Stuart McCullough
Stuart McCulloughCEO of AWI
Martin Oppenheimer
Martin Oppenheimer

Agnostic AWI omits non-mulesed details to ‘promote all wool’

Sheep Central | Terry Sim | October 2, 2020

AUSTRALIAN Wool Innovation has admitted it collaborated with brands committed to using non-mulesing wool, while defending its deliberate omission of this from promotional material and information to growers.

AWI chief executive officer Stuart McCullough said the levy-funded company has collaborated with 46 brands and retailers listed by animal welfare bodies Humane Society International and FOUR PAWS as either opposing mulesing or moving to non-mulesed wool sourcing.

HSI has launched its Better Wool Guide to help consumers avoid buying wool from sheep subjected to mulesing and FOUR PAWS has released a list of 185 fashion brands that have taken a stance against mulesing.

In a recent edition of the AWI podcast, ‘The Yarn’, Woolmark’s head of Americas, Michelle Lee, drops the names of Lululemon and The Gap as important in the athleisure market that AWI targets or aims to target in its marketing. The Gap group and Lululemon have said they are only sourcing non-mulesed wool or are phasing out use of wool from mulesed sheep, yet this is not mentioned in the podcast.

In defending the omission of the brands’ policies on non-mulesed wool, Mr McCullough said AWI is agnostic on the issue.

“AWI respects the animal welfare choices that all Australian wool growers make.

“Equally we support all retail brands and processers in their choices to buy Australian wool,” he said.

“AWI works with many brands worldwide and help them source wool to their individual preference. “AWI seeks to promote all Australian wool on behalf of all Australian wool growers,” Mr McCullough said.

He said AWI has told, and will continue to tell Australian growers, that some fashion labels have a preference for non-mulesed wool.

“But as you know it is not a unanimous view amongst all fashion retailers.

“As you know, AWI is a research, development and marketing company that is funded by all levy-paying Australian growers plus the Federal Government.”

However, in the latest edition of AWI’s Beyond The Bale, three Australian brands were profiled — Woolerina, Smitten and Merino Country — that all claim to use non-mulesed wool exclusively, yet there was no mention of this in the BTB stories.

In a previous BYB story about AWI’s Woolmark collaboration with the Norwegian company Ulvang, there was also no mention of the brand’s policy of only using wool from non-mulesed sheep, nor did Woolmark promotion material specify that the wool grown by Ulvang’s Australian supplier, the Pitcher family at Mount Emu near Skipton, came from non-mulesed Merino sheep.

Mr McCullough said AWI seeks to promote all Australian wool.

“Nor does it pass judgement on growers or brands simply on the basis of this issue.”

Mr McCullough claimed that AWI was telling Australian growers the extent of the trend in non-mulesed wool sourcing and said it was “not true” that AWI was allowing breeder politics, and/or the opinions of Australian growers who want to retain mulesing, to dictate its judgment on these market/grower communication issues.

However, Ulvang supplier Alan Pitcher said his family’s flock had not mulesed their Merinos for 15 years and AWI’s failure to mention this in the Woolmark promotional material was due to industry “politics.”

“I’m absolutely bloody disgusted with AWI, because back 12-14 years ago we were trying to knock on the door to say ‘look what can be done’ with this non-mulesing and the type of sheep and the type of wools coming off these non-mulesed sheep – it’s so important to the wool job.

“And they would not take it on, it was the politics of the AWI not to take on anything that was going to get away from the type of sheep they were running,” he said.

“Our last chairman (Merryville Merino stud owner Wal Merriman) had huge interests in keeping mulesing above board and all it has done is stir up the animal lib people.”

He said the Australian industry was not being well-served by the influence of breeder politics on the mulesing issue. Mr Pitcher was aware of the “theory” that Merino sheep could not be run in some areas of Australia without mulesing.

“But if you get the right type of sheep you don’t need to mules.

“It was bit sad that it wasn’t mentioned about the non-mulesing process, but we’ve got a contract with them now at 1800c/kg clean even though the market is well down.”

‘Room to move’ to do more on non-mulesed wool

Merino Country owner Kerrie Richards said AWI did not ask her about her wool sourcing for the BTB article, but asked a series of questions about mask manufacture for COVID-19.

“There is a reason, because of their policy in the past, I suspect.

“I don’t think non-mulesing has been at the top of their priorities,” she said.

“But if that’s what the customer wants they should be giving them that and highlighting it, but they’ve got to be sensible about it and not every wool grower is non-mulesed.”

Ms Richard said although customers are not demanding products made from non-mulesed wool, the family stopped mulesing its sheep in the mid-90s and she believed her wool sourcing policy helped the business.

“I do understand why people are mulesing and the barriers (to non-mulesing) some people have in certain areas.”

But she said there was “definitely room to move” for AWI to do “a whole lot more with the non-mulesed thing and realising the potential marketing opportunities that non-mulesed has.”

“I guess the problem they (AWI) have got is that a lot of their money is still coming from people who are still mulesing.”

She said AWI has always allowed breeder politics to dictate its policies and marketing spend, but believed AWI should be doing more to support small Australian wool garment manufacturers, “the same way New Zealand did with Icebreaker.”

AWI not deliberately misinforming growers – McCullough

Mr McCullough said AWI does adjust its marketing campaign spend and its advice to Australian growers to address the non-mulesed wool demand trend. He rejected the suggestion that AWI is deliberately misinforming growers by not mentioning the non-mulesed wool policy of brands it collaborates with and in information to growers.

“That is not true.”

“We communicate without fear or favour in the endeavour to promote all Australian wool.”

When asked whether he saw non-mulesed wool production as a threat or an opportunity to the Australian wool industry, Mr McCullough said: “That is a decision for each grower to make, based on their individual commercial circumstances. AWI will not tell growers how to do their job.”

Mr McCullough could not specify any AWI marketing campaign that has focussed on meeting the demand for Australian non-mulesed wool, rather than promoting just Merino or wool generically.

“AWI seeks to promote all Australian wool.

“AWI has told and will continue to tell Australian growers that some fashion labels have a preference for non-mulesed wool but as you know it is not a unanimous view amongst all fashion retailers,” he said.

AWI is not agnostic on mulesing – Oppenheimer

Walcha sheep breeder Martin Oppenheimer

New South Wales non-mulesed Merino breeder and Australian Wool Growers Association director Martin Oppenheimer said it is clear that AWI’s failure to communicate honestly with growers and customers regarding demand for non-mulesed wool is resulting in lower prices and lower demand.

“Two clear examples are the long term decline in Woolmark revenue and a major exporter of Australian wool telling growers recently of an international client ordering wool from any country ‘other than Australia’.

“Australia is perceived to be a mulesing country and AWI is not “agnostic” as claimed,” he said.

“AWI are clearly not promoting non-mulesed wool production, yet despite this, production is increasing every year.

“Imagine if AWI’s levy funds were used in a positive way to increase demand?”

South Australian non-mulesed Merino breeder Andrew Michael said the debate around AWI’s position on mulesing versus non-mulesing has given no clear signals to levy payer, government, consumers and any person interested in wool.

“Research, development and marketing of any kind to do with mulesing sheep scares all organisations and for fifteen years our leader would rather be non-commital than make a statement that might upset a few people, instead of committing to RD&M in the best interest of our total sheep industry.

“Mulesing sheep is a whole of industry problem not just the wool industry,” he said.

FOUR PAWS encourages AWI to go beyond defend mulesing

FOUR PAWS Australia head of programmes Jessica Medcalf said the body has seen little from AWI in terms of their communication to growers about the demand for non-mulesed wool.

“With well over 180 brands opposing mulesing, the demand is certainly clear, and it’s only going to grow.

“We encourage AWI and all industry bodies to go beyond defending mulesing, and instead, to better facilitate an understanding of what consumers and brands desire with regards to animal welfare,” she said.

“As is recognised by AWI, consumers want values aligned products, and animal welfare is a key driving factor.

“A YouGov opinion poll done in one of Australia’s bigger wool markets the U.S. found that 42 percent of people were concerned about the welfare and treatment of animals for wool.”

HIS Australia’s program manager animal welfare Georgie Dolphin said the body would welcome AWI shifting gears to champion Australian producers, brands and retailers that are moving away from mulesing.