Circular Economy Innovation Network: The Wool Innovation Community two years on

As the Circular Economy Innovation Network comes to a close, our industry experts Lucy Mather, Knowledge Transfer Manager for Livestock & Aquaculture and Debbie Tully, Knowledge Transfer Manager for Food, assess activities in the Wool Innovation Community.

Posted on: 16/04/2024

The Wool Innovation Community was created two years ago as part of the wider Innovate UK Business Connect Circular Economy Innovation Network. The core drivers for initiation were to understand the challenges of wool as a value commodity, create a wool circular knowledge hub and collectively drive innovation, demand for and reuse of British wool. The network has worked with three key pillars in mind to help drive circularity throughout the two-year project. These pillars – Circular design, circular business models and circular recovery – were core to the work that took place. They helped to focus conversations and actions to ensure that the best possible outcomes could be achieved.

Wool is a by-product of an already established industry. It is naturally circular and by nature is a biodegradable product. In recent years, the value of wool in the UK has dropped significantly, currently the farmer receives significantly less per fleece than the shearing cost. Many markets and opportunities to use this versatile smart technical fibre have been lost and historically there has been little focus on innovation in the UK wool industry. However, over recent years the properties of wool as a smart technical fibre have become more widely recognised. As a community we looked at how we could build on these attributes and support the circularity of wool with design and innovation in mind. Convening various workshops with the wool supply chain helped inform the Wool Innovation Action Plan and a follow on perspectives piece, written in the summer of 2023, demonstrates the scale of progress made in the first year of the network.

Growing the network

Over the past two years, various dissemination and wool showcase events have taken place, bringing together those working across the supply chain. To date more than 550 individuals interested in the circularity of wool, have joined the network, with good representation from farmers and small and large producers to retailers. A dedicated LinkedIn group (currently 149 members) has helped facilitate communication and interaction amongst the network. Furthermore, the network has brought together a group of people who were previously unconnected and has generated market awareness and allowed for the sharing of information around wool activities, applications of this smart fibre and progress around innovation.

The Wool Innovation Action Plan – Progress to date

The development of the Wool Innovation Action Plan was crucial to ensuring that the activities of the network were focusing on the key areas that would make the biggest impact when working towards the community challenges. Three challenges were identified:

Challenge 1: Low technological innovation within the supply chain to support circularity.

A key part of challenge one is identifying what the current state of play is with innovations. Education around the use of low-grade wools is increasing and we are starting to see an emergence of products that use this coarser wool which is generally not suitable for the traditional textile market. Such examples include its use in insulation products and exploring the use of waste wool as a fertiliser.

Companies such as iinouiio and LMB are exploring opportunities to reuse textiles once they have come to the end of their life as their current items. Iinouiio is home to a recycling line for wool to be respun, focusing on the true circularity of the product. LMB is working towards reducing energy use in the industry by ensuring the recycling of textiles is a viable option and reducing the need for new product creation.

Challenge 2: Identify needs to adapt processing and/or grading to meet standards for wider scale uses of wool in other sectors. Wool innovators unable to access new markets.

Movement has already been seen in this challenge area, with several companies successfully starting to use wool in other sectors. One example of this is NextGen Tree Shelters, who have created a biodegradable tree guard that will degrade over time, unlike other options currently on the market.

There is significant work being carried out to explore how we can enhance raw wool to enable it to be used for a wider array of uses. One such project is looking at the effects of combining coarse wool and enzymes to create a finer texture, similar to merino wool.

Challenge 3: Need for improved traceability and life cycle analysis (LCA) data to demonstrate the circular economy credentials of wool products to end users.

The mapping of the LCA of wool still poses a significant challenge in the industry. Small pockets of work have been done on this, but to date, no one has created a true LCA of wool as a resource. To achieve standardisation, there needs to be joined up thinking between key stakeholders throughout the UK.

Over the past two years, regional conversations have taken place, and there is consensus around the need to consider greener, localised processing facilities that help to build on the already sustainable and circular properties of wool.

Impact – Making a difference

The Wool CEIN has been instrumental in building collaborations that otherwise were unlikely to have happened. These collaborations have not been unique to the immediate wool community but have instead spanned across several different sectors, including construction, transport, and horticulture. Feedback from those involved in the activities has been incredibly positive.

Creating this environment has facilitated opportunity for collaboration and the exploration of innovative ideas. Engagement with British Wool and experts has stimulated knowledge sharing around wool and its properties and supported a boost to product portfolio growth.

This is vital in continuing the mission to raise awareness to the uses of British Wool, as a smart technical fibre.

Academics have also benefitted from the network, with many new links made and exciting circular design projects being explored. Recent work carried out by Glasgow Caledonian University has developed at an accelerated pace due to introductions made and is exploring the use of wool as an alternative to mulch and then as a potential feedstock for anaerobic digestion.

Governmental and Place Approach

The Wool CEIN has identified that wool is a key priority within the devolved nations, with work being carried out by each of the four nations in parallel. To build on this work across the four nations, convening key groups to discuss working collaboratively, with a view to pulling together a shared strategy for wool, is proposed. One such example where learnings could be shared is in Wales, with the “Made with Wool” initiative and Welsh Wool Alliance. These are both great examples of initiatives supporting innovation and protecting the future of the Welsh Wool Industry.

What next?

With the formal project concluding at the end of March 2024, the aim is to ensure future activities in the area will be continued by other key stakeholders in the community. The success of the network demonstrates the need for such a community within the wool industry. As no other mechanism currently exists, it is vital we maintain and develop this ecosystem to allow for the supply chain to connect, disseminate research and innovation developments, share details of available funding and new technology providers. Continuing the network will increase the demand for and value of British wool. If you are interested in learning more about this area of innovation, then please reach out to us.

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Related programme

Circular Economy Innovation Network

Circular Economy Innovation Network

The Circular Economy Innovation Network aimed to enable stronger, more resilient industries working together, connecting, collaborating, and sharing experiences to achieve Net Zero through circular innovation.


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