AUSTRALIAN wool growers are being ''ripped off'' an estimated $64 million a year by counterfeit inferior products marked with the globally recognised Woolmark label.
Australian Wool Innovation, which owns the trademark and licenses its use, has been involved in 44 counterfeit cases this year compared with 12 in 2010. Two have been in court this year, and legal action has been taken in 12 more disputes.
AWI has found that most infringements are in China and southern Europe.
In recent years it has invested heavily in promoting the label, which guarantees the Australian wool is high quality. It has commissioned the Australian photographer Anne Geddes, world-renowned for her pictures of babies, to photograph them nestling in cradles of wool.
And now the body is fighting back against counterfeit products with the introduction of high-tech identification labels - Near Field Communication - that use chips that can be identified by a smartphone app. The chip is usually on the washing instructions label. Washing labels on some products will also be marked with nano markers, dots the diameter of a human hair that show a Woolmark hologram through a magnifying glass.
AWI's chief executive, Stuart McCullough, said: ''We know we are getting ripped off and we know that our brand is being used out there illegally. In one court case won by the AWI a company had even painted the logo on the front of its building. It's not like they were putting it on a handkerchief.
''We are very touchy about it because in the '90s every physical asset the Australian wool industry had was sold. The Woolmark is one of the few we have left; it is a wonderful asset and it is certainly worth protecting and we will protect it vigorously.''
In January a Queensland manufacturer, Gold Coast Wool, had to pay a $6600 penalty for contravening consumer laws. Tests found wool doonas and underlays sold mainly to Asian tourists contained 42 per cent polyester. The Woolmark logo was falsely used.
Global wool retail apparel sales equate to about $80 billion a year. It is estimated that 8 per cent of this is marked with the Woolmark logo. The AWI says about 1 per cent of that ($64 million a year) involves counterfeit and illegal use of the logo.