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CAN CASHMERE
BE SUSTAINABLE?

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As a luxury material highly featured by fast-fashion chains at surprisingly low prices, cashmere poses a sustainability dilemma. Overgrazing, animal welfare, and working conditions are issues to consider when evaluating the impact of the cashmere flood on stores in the last decades.

Words By José M. Sainz-Maza

19/04/2021

From Status To Mainstream

Goats from a mountainous region at the western end of the Himalayas are the source of one of the most valuable textile fibers: cashmere.

For centuries, shawls and other cashmere garments have been synonymous with economic and social status, given their incredibly soft touch, their durability, and the limited amount of raw material.

However, this silky fabric, whose price made it inaccessible to the general public until a few decades ago, can now be found at affordable prices in the shape of beanies, sweaters, and scarves in many stores around the world.

How does this happen? Can we be sure to be buying a sustainable product when purchasing a cashmere garment?

Cashmere is obtained by combing through the goats’ fine undercoat, which is covered by coarser outer wool to withstand the extremely cold temperatures on the high-altitude, Central Asian plateaus. Its name comes from the Kashmir region, between India and Pakistan, where these animals are originally from, although Kashmir goats are also easily found in Tibet and Nepal. Today, the world’s major cashmere-producing countries are China (specifically the Inner Mongolia region) and Mongolia, followed by others in Central and Southwest Asia such as Iran, Afghanistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Outside of Asia, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, and Italy have stood out as minor producers.

The unique characteristics of cashmere production, based on herding nomadic goats in an arid, cold region, are behind this fabric’s traditionally high price. As a matter of fact, it takes four goats to get enough raw material for one sweater. Afterward, the wool must be cleaned, refined, packaged, and transported to factories where the garments will be made, then shipped to stores. With such a supply chain, one might wonder how it is possible to find cashmere items in Europe for less than 100 euros. The answer lies in reducing costs throughout the entire process. Unsurprisingly, this has a negative impact on the environment and on the most vulnerable part of the chain, which is the herders. 

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In recent decades, cashmere production has steadily increased as the number and size of goat herds grew, while fashion companies required greater cost adjustments. The first consequence of this is the degradation of Mongolia and northern China’s grasslands, deeply affected by overgrazing and threatened by desertification. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the goat population in this Asian region has increased sevenfold over two decades, giving us an idea of the environmental impact that grazing for cashmere production has on this ecosystem. Herders are also affected by this situation, seeing the availability of fertile pastures—and their livelihood—at risk, and being underpaid as the price of raw material decreases.

Another point to consider is animal cruelty since the demand for fibers has led, in some cases, to goats being sheared before the arrival of the warmer months, causing them to freeze to death. Mongolia and Inner Mongolia often reach many degrees below zero in winter, and the shearing of Kashmir goats does not respect the animals’ natural shedding cycle as traditional combing does. Added to all this is another common problem in the fashion industry: the lack of transparency in the supply chain, which makes it difficult for consumers to be aware of these problems and make well-informed decisions.

First Steps

Faced with this situation, many ethical labels have opted for solutions such as using independent certifications or manufacturing their garments with recycled cashmere.

We can already find cases such as The Good Cashmere Standard, an initiative launched in 2019 by the Aid by Trade Foundation (AbTF) to promote and implement ethical standards in cashmere production.

Besides, other more general certifications can sometimes be found in cashmere products; standards such as GOTS, SFA, GRS, and RCS (the last two ensure that a certain garment contains a minimum amount of recycled fabrics). 

Both recycling and ethical models promoted by some brands, such as direct-to-consumer or manufacturer-to-consumer ones, thus try to reduce the amount of raw material used in garment manufacturing, increase transparency in the supply chain and reduce the negative impact of cashmere production.

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However, greenwashing practices are still common in the fashion industry, and much remains to be done to make cashmere production fully sustainable. According to the Textile Exchange Preferred Fiber & Materials Market Report 2020, only 3 percent of cashmere produced in Mongolia in 2019 (354 mt out of approximately 10,450) can be considered “sustainable cashmere ”.

The aforementioned document also indicates that more than twenty major brands have recently supported the creation of the Mongolia Sustainable Cashmere Platform (MSCP). Its purpose is to address current issues and their causes, develop a legal framework for sustainable cashmere in the country, and establish global alliances and strategic partnerships to position Mongolia internationally as a sustainable cashmere producer.

Many steps have been taken in the right direction in the last few years, but it takes the joint efforts of fashion brands, regulators, and consumers to ensure that cashmere production is free from animal abuse, environmental damage, and risks to the livelihoods of Central Asian grasslands dwellers.