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Prince of Wales urges industry to back wool campaign

Marks & Spencer and John Lewis have signed up to an initiative launched by HRH the Prince of Wales to reinvigorate the wool industry in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.

The Wool Project, which was conceived by the Prince of Wales and which is designed to educate consumers about the benefits of wool over synthetic fibre alternatives, will kick off in earnest in September with the launch of Wool Week.

During the week fashion retailers and designers will launch a campaign to promote wool products, including clothing, in stores. 

This will include prominent displays of wool garments and the introduction of special swing tickets, which will detail eight unique reasons why wool is a better alternative to synthetic fibres including it being a sustainable, recyclable product and promoting its superior insulation and fire retardant properties. 

The Prince of Wales aims to use the campaign to drive consumer demand and boost wool prices worldwide to help support sheep farmers. The average price of wool fell to 68p per kilogram last year against 97p in 1997.

Speaking at the launch of The Wool Project, which was held at Wimpole Farm in Arrington in Cambridgeshire this week, the Prince of Wales issued a rallying call to an audience of industry leaders who included British Fashion Council (BFC) chairman and Jaeger owner Harold Tillman, arcadia“>Topshop managing director Mary Homer, Simon Berwin, managing director of suit supplier Berwin & Berwin as well as representatives from Alexon and Austin Reed.

“We want Savile Row and LFW designers to get involved. If we can increase wool sales by just 1% to 2% it will make an enormous impact.”

Nicholas Coleridge, the managing director of publishing house Conde Nast

The Prince of Wales warned that some sheep farmers were now looking at breeding “wool-less sheep” because the shepherding costs associated with wool now far outstripped the income wool generated for them.  He said that the properties of wool were “extraordinary” but warned: “The future [for wool] is looking very bleak indeed.”

The Prince of Wales has drafted in Nicholas Coleridge, the managing director of publishing house Conde Nast and a former chairman of the BFC, to sign up retailers, designers and manufacturers to the campaign.

Coleridge said he planned to take the campaign, “All the way to the edge of town retail parks…to independent retailers and all the way to London Fashion Week designers and the great high street chains.”

He added: “M&S and John Lewis have pledged their full support. We hope that next“>Next, Arcadia and Tesco will look at it [the campaign] and display their best woollen merchandise prominently…Some major supermarkets and retailers don’t even stock wool any more.

“We want Savile Row and LFW designers to get involved. If we can increase wool sales by just 1% to 2% it will make an enormous impact.”

Although M&S is unlikely to increase the number of wool options in its ranges this autumn, it will give more prominence to its wool products in support of the initiative, which it said was in harmony with its own eco-strategy initiatives under Plan A.

John Lewis will focus its attention more on promoting its wool homeware and bedding, than its fashion.

Attendees at the launch of the event said that the project committee should look at regenerating the Woolmark, which they said had not been promoted for many years.

Most said that they would support the wool project but added that there remained issues over persuading shoppers to pay more for woollen garments. Typically a poly-viscose used to make a suit could cost between $2-$3 a metre while a good quality European wool fabric would cost a manufacturer £8 a metre, according to one attendee at the event.

Wool Week will take place in the first or second week of September, ahead of London Fashion Week.

Prince of Wales’ full speech - Wool Project Launch, Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire, 26th January 2010

I would just like to start by saying how grateful I am to everyone at Wimpole Hall, and indeed the whole of The National Trust, for hosting this event.  It really is most generous of them.  As President of The National Trust I can say with some certainty that they share my concerns for the natural environment and the need to preserve our fragile rural communities.  Indeed, that the health of the natural environment and the health of rural communities are inextricably linked and cannot be addressed in isolation.

As you can see, Wimpole Hall is a working farm.  Under the Trust’s ownership it keeps alive many of the traditional farming practises which have sustained the local community for centuries and which I believe remain an essential part of a sustainable future for the countryside and its people. 

When Wimpole Hall was built in 1643 wool was a vital commodity in the global economy.  It is not an exaggeration to say that Britain’s economy was built on exports of wool, initially to Flanders and then much further afield.  Later, textile manufacturing was at the heart of the industrial revolution, with wool its principal raw material, particularly as selective breeding by sheep farmers enabled the production of a wider range of fibres. 

As an aside, the insatiable demand for wool produced the first example of recycling on an industrial scale.  In the 1840s specialised firms began to recover rags and by the end of the century the wool industry was using as much recovered wool as new wool.  That’s another thing most people don’t know about wool!

All this happened because wool was, and is, an extraordinary material.  Its capacity to retain warmth, even when wet, has made it the clothing material of choice for our species – as well as for sheep – since the Stone Age.  But wool has many other remarkable qualities, which I will come to in a minute.

First, I need to tell you – if indeed you didn’t know already – that the future for this most wonderful fibre is looking very bleak indeed.  The sad truth is that around the world farmers are leaving sheep production because the price they get for their wool is below the costs of actually shearing it.  You might wonder why this is a problem. Why should we be concerned?  Is this not just a case of market forces in operation?  Does it really matter if wool is replaced by manmade alternatives? 

Well, you will not be surprised to hear that I do think it matters a great deal.  I believe we need to promote wool, actively and forcibly, for three crucial reasons. Firstly, there is the crucial question of how we live sustainably on this single planet.  For far too long, it seems to me, we have ignored the fact that Nature provides us with so much of what we need to live on the earth. 

Mankind has put all its ingenuity, creativity and intellect into efforts to replace Nature’s gifts with man-made creations, in the belief they are all somehow better or more efficient than anything which has been simply grown or reared.   There is no doubt that this has produced some enormous benefits for our society. 

People live longer, have access to universal education, better healthcare and the promise of pensions. We also have more leisure time; opportunities to travel – the list is endless. But on the debit side, we in the industrialized world have increased our consumption of the Earth’s resources in the last thirty years to such an extent that, as a result, our collective demands on Nature’s capacity for renewal are being exceeded annually by some twenty-five per cent.

As we move into another decade of the 21st Century, it is clear to me that humanity is discovering the limits of our capacity to replace Nature, and – instead – is rediscovering the many remarkable ways in which Nature can, in harmony with Man’s ingenuity, sustain and enhance our quality of life.  I don’t need to tell you that we have no choice but to understand this and adapt accordingly.

At the end of last year, I was invited to give the opening address to the ministerial session of the United Nations Climate Change negotiations in Copenhagen.  I was tempted then, as I am now, to set out the full horror of what stands before humanity if we do nothing about this environmental crisis.  But instead I felt it was important to explain to people that the changes that would be necessary, if society as we know it stands any chance of continuing in the medium term, would be beneficial to everyone; that by living in harmony with Nature it would be possible to improve the quality of life for our ever-expanding world population. 

Which brings me on to my second reason for wishing to promote wool. 

Ladies and gentlemen, not only is wool sustainable, frankly it is a better product!  I am delighted that we are joined today by Sir Ken Knight who is this country’s Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser and one of the most respected voices on the effects on different types of fabrics on fighting fires.  He told me, and I hope that he will not mind me repeating this, that if he was tackling a blaze he would rather face rooms with wool carpets than rooms with carpets made from manmade fabrics.

Wool is naturally fire retardant (to some 600 degrees) and will meet many fire regulations standard without the need for additional treatments.  If it is does catch fire it also produces far fewer toxic fumes, which are of course so destructive, than any artificial manmade fibre. When it comes to clothing if a baby is swathed in polyester which catches fire, the clothing melts and burns its way into the infant’s skin causing the most horrific injuries. 

It is therefore particularly heartening for me that the Wool Project includes, along with Sir Ken, many of the country’s leading experts on health and safety.

But it is not just health and safety that makes wool such an amazing product.  It has other benefits which even the most brilliant boffin in the most high tech laboratory will struggle to recreate.  Wool is capable of absorbing humidity and releasing it later.  It is an excellent insulator against loss of heat and – when used in buildings - improves carbon efficiencies and reduces energy costs.  It absorbs sound to reduce travelling noise and most amazing of all, to my mind, a recent study proved that when people sleep under wool duvets or blankets their bodies reach a comfortable sleeping temperature more quickly and maintain it for longer.  The wool ‘breathes’ better than synthetics, increasing periods of the deep REM sleep which is so important for our general wellbeing.

Finally ladies and gentleman, and I think you knew I would get to this in the end, I would like to say a little bit about the importance of sheep production to rural communities, as my third reason for promoting wool. 

Most years I am fortunate enough to be able to visit upland farmers across Britain.  Men and women who live on incomes sometimes as low as £6,000 a year, who are the stewards and guardians of our rural landscape.  Without them the picture perfect views of Dartmoor, the Yorkshire Dales and the Welsh and Scottish hills and mountains would be ruined.  Their contribution to tourism should be as obvious as their role in food and wool production, but in both guises they are essential to sustaining living, vibrant rural communities.

The small farmer is the life blood of the rural economy.  In short they keep the countryside alive, not just in this country but in many parts of the world.  The wool industry is truly international and I am particularly glad that the Wool Project is now a partnership that includes the Wool Growing Organizations of Australia, Britain and New Zealand. 

Ladies and Gentleman I’ve tried to set out for you the impacts of the seemingly trivial decision about whether to buy a wool carpet or its manmade alternative, or the decision to buy a wool coat as opposed to a polyester jacket. And it is for these reasons, that last year I bought together at Clarence House all the stakeholders who have now come together to support the Wool Project. 

The idea, as I am sure others will explain in a minute, is to explain the benefits of wool to the customer in a simple, and creative way, so that they appreciate the impact of the decisions they make.  I am delighted that the project includes some of the world’s leading fashion designers, retailers, and wool growers and I am particularly excited by their plans for a wool week in September. 

In a moment Nicholas Coleridge will tell you a little bit more.  But if I may I would just like to finish by thanking you again for taking an interest in this initiative and for the efforts that I hope you will go to help make wool fashionable again.

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