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The Truth about Cashmere

Team Zady

Woven into the soft luxury of a cashmere sweater is a harsh tale involving climate change, capitalism and consumption. As we think more and more about how our clothes affect the planet and the people we share it with, the story of cashmere offers a lesson on the far-reaching impacts of our sartorial selections.

What is cashmere?

Cashmere is a natural, animal-based fiber obtained from the hair of cashmere goats. While it’s often referred to as cashmere wool, cashmere is actually hair. Cashmere is known for its superior softness, strength, and great insulation—it is about eight times softer and warmer than sheep’s wool. [1] Greatness takes time—and in this case, it takes a goat four years to produce enough cashmere for a single sweater. [2]

China is the world’s top producer of cashmere, followed by Mongolia. [3] Cashmere is also produced in smaller quantities in Australia, India, Iran, Pakistan, New Zealand, Turkey, and the US. Annual output is estimated to be between 16,500 and 22,000 tons of coarse cashmere hair per year, with roughly 11,000 of that coming from China and 7,400 from Mongolia. [4] The world’s total output of cashmere, after scouring and dehairing, which involves the removal of grease and vegetable matter from the fibers, results in around 7,000 tons of pure cashmere annually. [5]

History

The earliest use of cashmere dates back to the 14th century, when it was discovered in the Kashmiri region of the Himalayas, which gave the fiber its name. Today, the world’s best cashmere still comes from goats raised in the cold, mountainous plateaus of Asia, specifically those in Mongolia. [6]

For centuries, Mongolian nomads have been raising livestock in the country’s harsh desert terrain, which is characterized by short, hot summers and long, bitterly cold winters. In the late 18th century, cashmere arrived in Europe, and it very quickly became the subject of adoration by society women in England and France, who praised its softness and warmth. [7]

In early 1920s, Mongolia entered a period of socialist rule, [8] which lasted until 1990, at the time of the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Since then, Mongolia has been democracy. While these political transitions are important in their own right, they also carried important implications for the development of the Mongolian cashmere industry. Under socialism, goats were farmed in a tightly controlled system of pastoral collectives set up in the 1940s and 1950s. [9] During this time, the size of the herds and the access to pastures were regulated by the state. Farmers also received aid from the socialist government in the form of animal feed, help maintaining farming infrastructure, and assistance with transportation, among other things. [10]

With the introduction of capitalism, the Mongolian government ended its system of pastoral collectives and established privatized farming based on the principles of a free market. Assistance to farmers was abruptly ended, leaving them to scramble for income to meet needs previously covered by the state. These economic pressures led Mongolian nomads to vastly increase the size of their goat herds, from nearly 5 million in 1990 to almost 20 million in 2009. [11] The production of cashmere fiber was the primary driver behind these increased herd sizes. “The reliance on cashmere is a market-driven phenomenon that first gained momentum after communism’s collapse in 1991. Cut off from milk and meat buyers in the former Soviet Union, the herders turned to raising cashmere as one of the only profitable activities available.” [12]

The environmental and social cost of cashmere

On face value, it might seem that the increased population of goats would have lead to economic prosperity for Mongolian farmers. In reality, it has contributed to a massive environmental problem that threatens their very existence. To understand why, we must first consider a characteristic of goats that may seem obscure, but is significant—how they eat.

Like sheep, alpaca, and cows, goats are ruminant animals that survive by eating grass, also known as grazing. However, unlike sheep and alpaca, which graze only the top of grass, goats pull the grass from the root. In pulling at the root, goats prevent grasses from quickly growing back. Under socialism, the controlled size of the country’s goat herds meant that the land could provide enough grass for the goats to eat, without depleting pastures. After the introduction of capitalism, the steep growth in the goat population led to a situation in which grasses were grazed too heavily, without giving them time to recover. This is a phenomenon known as overgrazing. When lands are overgrazed, significant damage is inflicted on the soil. Soils that are grazed too heavily lose nutritional content and biodiversity, and lose their ability to retain water and absorb carbon, all of which are key functions of healthy soil.

When soils lose their ability to hold water, this is referred to as desertification, which is literally the transformation of healthy land into desert. Desertification is accompanied by a loss of vegetation, wildlife, and biodiversity. In the last 70 years, temperatures in Mongolia have risen by almost 4 degrees Fahrenheit. Over the past 15 years, Mongolia has experienced a 30% decline in surface water. The United Nations Environmental Programme has reported that 90% of Mongolia is at risk of becoming a desert. [13]

Because the Mongolian cashmere boom isn’t happening in isolation, scientists have been debating whether it is possible that the desertification of Mongolia is the result of overgrazing or climate change, or both. In 2013, a key study provided evidence that 80% of the land degradation “could be attributed to increase in livestock,” concluding “that the cumulative effect of overgrazing is a primary contributor to the degradation of the Mongolian steppe and is at least partially responsible for desertification reported in previous studies.” [14]

Alternatives

Clearly, current cashmere production practices in Mongolia are unsustainable, threatening the well being of the land and the people who live so close to it. When it comes to thinking about our next cashmere purchase, how can we make responsible decisions that account for this deteriorating environmental reality? Here are a few things to consider:

  • Skip cashmere altogether, opting for a more sustainable fiber like alpaca.

Until Mongolian herders are able to repair the land, stay warm by wearing alternative fibers. Alpaca, for example, is extremely gentle on the environment. Wool is also less taxing on the environment than cashmere.

  • Buy vintage cashmere.

Snuggle up to second-hand cashmere. Your vintage cashmere will certainly help you keep a clean conscience. But you’ll be surprised to know that it will offer a second benefit—it will be softer than any cashmere available on the market today. The growth of the herd size over the last twenty years also resulted in a deterioration in the quality of the fiber, because farmers mixed their breeds to rapidly increase the number of goats. Today’s best, most expensive cashmere won’t have the softness of the cashmere available 30 or 40 years ago.

References:

  1. Globalization of the Cashmere Industry in Mongolia
  2. Is Cashmere Sustainable?
  3. Natural Fibres: Cashmere
  4. Blunden, J. (2014). Mongolia. Bradt Travel Guides. pg. 55
  5. Natural Fibres: Cashmere
  6. Blunden, J. (2014). Mongolia. Bradt Travel Guides. pg. 55
  7. The History Of… Cashmere: The golden fleece
  8. Mongolia: History
  9. The - best place - last: As Mongolia shows, nomadic pastoralism and private land just don’t mix
  10. The - best place - last: As Mongolia shows, nomadic pastoralism and private land just don’t mix
  11. Mongolia: Herders Caught Between Cashmere and Climate Change
  12. Mongolia: Herders Caught Between Cashmere and Climate Change
  13. Mongolia: Herders Caught Between Cashmere and Climate Change
  14. Satellite observed widespread decline in Mongolian grasslands largely due to overgrazing
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