WOOL'S sustainability credentials are among its biggest assets, and they're set to be highlighted by the industry's sustainability framework, which aims to improve transparency, and in turn, increase consumer trust, in the industry.
The Australian Sheep Sustainability Framework aims to promote the industry's achievements and identify challenges for sustainability in wool production.
The framework was initiated by Australia's sheep industry leaders, including WoolProducers Australia and Sheep Producers Australia, with support from Australian Wool Innovation and Meat and Livestock Australia.
Following a year of consultation by an industry-led sustainability steering group, the framework was released in April with 21 priorities across the four themes - caring for our sheep; enhancing the environment and climate; looking after our people, our customers and the community; and ensuring a financially resilient industry.
"The aim of the framework is to provide transparency in how we produce our wool, in response to the ongoing and strengthening trends from consumers who want to know more about where their food and fibre comes from," WoolProducers CEO Jo Hall said.
"It's an opportunity to demonstrate what we're doing across a range of issues.
"We know as producers that wool is one of the world's most sustainable fibres, however there are questions around some on-farm husbandry practices and this provides the chance to start conversations with our customers and consumers, while promoting our industry and our product."
While many people consider sustainability an environmental issue, the ASSF has a broader approach to sustainability, which considers the environment, animal welfare and human resources which need to be factored in for the long-term sustainability of the industry.
"Sheep and wool production is a legitimate business and in order for any business to continue they have to be financially viable, which is why it's a key theme.
"Without that financial resilience, we can't work on the other elements that result in overall sustainability."
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Holbrook-based producer Bruce Allworth, who's also a Professor in ruminant health and production, has been in the inaugural chairman of the steering group, which is continuing to work with stakeholders to refine the document over the next three years.
He said the framework was designed to be a living document, which is subject to review and refinement to remain relevant.
It's the third sustainability framework of its kind, following the beef and dairy industries, but there's a bigger challenge for the sheep framework, as it has to be relevant for both the wool and sheepmeat industries.
"When we released the framework we had reported on 33 of the 60 metrics included, so what's important now is to find the remaining metrics and report on as many as possible, hopefully all of them," Professor Allworth said.
"We're not setting targets or policy, but the goal is to provide robust data to put up for discussion on where we need to change things."
Professor Allworth said the framework a practical approach, with the end goal to support the long-term sustainability of the sheep industry.
"This framework isn't aimed at replacing individual sustainability practices, but we'll be reporting on what our sustainability credentials are, as a whole industry.
"We'll be collecting meaningful data, identifying trends over time, to see which direction the industry is moving in each issue, and we expect the majority of the metrics we have will be retained, but we may have to change them if we can't report on them, or if they become less relevant over time."
Ms Hall said the framework was a positive tool for the industry, not a red-tape inducing mechanism.
"Perhaps it might encourage some people to change practices to reach industry benchmarks, but the vast majority of producers are already doing the right thing in terms of sustainability, because it's in their interest to look after their land, people and their animals."
Transparency and traceability have been buzz words in agriculture for the past decade, and the wool industry is in the perfect position to promote where it excels.
The framework comes after the launch earlier this year of WoolProducers' Trust in Australian Wool campaign, which tells the story behind wool production in Australia.
"As producers we aren't always good at promoting our work which is why the framework and campaigns like Trust in Australian Wool are so important, as it enables conversations to be had on topics that we have traditionally shied away from," Ms Hall said.
"There is a perception from some other countries that in Australia, we're backwards in terms of animal health and welfare - international people are always talking about mulesing when it comes to our industry.
"Because of the mulesing issue, where no other country does it, or they don't have the same definition for it, we've been lectured to by other countries about how cruel we are to our sheep.
"But when you look at mulesing as a whole-of-life approach to welfare, we're looking out for the interests of those susceptible animals, which is why WoolProducers adopted policy around the mandatory use of pain relief.
"It's always a big topic of conversation, but we're ahead in many other areas, for example we have minimum wages for employees, while some of those countries lecturing us on animal welfare may not treat their workers in manner that we would consider best practice.
"That's why we've included caring for our people as an area of priority, because we want to attract and retain workers in the wool industry."
Ms Hall said wool had great green credentials and ticked a lot of boxes for consumers who are changing buying habits to focus on quality over quantity.
"We're also seeing new uses for wool such as wool packaging, which is generally the lower quality wool that there aren't a lot of uses for.
"Wool has amazing insulation properties, so that's an exciting area at the moment. Because wool is biodegradable, fire resistant, odour resistant and there are no micro plastics, there are so many uses for wool in a green-leaning environment."
Activewear has been a big area of growth, particularly through the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Wool is the perfect material for activewear given its durability and odour resistance so it's great that we've tapped into that market.
"Traditionally wool was destined for suiting or for the high-end apparel markets, but with the trend of casualisation and work from home being bought on by COVID-19, there is a place for wool in everyday wear.
"With the world changing rapidly due to the global pandemic and a push for sustainability, we have a great opportunity as an industry to capitalise on these opportunities."