RETAIL pressure for ethically grown wool escalated recently with the release of a proposed sheep and wool global welfare standard that prohibits mulesing.
American-based Textile Exchange made the first draft of the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) public last week which aims to produce a global standard certification on animal welfare, land health and supply chain traceability for retailers by 2017.
The move is being supported by fast fashion retailers H&M, Target, C&A, as well as Tesco, PVH apparel group and luxury brand group Kering.
The RWS animal welfare standard requirements include pain relief for shearing injuries, the recording of sheep injuries, shearers’ RSW declaration, the discouragement of tail-docking and castration and wool from mulesed sheep is excluded under the code.
Currently, 53.1 per cent of wool sold at auction is declare through the National Wool Declaration - a climb from 42pc in the 2010/11 season.
Of those growers who use NWD, 21pc declare their status as using pain relief, 20pc mulesed and 9pc non-mulesed.
The RWS was dismissed by WoolProducers Australia (WPA) who were unaware of the standards until it was made public last month.
“We are concerned that it is being developed by retailers with little to no input from growers,” WPA chief executive Jo Hall said.
“The standards are very northern hemisphere eccentric in terms of production which means they are completely unrealistic and unachievable to production systems in the pastoral zone.”
Ms Hall said the quickest way to change on-farm practices was through market forces.
“The retailers are demanding a high level of welfare which majority of Australians producers practice every day but that is not translating in market signals – the trade is not providing those market premiums.”
Last January, University of Sydney’s Elizabeth Nolan released research, commissioned by the Australia Wool Innovation (AWI), on whether declaring ethical practices paid premiums. The short answer was, only slightly.
The study revealed a slight increase in premiums for ceased mulesing and non mulesed wool, comparing the five year average to the two year average.
Dr Nolan reported an assumed average fleece weight of 4.42 kilograms in 2012-13 and a wool price of $9 per kilogram, a 1.6 pc premium translated to a gain of 64 cents per head.
Ms Hall said greater adoption by the industry of NWD would provide retailers with the ability to source non-mulesed wool, and ultimately “pay more for it”.
“The frustrating thing is that we fully understand that customer demands are getting higher but there has to be an understanding as to what happens on-farm to produce their fibre in the first place before retailers make these demands,” she said.
The RWS follows efforts already being made to track the supply chain by groups like Australia’s NewMerino and Continuum Textiles, who are on the advisory group and technical group respectively.
While NewMerino chief executive Peter Vandeleur said the current RWS was “prescriptive” and would be difficult to implement, he did see a need for a global verified wool supply chain.
“There is a danger there will be too many sets of standards - the RWS is about trying to have a benchmark standard that others can use in its entirety,” Mr Vandeleur said.
However, he said a further move towards flystrike resistant plain-bodied sheep would not occur until there was an identifiable demand and premium for non-mulesed wool.
“The only real catalyst (for a global code) is demand from your customers - growers are manufactures of a fibre and they respond to market demand," he said.
“Big, high-profile brands stand to be damaged too much if they were proven to be consistently sourcing from farms that were seen not to be holding high animal welfare standards.”
The RWS review period is open until April 15.