From the mountains and valleys of New Zealand to the green plains of Uruguay, SmartWool works with select wool growers to procure quality Merino wool. Les Wong, Vice President of Operations, recently visited SmartWool’s partnering sheep farms in Uruguay. Below, he shares about his trip, which involved lots of sheep, a little horseback riding, and even some World Cup Soccer.
Where does SmartWool source its wool?
Primarily from New Zealand, although we now have a portion coming from Uruguay and continue to assess additional sources to support the growth and innovation of our brand. SmartWool works with a select group of suppliers over the long-term – it helps us do business in the right way and ensure the quality of our products. There’s great value in knowing the origin of your material.
The focus of my trip to Uruguay was to continue building relationships with our wool growers. We’re working with a few large ranches there, and make it a priority to see firsthand how they produce our wool.
Why is Uruguay a good place for growing wool?
It’s a beautiful country, with sprawling pastures, a steady climate and natural year-round vegetation for grazing. Gauchos, or traditional cowboys, monitor and tend to the flocks on a regular basis. Those factors keep the sheep’s stress-levels down, helping them grow consistent, strong wool fibers. That, in turn, makes for high performance socks and apparel that are extraordinarily comfortable.
Are the ranchers passionate about their work?
They take incredible pride in what they do and are very passionate about wool. Many of these ranches are family owned and have been passed down through multiple generations. The ranchers are smart about their practices: for instance, cattle and sheep have complimentary grazing habits so are grazed together; and the ranchers use genetics to breed sheep for ideal health and wool production. On visits, I make it a point to bring them a box of socks that are made in part with their wool. When I tell them, “Your wool went into making this sock – thank you for the quality you produce,” the sense of pride they have is palpable.
What does SmartWool consider when choosing wool growers?
All of our wool is certified according to five requirements: quality fiber, appropriate animal husbandry, appropriate care for the land, appropriate adherence to workers’ rights, and good management practices in order to create a sustainable enterprise. The goal is to find wool growers who meet SmartWool’s standards not just for wool quality, but the entire growing process.
What happens to the wool in Uruguay after it’s sheared?
We have a partner factory that washes and blends the greasy wool off the sheep’s back, turning it into wool top. I was impressed with how sustainability is built into their operation. For instance, natural bacteria turn wastewater from the wool cleaning process into clean water that’s used for irrigating tree farms. In turn, wood from the tree farms is used in boilers for the wool cleaning process. And, methane gas produced by the bacteria is captured in an energy conversion plant.
Now for the fun part – did you do anything exciting in Uruguay?
We worked hard, but had fun, too. The people are extremely hospitable. Ranchers invited us into their homes and made us feel very welcome. One day after lunch, a World Cup game was on – Uruguay was playing – so we all adjourned to the living room and cheered alongside each other. And I rode a horse for the second time in my life – it was only for a few minutes, but it felt like the true gaucho experience.