Govt accused of 'greenwashing' over failure to use Kiwi wool in public buildings

Wool prices are at a record low.
Wool prices are at a record low. Photo credit: Getty

Pressure in the farming sector is growing for New Zealand wool products to be used in public-funded buildings and KiwiBuild homes.

Last week Otago farmer Amy Blaikie launched a petition demanding action on the issue, with thousands of people already adding their signatures. 

Wool prices are currently at a record low, with the costs of shearing the wool being higher than what farmers earn by selling it. Blaikie says the situation is "disheartening".

"If nothing is done to help, inspire or spur the wool industry then the future looks bleak," Blaikie told Newshub.

"Farmers will more than likely look to move to breeds which don't require shearing, as it has now become a significant cost but still must be done to ensure the health and welfare of the animals."

She says so far the petition has received support not just from farmers, but also local MPs.

"As producers of wool, we grizzle about the returns but maybe we just need to stand up and do something about it."

Blaikie and other farmers say it should be a no-brainer for New Zealand wool to be used as carpet and insulation in public buildings: it's sustainable, biodegradable, fire-resistant and in general much healthier for people and the environment compared to synthetic alternatives.

It could also be a lifeline for one of the country's oldest industries.

"The wool industry is really struggling at the moment," says William Beetham, Federated Farmers' new meat and wool industry group chairman.

"And that's a real frustration for farmers and for the entire wool industry when we know how fantastic this product is."

Craig Smith, chair of the National Council of New Zealand Wool Interests, supports the petition, but thinks it shouldn't be necessary.

"I think it's extremely exciting that there is a petition out there but I'm extremely disappointed that it comes to this to put pressure on the Government to hopefully make it happen," he told Newshub.

"We all know that wool's one of the most exciting fibres and products in the world but it's really unfortunate that the Government doesn't seem to see it that way."

He accused the Government of "greenwashing", saying the failure to use local sustainable products in public buildings goes against its claims of being focused on the environment. 

"How can the Government, any sector of the Government, in their own right mind put synthetic carpets or insulation into their houses," he said.

"I just don't see how the two go hand in the point now where I really am believing that this Government is greenwashing. They need to actually start stumping up."

Smith said if he had his way wool would be everywhere in public buildings. 

"There's only one product that's allowed to go in there regarding carpets and insulations and furnishings - and it has to be 100 percent New Zealand wool. That is the only outcome that really is acceptable to our industry and the farming sector, and the primary industries sector.

"I know that is not going to solve the crossbred wool price overnight but at least it shows that our Government does actually walk the walk. Because at the moment there's a lot of talking and not a lot of doing, and everyone's getting extremely frustrated about that."

Agriculture Minister 'fully supportive' of more wool use

When asked what he thought of the petition, Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor said he was "fully supportive" of using wool products in public buildings.

"Our primary sector produces important sustainable products that could support our construction industry," O'Connor told Newshub.

"I'm a strong believer in the sustainable qualities that wool has to offer. Compared to the synthetic or petroleum-based textiles and insulation used in construction, wool is a natural product that is less toxic, and fire retardant. Wool is an available resource that is biodegradable and easy to dispose of. An increasing focus of its use in construction would not only support the wool sector in recovery but also send a signal about the sustainability and human health benefits wool offers over other materials."

A working group involving the Government and industry was set up last year to find a solution to the industry's struggles, though publication of its report, expected months ago, has been delayed.

O'Connor said the group had recently reported back to him with a number of suggestions and the report was set to be released "shortly".

No plans yet for ministries to get onboard

The Ministry for Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) is the primary agency dealing with Government procurement issues. A spokesperson for MBIE told Newshub that practices and standards around procurement were given in the Government Procurement Rules and the Construction Procurement Guidelines.

"This includes specific guidance (developed by the Ministry for Primary Industries) on the sustainability benefits of using wool in construction."

Individual Government agencies are responsible for their own procurement initiatives based on the guidelines, the spokesperson said.

While the guidelines highlight the benefits of wool, its use is not mandated.

Kim Shannon, head of education infrastructure service at the Ministry of Education, said the ministry did "not currently have any plans to use or stipulate the use of New Zealand wool for insulation or carpet in new school builds".

"When undertaking school property construction projects, the ministry generally does not purchase or specify the purchase of any particular brand or type of building product, material or component," Shannon told Newshub.

"Instead, we require that the design and subsequent construction meets both New Zealand building standards and the ministry's design performance standards."

She said given the knowledge and resources required to assess the suitability and the wide range of building products, materials and components that go into constructing schools, the ministry relied on the expertise of designers and contractors.

"For a proposal such this, where broader benefits beyond immediate fit for purpose and value for money are being sought, we consider that this would be best suggested centrally and if acceptable, applied across Government agencies."

A spokesperson for public housing agency Kāinga Ora said while it was monitoring the use of wool carpets, it had used solution dyed nylon (SDN) carpets for the past nine years "due to it meeting our required performance standards".

"We will need to continue using SDN to replace any existing SDN material where it needs to be patched rather than fully replaced if damaged but our new product performance specifications allow for SDN and wool carpets."

The agency said polyester insulation was used, though a glass wool product was being investigated.

Although some wool carpets were used before 2011 "the cost to repair or replace or maintain them was far greater than using SDN", the spokesperson said.

'A fantastic opportunity for New Zealand'

Beetham says the Government needs to look past just cost when deciding what materials it uses in its buildings.

He thinks the petition should give the Government pause to consider its policy on procurement.

"If the Government really wants to take leadership in the environmental space perhaps that should be considered in the Government's own procurement processes," he said.

"Are they based around using the cheapest possible products or do they actually have procurement processes that focus on criteria such as sustainability, health and safety for people?"

He said the issue of using wool in public buildings could be seen as symbolic of the Government's approach to the environment in general.

"Wool clearly brings into the forefront the fact that we're not having sustainability at the forefront of our thinking with these issues."

Although he predicted the industry would continue to "tick along" if Government intervention was not forthcoming, he said it would be a "fantastic opportunity for New Zealand" if officials jumped at the chance to kickstart the sector.

"If we can turn the wool industry around, add value to our wool in New Zealand and export it overseas as value-added products then we're creating jobs in New Zealand and we're delivering a sustainable, renewable product to the rest of the world.

"And that has the opportunity to create prosperity not just for farmers or the wool industry but for many other New Zealanders as well."