‘World-first’ Sheep Sustainability Framework launched in Australia

Sheep industry ‘will not shy away’ from questions over sustainability as regular performance benchmarks will be established to monitor progress.

Australia’s sheep industry has launched a sustainability framework, dubbed a ‘world-first’ that will help create greater transparency for investors and consumers.

The Australian Sheep Sustainability Framework was published last week by the industry’s two leading trade bodies: Sheep Producers Australia, which represents sheep meat producers, and WoolProducers Australia, which represents wool producers.

It contains 21 priorities across four themes: caring for sheep, centred around responsible management of livestock; enhancing the environment; looking after people, customers, and the community; and ensuring financial resilience.

Australian Sheep Sustainability Framework Steering Group chair Bruce Allworth, a producer of wool and fine lamb, told Agri Investor the framework was produced to help enable the industry to better meet the expectations of stakeholders and consumers.

“We’re recognizing the importance that sustainability plays for both our customers and our service providers,” he said. “This will allow the sheep industry to showcase where we are doing well, but also to identify opportunities where we can improve.

“I would love to suggest that we’re a perfect industry, but I don’t think such a thing exists. The framework will allow people to monitor our performance and provide feedback on how we are doing against their expectations, not just our own expectations.”

Allworth said he was “very comfortable” that the Australian sheep industry was already a sustainable one, but said the framework allow for increased transparency and to open new conversations about best practice.

“Of course, it comes with the risk that, as we present what we do, people may judge us more harshly than we think they should. But that [ESG] risk is so important for us to acknowledge […] so we’re really looking forward to that engagement,” he said.

“It’s about having conversations – the framework is not a policy instrument, but our belief is that with more robust metrics we can have more pertinent conversations that are likely to lead to policy changes in the areas that people see as important.”

Further development

Not all the framework’s 60 metrics have yet been fully developed, but Allworth said that the initial report has around 55 percent of its baseline metrics in place.

Allworth cited two metrics: approximately 67 percent of Merino lambs are mulesed, and that approximately 87 percent of those lambs were given pain relief during the mulesing process. Mulesing, a response to the major livestock welfare issue of flystrike, is nevertheless seen as a controversial practice by some and the amount of wool sold from non-mulesed sheep is steadily rising.

“[The 86 percent] figure is very high for a non-legislated activity, and these are the types of issues that our customers are talking about, so they are the sorts of things we will be reporting on,” Allworth said. “We’re not shying away from these issues.”

Among its financial resilience metrics, the framework will track the value of the industry’s production and thus its contribution to the Australian economy. The baseline figures, from 2019, showed that the gross value of sheep meat production was A$4.2 billion ($3.3 billion; €2.7 billion) and the gross value of wool production was A$4.4 billion.

The Sheep Sustainability Framework is intended to be a living document, with regular reporting updates. The first report with figures for all 60 metrics in place is likely to be published in around 13-14 months.

The framework follows similar initiatives launched by the beef and dairy industries in recent years, as both try to increase transparency and maintain access to capital from ESG-minded investors.