The future of wool?

oakehampton castle, dartmoor - Jan 22

I keep getting pulled by nature to look at the qualities of wool, and it’s uses. Sounds strange, but someone’s gotta do it. And here I am. Loving it.

Woollen packaging exemplifies the thermal properties of sheep fleece – temperature regulating, flexible, completely, totally biodegradable

(and with a carbon footprint equal to its own demise, not a gram more).

When compared to an expanded polystyrene ‘cool box’ type of food container, the sort of thing supplied with large premium meat or fish purchases, the wool comes out smelling of roses. Rather than worn polystyrene that fragments into the environment.

One company, Riverford Organic Farmers, runs a coalition of six farms supplying shipped (rather than flown) produce to over 90,000 organic vegetable boxes a week.

Riverford farmers grow most of the grub themselves and supply these directly to customers nationally. Customers enjoy the organic veg, which arrives seasonally along with some stunning recipes. 

Their largest of two distribution centres is currently in Buckfastleigh, on Dartmoor.

Wistman's Wood - Dartmoor Sheepskin - Dec 21

They are growing not only the other distribution centre, but are seeking interest from drivers who would like to represent the company in one of their proposed fleet of electric delivery vehicles.

Most of the produce is grown on one of the six British organic farms, by teams led by one of the six farmers directly. Anything that can’t be grown in the UK is considered very carefully, and never imported by plane. Avocados, for example, have recently been dropped by the firm. 

The range of chilled produce was held at a limited level over the past two years, which saw explosive growth during the first year of lockdowns. Customers who couldn’t book a sensible supermarket delivery slot looked at Riverford’s boxes with hungry eyes – and those who signed up stayed on board. Oddly, the food sometimes arrives in a battered cardboard box.

Seaton, Devon | Sheepskin Nov 2021

Staff in a specialised recycling facility receive all the empty boxes and sheep’s wool insulation and check closely for any damage, or most destructive of all, water ingress.

The wool ‘fleece’ is a large flat sheet of felted raw sheep’s wool with a durable lightly perforated polyethylene sleeve. If the wool is wet, the sleeve is recycled in a more conventional way and the fleece composted.

The composting has been so successful that Riverford have just started actively seeking to collect other firm’s compostable waste. But the real win here is the sheer (surely, shear?) amount of uses that these woollen cool bags can go through.

Riverford calculates that each box goes through about ten (10) uses before finally being withdrawn from service. Although the wool insulation (and the premium cardboard used in the boxes themselves) is expensive compared to ‘normal’ single use packaging, you only have to use it twice to half the price.

Of course, sometimes a customer will leave a box out and rain will get in, or the corner will be crushed in a compromising way, and the box must be scrapped. But even in the worst cases, there is often an element of packaging that survives, and will thrive given a little attention.

Riverford employs around thirty people full-time to recycle packaging week in and week out. It’s a phenomenal commitment to Reuse – the ultimate energy-efficient, carbon-efficient recycling, the first word of Reuse, Reduce, Recycle for a good reason.

Able and Cole use similar wool fleece, but ask the customer to reuse the wool ‘in an imaginative way’ and share the results on social media.

“You look at a box and think ‘can this one go round one more time?

‘If the box is bent, we can still use the wool, if the wool is damaged beyond a quick sticky-tape repair then we often can use its recyclable plastic pouch another time. Mostly, we get to send the whole lot right back out again after inspection and repacking. Essentially, we re-manufacture packaging’

Even giving the self limited supply of chilled items over the last year, the wool liners have been in high demand. Supply of new woollen cool fleeces is yet another factor in Riverford’s predominantly local supply chain. This is a reality when you are trading in the UK at this time. I know this from dealing with companies who supply Dartmoor Sheepskins, there’s often a little setback and resilience has to be built-in.  

Hats off to Riverford – most companies seek to simplify, outsource and speed up at all costs. Riverford have taken a stand and are modelling (profitably) an approach that allows customers to be better, right from the kitchen table.

If you want to register pre-launch interest in driving electric vans for Riverford (who share a portion of profits with employees) click here.

Disclosure: Riverford is a local company, and whilst we admire them, we don’t claim that they are endorsing us. Our own sheepskin packaging has always been 100% home compostable.

1 thought on “The future of wool?”

  1. I’m looking for a sheepskin supplier for some shoes Im developing, for the upper lining only. Not young lamb shearling, but the thicker, denser natural color sheep fur. Also would like to use a wool for the insole lining and part of the upper lining as its naturally anti-microbial. Can you contact me with any info? perhaps you can supply this? are the sheep ethically treated? Mulesing or not? What country are they from? We don’t want to support brutal commercial farms or countries lacking human rights. Looking forward to hearing from you. Thanks!


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