Cashmere is a natural fabric, meaning its biodegradable, which is better than most synthetic fabrics, but we now know the environmental and social impacts it can have. So, our recommendation is to buy recycled or reused cashmere.
Cashmere doesn’t come from sheep, but from goats. Although the soft fibre can be taken from any type of goat, there is that one nomadic breed that produces hair fine enough. This breed is found between Mongolia, Southwest China, Iran, Tibet, Northern India and Afghanistan.
These goats have very little fat to protect them in the winter from the cold arid plains, so they develop soft, fleecy fibres underneath their coat, on the underbelly. These hairs are what makes cashmere.
When the temperatures rise, the goats naturally shed their coats. That’s when producers comb out the fine hair, sort it by hand, send it to facilities to be cleaned, refined, baled and shipped to Europe, where they’re sold to companies.
Because of the rarity of the material (it takes four goats to produce enough hair to make one sweater), cashmere was initially expensive. It’s something you invested in and passed on to your children and grandchildren, the fabric getting softer with time.
But these days, with the advent of fast fashion (her again?), it’s become easy to find cashmere beanies, scarfs and crewnecks at very competitive prices.But as always with fast fashion, when you get a low price, someone or something is paying, somewhere.
Goats are the first to pay the price of cheap cashmere production. As they have very little fat, shearing them too early mid-winter means they can freeze to death.
The grasslands of the Asian regions where the goats roam are also suffering. The increase in demand for cashmere came with the pressure to lower cost, and so a decrease in the price of the raw material. Herders now need more goats to produce the same amount of cashmere. More goats mean more mouths to feed and overpopulation is killing these lands: once green and unspoilt, these regions are quickly becoming deserts. This does not only affect these specific regions but creates an ecological imbalance for the planet.
With concerns about climate change at the forefront of everyone’s minds these days, it is important to recognise the devastating effect cashmere production can have on the planet. In recent years, there has been an increase in the phenomenon unique to Mongolia known as a dzud. Basically, this is when a summer drought is followed by very cold and snowy winter. Not only does this impact quality of cashmere, but also causes the deaths of large swaths of the goats. Mongolian herders have been increasing the size of their herds, which in turn degrades the land even further.
Cashmere production can also have a social impact. There’s a growing concern regarding the working conditions of cashmere goat herders, who have to handle the burden of continuously growing herds. Plus, we know that the fashion supply chain lacks transparency, and the cashmere industry is no exception. With the lowing costs of cashmere, farmers also face the risk of being underpaid, a common issue in fashion.