AUSTRALIAN Wool Innovation’s new chairman Jock Laurie has highlighted the importance of supply chain transparency while declaring there was not “absolute clarity” in market feedback on mulesing and animal welfare.
On the issues of mandatory pain relief, mulesing, supply chain transparency and sustainability, Mr Laurie said it was critical that the industry be in a position where there is an information flow “back and forth.”
“After COVID, there are obvious changes that we need to be aware of and we are just starting to get our head across some of those, figuring how we get that link of information coming back and forth is going to be very important.
“We’ll continue to try to figure out how we are going to do that, I believe, very strongly to make sure that that is as open and transparent as it possibly can be.”
Mr Laurie said he didn’t mules his own sheep, but this “comes with its own challenges.”
“I haven’t mulesed for about 15 or 16 years.
“The mulesing debate is a debate that the agri-political world needs to take on,” he said.
“AWI is a research and marketing organisation and shouldn’t be in a position where it is trying to determine or dictate what wool growers should be growing or should be producing, it’s their decision.
“What we’ve got to provide them with all the tools for a mulesed or a non-mulesed flock, all the agri-political stuff needs to be dealt with by agri-political organisations that deal with policy stuff,” he said.
“If they want to deal with policy that is in regard to mulesing or pain relief or whatever they want to do then engage in that space and set a clear direction for the industry to go.
“We will continue to invest to provide opportunities for all wool growers, no matter what they want to do, to continue to stay in the industry.”
On whether those tools included AWI providing relevant and timely feedback on wool market demand and animal welfare, Mr Laurie said:
“Certainly, as I said, the transparency I think is going to be critical and making sure that we get the messaging – that we understand what the issues are, what those signals are – because there is certainly variation in some of those signals.
“They’re not straightforward — yes this is happening, no that is happening – there are varying views on what is going, so we’ve got make sure that we are not providing information on hearsay, it has got to be as factually accurate as it possibly can be,” he said.
“But I think it is important that the industry understands everything that is happening with wool all the way through.”
So when asked if Italian processors told Australian Wool Innovation they only wanted to buy non-mulesed wool, would that be an opportunity for AWI to inform growers, Mr Laurie said:
“Yes, but that hasn’t been told to us.
“It’s not the case that Italian buyers will only buy non-mulesed wool,” he said.
“There are certainly indications that are happening out there and we’ve got to make sure that we get clarity on that information and then find ways to get the messaging back to growers about exactly what it is.
“When we come to a clear message and we understand what a clear message is coming out of those people then we can have a think about how we address that and how we get that information passed on.”
And on transparency in market feedback to growers …
When asked about the transparency of AWI, through its marketing arm The Woolmark Company, in not telling growers, or including in media, that the wool used in many of its publicised brand collaborations came from non-mulesed sources, Mr Lawrie said quite a few of those companies had been publicly clear about using non-mulesed wool.
But when asked again why AWI did not include that information in the Woolmark media releases as market feedback, Mr Laurie said: “We’ve got to go through and get all that information out, we’ve got to be clear, I’m quite happy to turn around and be as transparent as we possibly can be, but by the same token, not be in a position where we are sending messages that there is a level of contention around.
“I’m not saying there is a level of contention around this, what I’m saying is that the messages we are getting from our people overseas, while they are starting to line up with consistency, they are not absolutely consistent on the message at this stage.”
It recently took Sheep Central several weeks recently to extract an admission from Woolmark that the wool used in the Ben Simmons and the ashmei Merino + Carbon initiatives came from certified non-mulesed wool supply chains, including via a Responsible Wool Standard supply chain.
“This was not the focus of the collaboration,” was the explanation from Woolmark’s general manager marketing communications, Laura Armstrong, for not declaring this in media releases distributed to growers.
The releases referred vaguely to the ethical and sustainable qualities of Merino wool, despite Ms Armstrong stating that: “Woolmark works alongside Australia’s woolgrowers to ensure Australia’s strict animal welfare laws are understood and woolgrowers have access to the best information and research available to align with these welfare laws.”
The companies referred all Sheep Central questions to Woolmark as managing all media, although Ms Armstrong said: “AWI/Woolmark work in collaboration with each brand partner to define key messages to promote our partnerships, but the decision to communicate integrity schemes within any press release is always the brand’s decision.”
When asked whether Mr Laurie considered it was ‘greenwashing’ to make ethical and sustainable production claims without referring to specific integrity schemes, he said one of the issues was the number of integrity schemes.
“One of the issues is that …. from a wool grower point of view, there are so many (integrity) programs out there at the moment, with new programs like RWS and others, that looking to come on board, all of them that are claiming a level of credibility, but at the same time we are getting messages around the fact that with previous schemes it mightn’t be the case, we need to have a look at the new schemes.
“We’ve got to get a clear understanding about all of the schemes, which ones have credibility, which ones don’t have credibility, within the industry.”
When asked if Mr Laurie was confident AWI was passing on to growers all the market feedback it was getting on market and brand preferences in regard to specific types of wool, particularly around animal welfare, Mr Laurie said: “I’d like to think in time we will.”
“As I said to you just a minute ago, I’m not sure that there is absolute clarity, there hasn’t been absolute clarity, I think we’re starting to get more as we come out of COVID, we are starting to get more clarity around some of these areas.
“We’ll obviously have a look at seeing how we can get that information back.”
And what does RWS and FOUR PAWS think?
RWS director of marketing communications and public relations Donna Worley said it is very clear that consumers are very interested in the animal welfare credentials of wool, and at the same time, they are becoming more “claim” savvy and are demanding real, true claims. (https://www.just-style.com/analysis/consumers-can-see-through-sweeping-green-claims_id139243.aspx)
She said Textile Exchange supports the ISEAL credibility principles to prevent any form of greenwashing. For claims at a jurisdictional level (i.e. national level claims such as ‘Australian wool’ in general) ISEAL has also developed some good practice guidance. https://www.isealalliance.org/about-iseal/our-work/jurisdictional-monitoring-and-claims
“In what are often long and complex supply chains in the textile industry, traceability to country of origin of raw materials is a key first step.
“Where the country of origin is perceived as low risk, this may, for some consumers, be sufficient,’ she said.
“For wool, with mulesing still being a prevalent practice in Australia, this is unlikely to be the case.
“Also, reflecting on the ever-growing consumer interest in animal welfare, we expect that the consumer demand for credibly verified sources of wool (and other animal fibers) to continually grow.”
FOUR PAWS wool campaigner Rebecca Picallo Gil said Woolmark/AWI is doing Australian wool growers no favour by trying to promote Australian wool as ethical without backing these claims with a proper system or framework they would use to assess.
“If Woolmark can’t tell you measurable criteria to verify a certain level of animal welfare, they probably have none.
“Based upon their current website, the only information available for brands or consumers is on wool quality testing (wool content, light fastness, durability, washability, colour resistance) and technical support,” she said.
“There is no sign of regular on-farm audits based on animal welfare parameters.”
Ms Picallo Gil said mulesing continues to be a major brand and consumer concern worldwide, made clear by the 200+ textile brands who have made mulesing-free statements.
“Woolmark is better off to be transparent about what wool comes from farmers who have invested in moving away from mulesing by using good sheep genetics (more flystrike resistant sheep) instead of avoiding the topic of mulesing.
“The efforts of wool growers who transitioned away should be more acknowledged by Woolmark/AWI and transparently communicated to brands who mostly want mulesing-free wool.”
Ms Picallo Gil said brands and consumers deserve transparency and traceability for the products they purchase.
“Traceability and transparency are key to enable better animal welfare when operating in such a way that consumers can easily spot how a brand or retailer values and ensures animal protection.
“Mulesing-free products need be based on full supply chain traceability which has the capability to backtrack wool within a supply chain, keeping track of and sharing its credentials, e.g. its origin, the standards applied, level of animal welfare, etc.
“Stating only the origin of wool is certainly not enough. Luckily brands and consumers are getting better in asking the right questions to detect false claims,”she said.
Ms Picallo Gil said brands often approach FOUR PAWS to get advice which assurance schemes can reliably exclude mulesed wool and more brands were committing to only purchasing certified mulesing-free wool by a set time.
“FOUR PAWS wants to bring awareness to the problem of mulesing and flystrike and the sustainable solution for both – good sheep genetics and good farm management.
“We held online wool trainings for brands who are keen to transition away from mulesing, and we inform supporters through brands-checks and consumer guides how they can find clothing and wool which is free of mulesing,” she said.
“Through FOUR PAWS’ regular engagement with consumers and brands we have seen that both sides don’t want mulesed wool and the awareness for the issue of mulesing is constantly rising.
“Therefore, it was good to see the AWI publishing their 2030 strategy mentioning mulesing-free as a goal,” Ms Picallo Gil said.
“While we acknowledge this step, we are hoping for a concrete action plan to implement this goal.”