/ 15 July 2023

Where there’s wool …

South African Wool:
Sheep on a Merino farm in South Africa. (Attie Gerber)

Polo South Africa is tapping local Merino wool farmers at Gerber & Co to produce this winter’s range of menswear knits. 

Today, forging relationships with South Africa’s natural Merino wool producers is like striking gold, especially considering the country’s fast-shrinking textile industry.

The choice to produce Merino wool garments comes from Polo’s pursuit of local, sustainable and traceable fibres, since South Africa is one of the world’s top Merino wool producers and exporters, says Alia Peer, who is Polo South Africa’s creative director.

“Wool is an age-old fibre, actually. There is nothing really ground-breaking about wool but it is renewable by nature and it is able to be grown and it has always been around,” says Peer.

In a world where sustainable solutions are steeped in technological advances and complex processes, could older processes with lower interventions be a local solution to toxic synthetic textiles?

It’s widely known throughout South Africa’s textile industry that the country is one of the top five Merino wool producers globally. However, the local industry lacks the infrastructure and skills to transform the raw material into the fibres that are used to create the final product.

But for this partnership between Polo and Western Cape’s Gerber & Co, the entire supply chain is traceable and carries fewer environmental costs.

“South Africa has a major broken circle in our retail philosophy where we don’t support local, but rather import to get a cheaper price,” says Stefan Gerber, director and founder at Gerber & Co.

Gerber also notes South Africa’s retail chain, which favours cheap synthetic imports, has an effect on the jobs of those who can produce local fibres. 

At Gerber & Co’s factory, where Polo’s Merino wool garments are produced, factory workers earn a good salary, enabling them to support their families.

Before turning to local wool producers and garment manufacturers, Polo’s previous Merino wool products were made from fibres sourced from Mauritius, which sourced the initial raw material from South Africa.

“We export such a large quantity globally but not a lot is available as finished fabric or as yarn locally,” says Peer. 

“Finding the people who can join the dots to take something from a raw material to a garment is not that easy if you don’t have the infrastructure or established supply chain.”

Merino 1 (1)
Merino wool fibres ready to be made into material for garments.

The environmental price

Polo’s “farm-to-closet” initiative is truly cradle to grave, according to Peer, from using wool fibre grown on a local farm and mapping out the supply chain, to producing a garment that can comfortably go back into the soil without polluting the environment.

The choice of Merino wool to produce eco-conscious and low-impact garments seems like a no-brainer for Polo’s winter collection, considering that Merino wool is readily available in South Africa, wool is among the warmest fibres and it is natural.

“What I find miraculous about wool, is when it breaks down, its nutrients feed back into the soil because it’s a nutrient-rich protein,” says Peer.  

In the fashion industry, in both high-end retailers and more accessible fast-fashion brands, synthetics are more common than natural fibres.

The traceability of the Polo garments also sits in their wash tags, which show the “wool vintage”, and signal that the wool was sheared in 2021, for example, by Gerber & Co. 

The pieces are also made according to the Responsible Wool Standard, the international certification body, and the Sustainable Cape Wool Standard of South Africa, which is the highest local standard. 

Merino (1)
Employees in Polo’s production house

Why not wool?

Why don’t more brands choose locally-sourced Merino wool instead of more harmful synthetic fibres?

“In the current fashion industry, there is a lot of acrylic and polyester used in knitwear to sell products at lower price points. It’s cheaper to manufacture and faster,” says Peer. “But, the impact on the environment is the most alarming part of it.”

Not only do natural fibres such as Merino wool, cashmere and lamb’s wool have a low environmental impact, they also have a lower impact on our largest organ — our skin, which can absorb substances from what we wear.

Even when retailers advertise knitwear as “recycled polyester”, this is still plastic, explains Peer. We are still absorbing that into our bloodstream and there is a lot more harm from the dyes and chemicals paired with the plastic.

“Natural fibres are sophisticated,” says Peer. “Wool also has natural thermo-regulating properties, which warms us in winter and cools you down in summer, similar to silk.”

Even though the range is limited to a few menswear garments, the pieces are for everyone, especially consumers who turn to investment pieces over trend-driven clothing and expect quality garments made from natural fibres.

Perhaps this pilot partnership between Polo South Africa and Gerber & Co is, by nature, more sustainable since it was produced in a smaller quantity, therefore not saturating the space it has created itself.