Sector needs pride and purpose to progress value-adding opportunities for wool

Collaborative approach needed to advance domestic wool processing

Wool
A call has gone out to wool industry stakeholders across Australia to work together in investigating processing investment opportunities, market segments and ways to ensure long-term grower engagement.

A call has gone out to wool industry stakeholders across Australia to work together in investigating processing investment opportunities, market segments and ways to ensure long-term grower engagement.

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Australia's wool industry gets a 'shout-out' to unite and explore onshore processing potential.

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For many Tasmanian woolgrowers who visited China last December to launch Roberts Ltd's collaborative marketing brand, Natural Tasmanian Wool, visiting leading wool processing mills was a real eye-opener.

While listening to multiple calls this week for Australia to 're-explore' domestic-based wool processing, it is a great time to reflect on our key learnings from that week-long Tasmanian Government Trade Mission tour of mills.

Firstly, I am a huge supporter of reviving our wool manufacturing industry, creating jobs, value adding to our precious fibre and reducing our reliance on external parties along the supply chain.

But to move forward, we need an all-of-industry approach from the sheep-to-shop.

Our industry has evolved significantly since 1849, when Australia sold more wool into England than the whole of Europe combined.

Australia was the world's biggest wool producer by 1870 and when you look back to the early days, farmers used to wash their sheep before shearing by running them through streams and dunking them in tubs of soapy water.

This primitive washing removed some of the grease, dirt, seed and burrs - prior to steam engines being introduced to power wool scouring works.

Fast forward to the 1990s, and there were about 26 wool processing facilities in Australia. Today there are three.

Also, there were more than 172 million sheep grazing Australian pastures at the end of the 1980s. This dropped to 98 million in 2008 due to drought and tough economic conditions.

Today we have about 68 million sheep being shorn nationally.

As well as fewer sheep and the high cost of labor, tighter environmental controls also impacted on early stage processing capacity in Australia.

Consumers say they will pay more for locally scoured, spun and woven garments. But how much more?

In terms of quality, the fabrics we inspected in Chinese mills during our tour were exquisite.

One factory, for example, had invested tens of millions of dollars in spinning technology only four years ago and was preparing to replace these machines within 12 months. This reflects its high level of confidence in the future of the wool sector.

When you look at the level of investment and innovation in fibre mills around Shanghai, and the fact that the big domestic workforce enables these mills to remain cost competitive in a global market, can we realistically compete?

These questions must be answered.

There has never been a more important time for government, growers, buyers, processors and retailers to unite in Australia to review the potential for domestic wool processing.

We don't want a report written about this that will then sit on a shelf and accumulate dust.

This is about practical and meaningful round-table discussions to determine the best possible path forward for a proud and purposeful industry.

There is no doubt that we produce some of the world's best wool.

We need to be prepared to invest, we need to better understand market segmentation, we need authentic leadership and we need to ensure that our growers are engaged in this process.

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