Cashmere wool, though soft on the skin, can be harsh on the environments where they are produced. Stories about herders and cashmere goats are often obscured by the ubiquitous presence of cashmere in the storefronts of renowned fashion brands. Read more to find out about its origins in the steppes of Eurasia.
Several months ago when the weather was still cold in Hong Kong, I stepped into a Uniqlo store in search of some winter wear. Not looking for anything in particular, I ran my fingers across sweaters and cardigans with tags printed ‘100% Cashmere this and cashmere that’. Besides its soft texture, I had not taken an interest in this material until I came across a chapter in Inconspicuous Consumption by Tatiana Schlossberg.
Cashmere is a fabric known for being soft and silky with good insulation. Historically, it has been used by peoples of the Eurasian Steppes to make garments such as the Russian Orenburg Shawl. It is said that the fine Orenburg Shawl can fit inside a goose egg or be drawn through a wedding ring.
Thanks to fast fashion and industrialized knitting, cashmere has become a mass-market consumer good. Before picking up cashmere products, let us take a look at some of the environmental and social costs.
Here is a short history lesson. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to the privatization of industry in Mongolia, meaning the state no longer has control of the price of goats, cashmere or people’s wages. Since then, herders have bred and brought in more goats to make a livelihood from cashmere production.
Around the same time, China was opening up to the West, leading to a spike in industrial production particularly in the garment industry. Workers flooded into Inner Mongolia and areas with high grasslands to raise livestock and work in factories. To this day, China and Mongolia produce the bulk of the world’s cashmere, though top-quality cashmere is becoming rarer by the day.
Having an abundant supply of cashmere goats in these grasslands is a double-edged sword. On one hand, herders are able to sustain their livelihoods by producing a valued commodity in the global fashion industry. Cashmere production is Mongolia’s third largest export behind copper and gold and is a major source of income for both nomadic herders and factory workers.
However, these goats tend to eat entire plant stalks when grazing, while their sharp hooves uproot plants when they walk, plucking grass from the earth just by eating and moving around. Their movement destabilizes soil structure and makes it hard to retain moisture while strong winds whip up sand across the grasslands. On top of that, climate change worsens desertification by bringing intense storms and severe droughts, making the environment even harsher for plants to grow.
Shrinking grasslands mean goats have less access to healthy grass hence the quality of their wool drops. In turn, herders breed more goats, grasslands continue to deteriorate, and the carrying capacity of the ecosystem decreases. To put it into perspective, goat numbers have increased fourfold from seven million in 1999 to 27 million in 2019. This puts more pressure on grassland habitats as there is not enough grass to go around for the hooves that abound. Another problem herders face is patchy access to global markets because a lot of raw cashmere is sold to brokers who then mix it with other types of lower-quality wool.
On the bright side, companies and governments have been working together to tackle these issues. Empowering locals by increasing their participation in other parts of cashmere production has lessened their reliance on herding as a means of living.
GOBI, a cashmere manufacturer founded in 1981, has been working with the Mongolian government and the United Nations Development Programmer's (UNDP) Sustainable Cashmere Platform to facilitate projects on sustainable cashmere production from improving herding practices to developing ethical partnerships. This also helps to preserve local know-how since herders are taught regenerative methods of livestock rearing, rather than solely trying to raise production quantity.
An alternative to cashmere is to use Khullu wool from the Khangai Yak indigenous to Western Mongolia. Yak wool may soften the impact on the environment because yaks do not uproot plant stalks while grazing on grasslands. Yak wool is soft, lightweight, and provides insulation, the very qualities of cashmere. Much like yaks, the two-humped Bactrian camel, native to Eastern and Central Asia, also produces fine wool that can be combed away during the molting season.
While these fibers share similar properties with cashmere, they are most commonly used by nomadic herders to make yurts and traditional clothing. In international markets, most of these ethically produced fibers are used in the high-end fashion industry sold by brands like GOBI and Norlha. This is not to say that ethical high-end fashion is the sole solution, but it helps move the needle towards ethical consumption by providing a blueprint for a more sustainable direction moving forward.
Average consumers may not consider expensive brands in the name of ethical consumption, but we can do our part by shopping and caring for clothing with the idea of circular fashion in mind, as explained in this quote:
Circular fashion can be defined as clothes, shoes or accessories that are designed, sourced, produced, and provided with the intention to be used and circulate responsibly and effectively in society for as long as possible in their most valuable form, and hereafter return safely to the biosphere when no longer of human use.’ - Anna Brismar, founder of Green Strategy.
To put it in another way, the entire life cycle of a piece of clothing stretches far beyond the storefront, a wardrobe, and a donation box. Our cashmere consumption patterns over the years have directly altered ecosystems in the grasslands of Mongolia and Central Asia.
When you consider a new cashmere product to add to your wardrobe, you might want to picture where it came from and where it would end up. If you already own cashmere products, click here for tips on how to wash, dry, and store them to increase their longevity.
Just remember it never goes out of style to be a conscious consumer.
Written by: David Leung
Edited by: Lorraine Ng