That time of year is creeping closer. When it’s legit to drink gingerbread lattes, eat carbs morning, noon and night, and trade that summer slip dress for being wrapped in the finest of fabrics; cashmere if you’re lucky.
Once a luxury, it’s now commonplace to see cashmere garments from scarves to jumpers to jogging bottoms now sold everywhere from luxury brands to high street store and even supermarket chains. “What’s the big deal?,” you might ask. Cashmere is no longer only reserved for the well-off but for everyone now, so that’s got to be fair, right? Wrong.
Like fashion, cheap cashmere comes at a price. So, if it’s not the consumer fronting the costs, someone or something else is.
Cashmere is one of the rarest natural fibres in the world. The fine, warm hair grown on a type of goat that resides in the Gobi Desert, which stretches from Northern China into Mongolia. Beneath the animals’ coarse hair lies an undercoat of superfine fibres concentrated on the underbelly. In May and June, when the goats molt, local workers comb the belly hair, sort it by hand, and send it to a dehairing facility (usually in China) to be cleaned and refined. Each goat produces maybe three or four ounces of cashmere. That’s enough for between a third and a half of a sweater, whereas an ordinary sheep provides three or four sweaters. You can start to see why those luxury pyjamas will retail for £500. Once cleaned, the cashmere is then baled and delivered to Europe, where it’s spun into fine yarn and sold to designers for roughly $114 a pound.
Image courtesy: Mongolian Goat Herdspeople | NPR
The amount of wool each goat grows and its quality though are “highly dependent” on the surrounding temperature. Colder is better, which means as temperatures rise, luxury brands—and consumers—will likely see “reduced quality.” However, surprisingly harsh weather and drought have already led to the deaths of millions of goats in recent years. As Mongolia produces a third of the global supply, and cashmere makes up 40% of the country’s non-mineral exports, Mongolian herders have increased their flocks to compensate for such volatility, with overgrazing quickly eroding the grasslands where they live. The result is undernourished goats with coarser hairs.
65% of Mongolia’s grasslands have been degraded due to overgrazing of cashmere goats and to climate change. The climate change has led to a 4-degree Fahrenheit rise in average temperature in Mongolia, outpacing the rest of the world by three degrees.
“Today, Mongolian rangeland is at a crossroads,” says Bulgamaa Densambuu, a researcher for the Swiss-funded Green-Gold project. Her organisation focuses on preventing overgrazing of Mongolia’s grasslands, which Densambuu calls “rangeland.””Ninety percent of this total degraded rangelands can be recovered naturally within 10 years if we can change existing management,” she says. “But if we can’t change the existing management today, it will be too late after five to 10 years.”
Trouble is, these goat herders in Inner Mongolia are shortchanged, selling their goat hair for as little as $2.30 a kilo. By the time it reaches the international market it can fetch up to $75 a kilo. And no longer are coats always combed to release the best-quality cashmere hair, but the animals are sheared, mixing the soft with the coarse. These changes conspire to change cashmere. It’s growing coarser and thus losing its USP. It can now take the combed hair of five goats and a year of growing to make a top-quality cashmere sweater. That’s not the sort of time frame that suits a global commodity (which cashmere has become).
Image courtesy: Lkhagvajav Bish’s herd of cashmere goats feed on the winter grass in a valley in northeastern Mongolia. The goats’ sharp hooves cut through the soil surface, and their eating habits — voraciously ripping up plants by their roots — prevent the grassland from thriving. Rob Schmitz / NPR
With 90% of Mongolia now fragile dry-land, it is under increasing threat of desertification (according to the United Nations Development Programme). In fact, as a result Mongolia and Inner Mongolia has actually suffered a cashmere shortage for the last 50 years, with this obviously having an impact on local communities, the animals themselves and the environment.
More recently though, most of the global cashmere output is coming from China, where producers are increasingly blending different qualities of cashmere to achieve volume. This is easy to understand when you consider the “democratisation” of the fashion industry has led to a huge amount of affordable, casual cashmere hitting the high street. Whereas luxury labels are a lot more picky in their sourcing, centring on Mongolia and Inner Mongolia, using only the finer, whiter fibres.
However, with demand for cashmere souring, a change in production has occurred which has placed great strain on the system and continues the vicious cycle. It’s not rocket science. More goats means more grazing. More grazing means the grassland is never given a chance to restore, further plunging it into a state of degradation. The result is malnourished goats which produce coarser hair, which is obviously less desirable and leads to a shrink in the supply of high quality cashmere.
Availability will be jeopardised leading to an increase in cost, as well as poor products undermining the very notion of luxury, as highlighted in a report drafted by luxury group Kering and BSR (a nonprofit consultancy that helps companies with their sustainability) which singled out cashmere, as well as cotton, and others.
So, how do high street brand such as Uniqlo supply genuine 100% cashmere sweaters in 25 colours for £60 a pop? Partly because they leverage huge buying power, as they point out. Yet, other than that it’s difficult to add much detail because, unlike Johnstons of Elgin, which still process cashmere in Scotland and follows its supply chain direct to herdsmen in Inner Mongolia, Uniqlo’s business model distances the producer from the product. Its cashmere story, which has fuelled the brand’s global expansion, omits goats and desertification and doesn’t explain how this extraordinary raw fibre will be protected in the future.
“There’s been an absolute avalanche of people wanting more and more cashmere, and pushing the price, pushing the supply chain,” says James Sugden OBE, a director of luxury cashmere clothing label, Brora, and former managing director of Scottish woollen mill, Johnstons of Elgin. “It has created a problem, in so much as in some areas, some growers, tempted by higher volumes have gone for volume rather than quality.”
Image courtesy: Brora collaborates with Eudon Choi
Quantity over quality has never been so glaringly apparent. And with rising temperatures, this will create another level of strain.
With luxury brands feeling the strain of sourcing high quality cashmere, and high street brands compounding this through their insatiable appetite for affordable cashmere, the problem can only get worse. It’s a raw material and it’s running out. To fix this, brands large and small, luxury and bulk buyers, need to realise they have to care as much for the people at the bottom of their supply chain as much as they do for those at the top, otherwise everybody suffers.
“Desertification also exacerbates economic hardship for herders and drives them into poverty and displacement to urban slums,” says Una Jones, chief executive officer of the Sustainable Fibre Alliance (SFA), which was formed in 2015 to unite companies, governments and NGOs to tackle sustainability issues in the cashmere industry, by establishing the first Sustainable Cashmere Standard, piloted in 2016.
This is the stark reality behind the cashmere industry. So, what can consumers do to alleviate the strain? Be more mindful where you buy that cashmere sweater from and ensure you are paying a fair price from a responsible retailer for your cashmere mixed joggers. Those that are initiating market demand for fair, sustainable cashmere, if we want to see a widespread industry change.