Wool producers need to make sure they're squeaky clean environmentally and above reproach in their treatment of stock if they want their product to be welcomed in international markets, says New Zealand Merino global partnerships manager Dave Maslen.
"One little scandal, one little skeleton in the closet, one little indiscretion can have an impact on 399 other growers and all of the retail brands as well," Maslen told growers at the Designer Genes Field Day in Amberley, North Canterbury.
"The key for us is to be absolutely vigilant, to be absolutely clear about what our market is asking for, what our market is valuing and what we're providing,"
Recently released undercover video by animal rights campaigners Peta, showing Australian shearers cruelly mistreating sheep, is the sort of publicity that can cause serious damage in markets, he said.
"It's really critical for our brands that we're able to respond to that very proactively to protect their reputation and give them confidence. When they're talking to their customers, they can say, 'hey, we don't tolerate this sort of behaviour and we've got systems in place and can demonstrate that'."
Maslen said Peta, with an annual budget of $30 million, Greenpeace ($441m) World Wildlife Fund ($295m) and The Nature Conservancy ($662m) had to be taken seriously.
"These are businesses, they're NGOs, they're not-for-profits but they're businesses and if you read their annual plan their job is to make, say, $441m this year, $451m next year and so on.
"Like any other business, they trade in something. Businesses trade in goods or services, these guys trade in headlines so the more headlines that they can generate and the more readers they get, the more eyeballs they get on those headlines, the more income they generate because people are going to be willing to donate to them.
"To create headlines, you have to find scandal, you find things that you think is going to outrage somebody."
Greenpeace has eight global campaigns running at present, Maslin said, including one called "green-washing", that targets brands telling stories about environmental performance that can't be substantiated.
He said New Zealand Merino's ZQ quality assurance programme, audited by Assure Quality, gave comfort to global partners who were conscious of what an attack by an environmental organisation could do to their business.
"These brands that are looking for protection of their reputation - they're looking for labels, for systems that they can apply to protect it. They can say we're squeaky clean because we've got this standard."
"That's why ZQ and the programme that we run and the auditing and all the rest of it, while it might be a hassle, is so critical to what we do because, frankly, truth when it comes to this is the only option. Reputation is one of our core value offerings and a breach of the trust can be terminal."
The industry is responding to the threats posed by environmental and animal welfare critics and Maslen is on the steering committee developing the wool exchange's ethical wool sourcing standard to give brands a set of guidelines about how to source ethical wool.
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, that represents 40 per cent of the world's apparel and footwear turnover, is working on tools for product designers and developers to assess the environmental footprint of the product that they're creating.
"For example, a down jacket - they plug in nylon, down, YKK zips and this, that and the other thing - what's our environmental score? Wool has an incredibly low score at the moment because there's not a lot of information out there yet so we're working incredibly hard, we're running a big project with Smart Wool, to generate that data to feed it in."
The industry had to respond to a changing market where claiming sustainability was no longer enough to satisfy consumers, Maslen said.
"What we're seeing now is a move away from sustainability towards something we call 'restorative', saying, 'actually just sustaining where we're at today isn't going to sustain the needs of future generations. We actually need to start putting things back into the earth, we need to start improving things rather than just leaving them as they are'."