Michael Sly, Wilding Co

Michael Sly, Wilding Co

A Beautiful Solution

A pioneering trio of Kiwi entrepreneurs are determined to turn one of New Zealand’s biggest environmental problems from pest into perfume – and a handful of other consumer goods. We catch up with Queenstown’s Michael Sly, one of the brains behind ingenious Wilding & Co.

It was a case of itchy feet and a chance encounter at a bar outside a Connecticut perfume conference that spawned an idea to take on one of the country’s biggest pest problems. Rewind six years and Queenstown local Michael Sly was dabbling in perfumery, consulting on a top-secret fragrance project with local iwi, Ngāi Tahu. The visionary entrepreneur was up in the mountains distilling taramea, a native plant and taonga species of Ngāi Tahu known for its fragrant properties, when he started ruminating on new ideas.  “I had an opportunity to go to a big fragrance conference in Connecticut [in New England, USA] but when I arrived, I couldn’t get in,” recalls Sly.

As he settled in at the nearest bar, he sparked up a friendly conversation with the chap perched next to him. Before long, the pair had exchanged contact details, and Sly was back home sending his new acquaintance, Dr Robert Pappas, samples of oils he was distilling.

Unbeknownst to Sly, he had sparked up a dialogue with one of the most influential figures in essential oils. It was another trip, this time to the fragrance capital of the world, Grasse [in France], that spurred Sly’s thinking along. “Grasse is about the same size as Queenstown but it has this billion-dollar fragrance industry,” he says.

Around the same time, wilding pines – a group of invasive conifer species – became a hot topic of conversation. The problematic species was introduced in the late 1800s for forestry purposes. In the 1950s the resilient, fast-growing tree caught the eye of the forestry industry yet again and it was used intensively for plantations and to address erosion. “It works, but then it doesn’t stop,” explains Sly.

The Pine Problem

Costly pest
Wilding coniferare an issue in native forests. Needles from these pines form a highly acidic carpet that prevents the regeneration of native forest floor species.

Spiky issue
This invasive species in New Zealand’s high country is an unwanted organism under the Biosecurity Act. It cannot be bred, propagated, distributed or sold.

Fauna loss
Wilding pines don’t only push out native plants – they have such a strong impact on the ecosystem that fauna is forced out of its natural habitat.

Eco action

According to the Department of Conservation (DOC), swift action must be taken. Within 20 years, around 20 per cent of New Zealand will be invaded by wilding pine. “It takes over. You go under the canopy of wilding-infested land and it’s like a wasteland,” says Sly. Unfortunately, the ecosystem can’t compete; New Zealand doesn’t have the same competitive biodiversity of North America to keep conifers in check.

A multimillion-dollar plan to eradicate Central Otago’s wilding pines by poisoning them didn’t sit well with Sly’s permaculture background. “In permaculture, there’s a purpose for everything. You just need to work out what that purpose is.” Sly needed to think big. “It’s a big problem and it needs a big market.” He decided to harvest wilding pines and distill them into Douglas-fir essential oil. “I sent a sample to Dr Pappas and his response was, ‘That’s great but can you make 10 tonnes of it?’ That’s the equivalent of 20 to 30 million units of product.”

One of the world’s largest distributors of essential oil, doTERRA – with which Dr Pappas works closely – didn’t just want Sly’s oil. It wanted to launch the product in nine months to three million distributors. Harvesting enough pine needles to meet the order was no task for a one-man band. The needles of one Christmas-tree-sized pine make 5ml of oil.

Sly’s long-time friends, designers David Turnbull and Mathurin Molgat, jumped on board and Wilding & Co. was born. Sly and his co-founders called on their forestry contacts to pull together a team. “Twenty-four hour distillation, minus 10˚C outdoors,” says Sly. “I didn’t know if we would pull it off but we made the order.”

A growing concern

Fast forward nearly two years to present day and Sly and his co-founders are keen to expand the business. “We want to make various consumables: the soap, the body wash, even the dishwashing liquid,” he says. “If everyone in Queenstown used a Wilding pine-based soap, we’d consume 100,000 Christmas-sized wilding pines a year. You can solve the problem.”

Sly is well aware of the amount of greenwashing out there and he and his team are determined to create 100 per cent green products. He’s working on the idea of using revenue from Wilding & Co. to fund a side project that will also help solve environmental problems. “What are you going to do when you’ve cleared the land?” Sly asks. “We want to start working with reforestation processes.” As he explains, if you harvest young wilding pines, the land will revert to alpine environment. Once there’s a certain amount of needle on the ground, the soil profile becomes more acidic. “If you chop the pines away, another weed will probably take its place. That’s when you need to plant manuka, local pittosporims, rata and totara,” explains the perfumery innovator.

Sly is enthusiastic about working with DOC to get Wilding & Co. certified. “The end goal is to go into the shop, buy a Wilding & Co. product and you know that 100 per cent of it is connected to pest eradication.” 

Learn more about sustainability and community projects in Queenstown.

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