the ZQRX platform enables growers to account for both the methane they emit, and the carbon they store, and in so doing, nudges them to implement management strategies that increase carbon sequestration. “We now have several farms that have been scientifically verified as being either close to carbon neutral, or in some cases are actually storing more carbon than they are emitting (climate positive),” he says.

That said, Brakenridge points out that greenhouse gas emissions is only one component of ecological impact. “All land use will have an impact on ecosystems, including soil health, water quality and quantity, and biodiversity. These issues are not specific to New Zealand, they occur globally.”

So the aim is that with ZQRX, there’s now a tool that growers and brands can turn to measure this impact easily, and then act on it — either to regenerate further or to mitigate any damage.

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In using the term regenerative, it’s important to define it, especially since so many definitions exist globally. So Brakenridge offers the following:

“At ZQRX, our definition of regenerative spans beyond one singular factor, such as carbon emissions or soil health. Our platform was designed to recognize the holistic nature of farming, with a unique, outcome-based approach that supports the wellbeing of the environment, animals, and people. To us, regenerative is a mindset of continuous improvement, it is not prescriptive or reliant on a specific set of practices, rather it is focused on the ability to achieve and validate ecological and social outcomes.”

Essentially, it’s a work in progress and one that looks at the farm as a whole. So could this become the go-to platform for regenerative wool for many more brands? Brakenridge hopes so.


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