AUSTRALIA’S lack of strategic direction when it comes to the contentious mulesing debate has been compounded by two vastly different global welfare standards.
Both standards are being promoted to woolgrowers with the aim to establish a declaration of custody, giving brands and supply chain members’ assurances wool has met a level of production obligations.
Four months after the polarising Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) was released, the International Wool Textile Organisation (IWTO) responded with an alternate version with royal fanfare.
In June last year, American-based Textile Exchange made the RWS available for certification amid growing pressure to reduce the risks to brands that use wool.
Then in September, the IWTO announced the Custodians of The Wool Industry declaration, known as the Dumfries House declaration – a simplified 10 point summary of wool’s environmental attributes which touches on animal welfare.
The RWS has been conflicting among Australian woolgrowers because it only accepts wool from non-mulesed and ceased-mulesed sheep, and details animal welfare and land management requirements.
The standard is comprehensive and has received support from 18 brands including Country Road, H&M, Kathmandu and Patagonia, with many more expected in the coming months as major wool processing companies undergo RWS certification.
RWS certified wool suppliers has reached eight, and include Fox and Lillie and New Merino in Australia, while Avington Merino, Sidonia, Victoria, and Mount Mill, Coolah, NSW, have signed on as certified woolgrowers.
“Brands also want to have third party verification behind any claims they make, in order to protect themselves against any public relations risks – the RWS acts like an insurance document for brands,” Textile Exchange director of industry integrity Anne Gillespie said.
Australia has been the slowest wool producing country to adopt the RWS compared to New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and Uruguay where the mulesing procedure is claimed not to be practiced.
The only similarity between the two declarations is the commitment to five freedoms of sheep, as set out by the World Organisation for Animal Health. These include the freedom from hunger and thirst, discomfort, pain and disease, expression of normal behaviour, and freedom from fear and distress.
Ms Gillespie said the group was “disappointed not to have greater engagement” with the IWTO on developing a global wool industry standard, however were hopeful of future collaboration.
The most obvious difference between the two is the different stance on the mulesing procedure, which is strictly excluded by the RWS, whereas the Dumfries House Declaration does not specify.
Ms Gillespie said the “mulesing debate is over”.
“We heard persuasive arguments for all approaches but in the end the brands came through with the clear message that they would not apply the RWS to their sourcing if it allowed for mulesing,” she said.
“They felt the industry has been given too long to address the problem, that there are already farmers demonstrating that they can raise sheep without mulesing, and that the public relations risk was too high, and that consumers and animal welfare groups would not accept it anymore.
“Wool is no longer a dominant fibre in the textile industry, and it is easy for brands to drop wool and find an alternative if there is too much perceived risk.
“The textile market is a very competitive market and each fibre has to make sure that there are no issues attached.”
The Custodians of The Wool Industry declaration was signed by the 200 industry attendees at the United Kingdom’s inaugural Wool Conference held at Dumfries House, and witnessed HRH The Prince of Wales, Patron of The Campaign for Wool.
Ms Gillespie said many of the points made in the Dumfries House Declaration would benefit the wool industry overall, however the statement “Wool is Welfare Assured” was open to discussion because of the wide range of legislations which vary in terms of what they cover and how they are enforced in each country.
IWTO President Peter Ackroyd said the Dumfries House Declaration had since been endorsed by about 500 firms involved in the wool supply chain.
“It has been particularly well received around the world,” Mr Ackroyd said
“I am not familiar with the RWS, so cannot comment on any comparisons…”
“On a purely personal note… coming from a family that has processed Australian Wool for four generations, I reckon the Dumfries House Declaration supported by Prince Charles, is a very timely statement that in our multi-fibre world, wool is indeed as good as it gets.”
In a letter to members, former IWTO secretary general Elisabeth van Delden last year stated the IWTO did not support any kind of commercial animal welfare standard such as the RWS.
“Any further commercial standard such as this (RWS) one is an extra burden to the wool industry,” Ms van Delden wrote.