December 15, 2004 | Graham

Woolie thinking on wool

What’s the problem with the wool industry? Two competing theories have run in the papers over the last two days. An opinion piece (subscribers only, so no link) in yesterday’s Fin Review by the former communications manager of the Australian Wool Corporation essentially claims it’s a lack of promotion by a central marketing authority. The solution? A marketing strategy.
In today’s Australian an article indirectly fingers mulesing – a practice that has led to PETA organising a ban on Australian wool by some international fashion houses. Mulesing involves cutting the wool and skin, without anaesthetic, from around the backside of sheep to prevent fly-strike. The solution? Genetic engineering to stop the blow-fly using proteins produced by the sheep.
Somehow I think both diagnoses are wrong, and both solutions at best partial, and one at worst a mercenary pitch for a scientific grant.
The articles however bring together a few themes currently circulating around our civil conversations. One is “conspicuous compassion“. PETA would have to be a prime example. It is an organisation that wants us all to become vegetarians, which is quite happy to harness the energies of those who can afford to wear wool to further its agenda by playing on their guilt at a level which essentially costs them nothing. Nice work when you can get it.
Mulesing is a pretty savage practice, but at least it saves the beast from dying of fly strike. PETA obviously doesn’t mind carnivores, just as long as they only scavenge dead carcasses and are not human.
At the same time we have a genetic researcher pitching a fairly speculative scenario as the recipe for rescuing the industry. According to the AFR article, volumes of wool exports have halved since centralised marketing to 500 million kilograms, and the value of the clip has fallen from $6 billion to $3.5 b. Australian Wool Innovation has provided the researcher with a $1.4 million grant. So, this is a good example of scientific boosterism – a practice which is worrying the science community. Its fear is that science is becoming degraded by scientists lending themselves to public relations exercises where the potential for success is exaggerated in an attempt to secure funding and public support, but with a tendency to bring science into disrepute and rob more worthwhile projects of funding if the projected results don’t occur.
The technique generally consists of piggy-backing off a real or potential catastrophe. Greenhouse is the most commonly used one, but fly-strike will obviously do instead. Come to think of it, some scientist may need to manipulate the genes of sheep to make them less aquaeous as well, just to deal with the droughts that Greenhouse will bring! So I’ve found another opening.
The marketing man’s pitch is an example of disingenuous disinformation. He volunteers that the price of wool has fallen from 1200 cents a kilo to 700, making you think that the fall in the value of the wool clip is due to a decrease in price and volume. But when you do the sums you realise that peak production of $6 billion with 1000 million kilograms of wool equals a price of only 600 cents a kilo. In other words, wool is now more expensive than it was at its absolute peak as an export earner.
He also forgets to mention that when wool was at its export earning peak it was being sold not via a sophisticated marketing programme to foreigners, but by an entrenched scam on wool producers. France might have its wine and cheese lakes, but we had a fleece mountain, the maintenance of which almost sent the industry broke!
I’m not an expert in this industry, but my guess is its greatest threat actually comes from other fibres. It’s a commodity that can only really be priced on the basis of supply and demand. Neither genetic engineering, nor marketing programmes will change that, and product boycotts by upmarket clothing retailers will have only marginal effect as well.

Posted by Graham at 1:46 pm | Comments Off on Woolie thinking on wool |
Filed under: Australian Politics

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