Is Cashmere Sustainable?

Australian cashmere goats, ©Paul Esson

Welcome back to All ’Bout Commodities (ABC), a recurring feature in which we explore how our lives are benefited by the resources that come from Asia-Pacific — and how our actions affect people, wildlife and habitats that lie half a world away.

In this installment of ABC, we examine a fabric that, as warmer weather beckons, you might be packing away in the closet. That’s right — we’re taking a look at cashmere, that winsome wool that keeps you warm in winter. Where does it come from? How does it end up in our closets? And what is the Conservancy doing to help make its production more sustainable?

What it is: Cashmere is a high-quality wool that comes from cashmere goats and must adhere to certain stringent requirements. It’s strong, light and highly insulating.

Where it grows: On the necks and bellies of goats, of course. There are many breeds of cashmere goats; these breeds all produce a downy undercoat of fur that, once separated from a coarse outer coat of guard hair, can be processed, dyed and turned into what we call cashmere. The word “cashmere” comes from Kashmir, the northwestern region of the Indian subcontinent that once exported enormous amounts of wool.

How we use it: Unless you’re going a highly unconventional route, you’re probably wearing it, either as a scarf or a sweater or maybe even a hat.

Who’s growing it: China boasts the world’s largest output of cashmere; with well over 100 million goats, it produces roughly 10,000 tons each year. For its part, Mongolia produces around 3,000 tons each year (although much of this cashmere is smuggled illegally into China, where it’s then exported to world markets). Australia is also home to a sizable population of cashmere goats.

Who’s consuming it: Europe is widely regarded to be the world’s foremost processor of cashmere — much of the raw fabric is exported to countries like Italy and Scotland, where it’s converted into clothing sold around the world.

Four things you (maybe) didn’t know about cashmere:

  • Herders in Nepal and Kashmir have been making cashmere shawls — perhaps better known as pashminas — for literally thousands of years.
  • Cashmere is roughly eight times warmer than sheep’s wool.
  • A cashmere goat produces about a pound of fiber per year — and of that pound, roughly 3-4 ounces becomes usable cashmere. That means that it would take a cashmere goat roughly four years to produce enough material to make a full sweater.
  • It’s thought that goats raised in harsher climates create better cashmere, as they require a thicker coat to stay warm through bitter winters.

So what: Over the past several decades, increased demand for cashmere led to huge herds of goats in northern China and Mongolia. Between 1992 and 1999, the number of cashmere goats in Mongolia alone double from 5.5 million to 11 million. These goats’ sharp hooves — and their voracious appetites — laid waste to grasslands and stirred up dust storms, creating a genuine environmental threat in a region once used to more modest herds.

Mongolian herder ©Ted Wood

What we’re doing: The Conservancy is working in Mongolia (as well as the northern Chinese province called Inner Mongolia) on a wide variety of grassland issues. In Mongolia specifically, we’re working with NOYA Fibers, a project created by Colorado State University MBA students to launch a Mongolian-run sustainable cashmere operation.

Greg Goble, who started NOYA and is working on the project’s business plan, visited Mongolia in the summer of 2012. “I got to see exactly what the ecosystems mean to the herders and how they interact with the land,” he says. “It motivated me to really make this project work.”

On the Eastern Steppe, Greg met with herders living in Toson Hulstai and discussed with them the possibility of raising smaller herds and how that could lead to a sustainable cashmere yield that would attract premium rates in the international market. “Everyone says there’s too many goats,” Goble says. The trick is organizing the herders and developing the supply chain that will connect them to the market for environmentally responsible clothing.

The story of NOYA is the story of Mongolia: helping one of the world’s last nomadic cultures find sustainable solutions as they grow into a fully global nation. Making cashmere — one Mongolia’s biggest exports — into a responsibly produced commodity would be a big solution, for people and nature. Join the cause and stand with Mongolia.

[First image: Australian cashmere goats. Image source: Paul Esson/Flickr through a Creative Commons license. Second image: A Mongolian herder. Image source: Ted Wood.]

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.

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