Update: Open Letter to The Campaign for Wool

Wovember kicked off early this year, back in September with this Letter to the Campaign for Wool. We’d not planned on starting Wovember so early, but felt called to action by so many grassroots wool workers feeling unsupported by the Campaign for Wool (CfW) and their wool conference un-ironically dubbed “The Davos of Wool”.

We also hosted a takeover of the hashtag #woolworks; our aim was to collectively demonstrate the diversity and richness of the wool industry. You made this takeover amazing. Small wool businesses, mills, dyers, shepherds, agricultural workers and hand-crafters took to social media to add their voices of support to one another and to celebrate people who work with wool under a veritable microscope and whose knowledge of wool should not be neglected.


Because of this letter and hashtag takeover we were invited to meet with Susie Stanway, Social Media Manager for the Campaign for Wool, and Bridgette Kelly, the Campaign’s Interiors Director. Earlier this month we travelled to Bradford to meet them at the British Wool Marketing Board, and today we want to report back on that meeting. We learnt a lot about how the CfW is structured and funded; who works on the campaign on a day to day basis; and – most constructively – some potential ways to work in tandem, for the love of wool.

The structure and funding of the Campaign for Wool

The CfW began in 2010 because HRH The Prince of Wales was distressed about the low returns British farmers were receiving for their wool. However, as our recent tour of EU sheep and wool has shown, the problem of the low wool-cheque is not confined to the UK and the UK is only the world’s 7th biggest producer. When Prince Charles consulted with Experts to address the dismal prices British wool was fetching, they advised him to make the CfW International and industry-led. In this top-down, globalised approach, the CfW is concentrating its efforts on getting more wool onto the High Street. The idea is that creating more demand for wool at an industrial level = higher prices fetched for wool-growers worldwide. The model goes roughly like this:

grow wool > send it to a central depot > central depot sells wool on behalf of grower > remunerate woolgrower

The Campaign aims to add value at the sell wool stage of this cycle, to get the best possible price for the wool grower – a point that Bridgette and Susie were keen to emphasise in our meeting.

But the High Street is a land of murky supply chains, questionable production ethics and an obsession with profit margins and we still feel that the top-down, PR-led, industry-focused approach of the Campaign is the cause of all the problems we outlined in our open letter; it has produced a campaign with a tenor that lacks the common touch and which reeks of luxury branding, prominent celebrities and media spectacle: the CfW has sold itself as an inclusive, “broad church” while pandering to an industrial elite. With our best hand-knitted anarcho-feminist wool punk hats on, we might be tempted to say it has sold out to The Man: the connections between price increases for bales of wool sold wholesale on the world market and financial benefit to the small producer seem tenuous at best – wishful thinking at worst.

It feels vital to us that any collective campaign to change how wool is valued must operate at all levels and not just from the top down. In our meeting we asked how the CfW can do more for small producers and how it can more meaningfully engage the craft sector.

Doing more for small producers and projects

Precisely because the industrial sausage-factory model of fast fashion is so ineffective for improving things for many wool user-groups, they are self-organising in amazing ways outside of it and gaining extraordinary social traction for their authentic and relatable projects. Consumer interest in provenance and traceability coupled with new possibilities for online trade are giving rise to some really innovative woolly projects, of which these are just a few:

  • dLana – Spanish social enterprise designed to raise the value of indigenous merino wool, the prices of which are being heavily damaged by competition from Chinese merino (we wrote about dLana here)
  • The Shepherd and the Shearer – US collaboration between shepherd, shearer and knitwear designers focused on creating a market for fleeces previously being sent to land-fill or burnt (read about it here); profits used to send young women to shearing school
  • Schaf & Schäfer (Sheep and Shepherd) – German crowdfunding project designed to find a new audience for German merino wool in the knitting community; approx. 300% over-funded
  • Daughter of a shepherd yarn – UK wool from Hebridean sheep valued by the BWMB at 3p per fleece turned into a popular hand-knitting yarn through skilful blending and collaboration with John Arbon, a mill spinner of yarns based in Devon

Though none of these projects involve the sheer tonnage or scale of wool trade bound up with High Street retail, they are culturally influential and together reflect a shift in public mood back towards more sustainable, traceable ways of manufacturing garments. They speak to the ideals of the DIY and slow-fashion movements, and they meaningfully engage the hand-knitting and craft sectors by creating wool for these markets with a known back story and provenance. At the meeting, we spoke about how projects like these should be far more prominent on the social media channels of the Campaign for Wool and one of our main question was how to make that happen, which leads to our next point.

Who works on the campaign?

Nobody is employed in a full-time role to conduct the campaign, and funding for the CfW goes towards the cost of events and publicity, the latter of which is managed by a professional PR company whose business is PR and branding – not wool. Bridgette consults with the CfW from within the British Wool Marketing Board and Susie runs the social media accounts on a freelance basis.

With nobody employed in a full time research capacity and a tiny social media team, amazing woolly ventures happening far from the High Street all over the world are simply not getting picked up, shared and publicised. We think this structure is flawed (see our suggestions below) but also discussed the many ways in which grassroots woolly workers might gain prominence and support within the Campaign.

#bethechangeforwool

The #woolworks hashtag takeover was a massive success in this respect and that is down to you. Susie and Bridgette fed back that your flooding social media with images and text and speaking about the significance of the wool industry on your own terms had a significant impact behind the scenes at the “Davos of Wool”, and it also meant that anyone tuning into the conference got a much broader and richer picture of the world of wool than the one being put through official channels.

We also learnt and are keen to pass on that if you produce any sort of wool product you can register for an account free of charge on the onewool.com website and upload an image of your woolly goods. These are then advertised on the website along with your blurb and purchasing details. It is a central repository for wool businesses of all sizes, and the CfW draw on this resource for content to promote on their social media channels. You can help them to find and shout about your own work with wool by placing your products in their gallery there. They also spoke about the Love Wool Map, to which any small scale events anywhere in the world can be added and from there, publicised by the CfW.

We would encourage anyone who, like us, remains unhappy with the CfW’s general tone to use these resources to change the Campaign from within.

A truly inclusive campaign…

Though the above points are small gestures in the bigger scheme of things they are also some of the more constructive ideas that we have heard from the CfW and are definitely things we wanted to share with you here: last year with our “small producer” focus, we heard from many businesses seeking greater visibility and we feel that the onewool gallery and the Love Wool Map are good places for such enterprises to start.

However, as well as coming away with these small wins, we also left our meeting feeling troubled by our impression of ingrained industry sexism playing a part in the CfW’s image problem. We kept asking each other why are Susie and Bridgette not listed on the CfW website under “team?Relatedly, the Campaign’s director Nicholas Coleridge wrote in an email to Wovember that the Campaign aims to be “inclusive and a big tent group” and he, Susie and Bridgette have directly asked us to suggest some ways in which that aim may be better met; we’ve been thinking about this a lot and have begun drafting suggestions beginning with those listed below; we hope you will add yours as well because this discussion is not over:

Our suggestions to the CfW for making things feel more inclusive:

  • Get Bridgette and Susie’s faces on the CfW website – they are part of the team, why are they not represented?
  • Employ someone independent to research and publicise innovations at all levels of the global wool industry, and restructure the information flow so that it is not just big companies with the resources to put out shiny images and press kits who win support
  • As per our blog post of last year, please, for the love of wool, stop involving innocent smoothies in your events
  • Engage more meaningfully with the craft and hand-knitting sectors: come to our events, learn about the ways in which we are publicising and working with wool on a personal and community level and start taking us seriously. The High Street that the CfW is so desperate to influence is constantly copying designs and ideas from independent knitwear designers; if they are listening to this sector then maybe the CfW should do the same

Conclusions

…the last point on that list requires further unpacking but that is a job for another day’s blogging; we hope that our readership here will catch the gist of what we’re saying. We mean “craft sector” in the very loosest and most inclusive sense: we’re talking about the social enterprises and crowd-funders set up to save wool from being burnt; the independent mill spinners and wool buyers; the hand-spinners and hand-knitters; machine-knitters; weavers, shepherds, shearers, felt-makers and crocheters. We also mean all of you who read this blog then tell your families and friends about wool. We think the CfW needs to listen more to you. Additionally, we are planning to write directly to HRH The Prince of Wales about our concerns, and to speak to his original intentions for the Campaign, because they are very close to the reasons why we created Wovember. We would like to include your views in that letter, if possible.

This year Wovember has been all about taking positive political action and being the change for wool and on that front we feel it’s positive that we’ve begun this dialogue with the CfW.

We’re going to take a break for a few days to recharge our batteries, select competition winners and reflect on everything we’ve shared here but, before we disappear for a wee while, we want to say a really heartfelt thank you for coming with us on this tricky exploration of The Politics of Wool. Thank you for reading and for commenting, for keeping it real and for maintaining an excellent and constructive level of discourse throughout the month, and for all the amazing things that you have made with wool this year in the Wovember WAL. Maybe this is what #beingthechangeforwool looks like.

We hope that you have found this month interesting, inspiring and thought-provoking, but above all we hope you know how important you are – each and every one of you – for the future of wool. To close with these pertinent words:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
― Margaret Mead

One thought on “Update: Open Letter to The Campaign for Wool

  1. Thought provoking and humbling, how little I know about this struggle. Still cannot get my head round why such low value is put on wool.

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