IWTO’s Wool Congress in Paris in 2010

Two issues surfaced as the main concern at IWTO’s big Wool Congress outside Paris in the beginning of May: Countering the Made-By assessment where wool ends up alongside conventional cotton in the environmentally worst class and dealing with animal welfare issues.

Pulling the wool over consumers’ eyes is definitely no longer in the interest of the wool sector. Being challenged from several sides, the main message was: Change the game, and wool will have a chance to win as the raw material of the future. IWTO’s President, Günther Beier, expressed frustration over having been made the dunces in Made-By’s assessment and the organisation’s lack of willingness to reassess their benchmark-ranking. Dr. Ningtao Mao from the University of Leeds has been hired to come up with a LCA of one kilo scoured wool, and he presented some of his preliminary findings. But the issue was raised by delegates that including the user-phase and emphasizing wool’s many eco-friendly qualities would be much more pro-active and a better course of action. Not playing Made-By’s game could be a new game-plan.

Freezing spring weather was a perfect frame for discussing the future of wool, and the delegates (a flock of dark suits numbering over 200 participants) gazed longingly at the woollen underwear presented in a capsule picture-parade of the use of wool in Norway where knitted sweaters, woollen national costumes and wool long-johns are part of everyday life – or second skin so to speak. After having been presented the down-ward spiral of wool-use, more than one delegate wished the rest of the world would emulate Norway. But once animal welfare was on the agenda, the freezing conference-room quickly warmed up. A lone demonstrator from PETA who shouted “Shame on Australia” and “Stop mulesing now” elicited mixed reactions, and the IWTO admitted to being caught off guard.

Right before the demonstration, Frank Langrish from The British Wool Marketing Board mentioned having been met with reactions from organizations like PETA in relation to HRH The Prince of Wales’ Wool Campaign, and the very specific question of what was actually being done, was unavoidable. The answer from Don Hamblin President of Wool Producers Australia, on behalf of the AWI (Australian Wool Innovation), was pretty clear – though not what many delegates wanted to hear: “The sheep industry has an iconic standing in Australia. These practices have been carried out for a long time. This is a Northern hemisphere problem and our major market is in Asia. A genetic change is slow, and Australian farmers need to see the economy in such a change.”

When De Wet introduced the morning-agenda, he pointed out the current mind-shift of the consumers and how they want to feel good about what they buy. He encouraged the wool-industry to get its house in order. Since the session was organized jointly with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the European Commission (EC), Andrea Gavinelli, who is head of the Animal Welfare Unit in the latter and responsible for coordinating the animal welfare plan, opened with reminding the congress that since December 1st last year livestock is no longer defined as a commodity but as sentient beings. He reminded the audience that the consumer wants to choose welfare-friendly products, and the EC is creating a European network of reference centres.

The demand for transparency and tractability, Gavinelli stressed, along with the fact that European retailers are already using animal welfare in marketing and promotion to differentiate themselves – there will be a need for a new global set of policies, that are both clear-cut and professional. According to Harry Prinsloo, VP of NWGA, there is a 90-95 % overlap between the codes of practice in most of the sheep-growing countries, but he emphasized the need to harmonize the Best Practice codes so that they could become a useful tool. The remaining 5-10 % that do not overlap, seem to be the most problematic, themes that only 20 years ago couldn’t even have been broached in such a forum. The congress did agree to standardise a Code applicable to all countries. Daniela Battaglia, Animal Protection Officer for FAO, outlined how they are giving more explicit attention to wool, animal welfare and capacity building. She pointed to the need for the wool sector to communicate that they take this very seriously, especially in poor and developing countries. She introduced a Gateway to Farm Animal Welfare which she hoped also will be a platform for discussion, awareness-raising and consultation.

Michael C. Appleby, Chief Science Advisor for World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), underlined that the financial crisis has led to fewer consumers being willing to pay more for organic products, but the they are just as concerned as ever about human and animal welfare. While sheep producers have a tradition of caring, livestock also casts a long shadow – being responsible for 18 % of greenhouse gas emissions. He cited estimates that meat and milk-production will double by 2050, and it has been seriously discussed whether moving all livestock inside to capture the methane or cutting back 70% of sheep and cattle production could be viable solutions. He reiterated what was repeated often during congress: “Be proactive, don’t just react.”

Amongst some very technical presentations where microns and spin cycles, market trends and green house emissions spun out from power-point presentations – perhaps the most forward-thinking part of the congress was a presentation of the cooperation between the IWTO and New Zealand’s Pureland, where they had invited eleven of the world’s leading architects to “think outside the box” on how to use wool in new and innovative ways in buildings and interiors. Since the project had not yet published, we were only privy to some of their ideas, but from the few things we did see – wool may very well be the next wood.

The congress did agree to standardise a Code applicable to all countries. The available standards/codes of best practices from all member countries will be combined into one document by André Strydom, CEO of Cape Wools South Africa, which will result in a "draft 1". This “draft 1” will then be circulated to all national committees by IWTO for comment and inputs. Then IWTO/Forum will engage FAO, EU and interested NGO's to make inputs, so that a final “one size fits all” standard can be developed. According to the IWTO, they will work as quickly as possible to keep ahead of the flock, but since many grower-countries do not have a local set of rules and regulations, the hearings may take time. The plan is to have “draft 1” ready by November 2010, when the IWTO meet in Biella, Italy. The EU standards are just now being collected by André Strydom, while the UK, South African, New Zealand and Australian codes are already in place. The President of the IWTO, Günther Beier, has issued the following statement as a summary: “National codes of best practise will be analysed then merged into a global code of best practise for wool in all IWTO countries involved. A neutral body is to run this process with the assistance of FAO and EC. The current welfare quality project of the EU on farm animal can be used as example.”