Cashmere is one of the most luxurious fibres in the world. Often it is compared to cozy clouds as it is said to be the softest materials out there. It is a rare natural fibre and therefore often quite pricey. How is it produced, where does it come from and how does it impact the environment? Let’s find out together.
What even is Cashmere?
The fibre comes from the cashmere goat. It can be found in several Asian countries like Mongolia, China, Iran and Afghanistan and has been around since at least the 14th century. Other countries like New Zealand and Australia are also big producers of the rare type of wool. To get the goods, the farmers remove the fibres from under the cashmere goat’s chin with a special comb. This usually happens when the goats are ready to shed their winter coats in spring and is therefore usually a quite natural process. After that the wool is spun before it can be woven or knitted into the luxurious garments you see in display windows and online shops. In this overview we especially want to ask: Is cashmere sustainable and how cruelty-free is it really?
What makes cashmere so luxurious?
Cashmere is renowned for being soft. What makes cashmere so special from ordinary wool is that the fibre is longer and straighter than the wool of a sheep. It is also smoother and therefore cozier. On top of that, cashmere is three times more insulating than sheep wool. Next to being warmer than wool it is also lightweight and resistant to wrinkles. It is one of the most comfortable and breathable fibres, as well as hypoallergenic which makes it great for children, babies and people with sensitive skin. Talking about skin – cashmere involves no scratchiness at all!
Is cashmere sustainable?
Let’s start with the good: It is a natural fibre. Therefore it is renewable and biodegradable. However, to produce a single scarf it takes one year worth of a goat’s cashmere, explaining the rarity further. However, the demand for the luxurious cashmere wool has been rising making the process unsustainable.
Remember how we said sourcing cashmere is usually a natural process anyway? Well, now it gets tricky and also very sad. (Trigger warning: the videos linked in this next paragraph as sources are not for the faint-hearted.) Traditionally, combing off the wool of one goat takes up to 5 hours and does not really harm the animals. However, due to the rising demand herders now comb off the wool in 45 minutes and – trust me when I say this – it is not easy to watch. Often the goats are pinned to the ground and aggressively shaven. PETA and other organizations have uncovered the process of sourcing the wool that involves an immense amount of cruelty leading to cuts and other wounds. Because of this faster practice the cashmere wool gets thinner with each year lessening the goats’ value after a while. When it comes to that point the goats are butchered without any anesthesia.
The production of cashmere, especially since the demand has been rising, also takes its toll on the environment. It is said that six times as many goats roam the veldts of Mongolia than before. These goats usually feed on the grasses including the roots. This leads to the grass not growing back and therefore turning the meadows into deserts. Mongolians fear that the impact on the environment is irreversible. It is especially concerning since due to this water is becoming scarce. Additionally, sand storms are happening more frequently in the regions where cashmere is sourced.
What about the people and workers?
The growing demand for cashmere has negative effects on the herders, too. An introduction of a so-called cashmere tax on herders to reduce the amount of goats and therefore overgrazing only puts more pressure on the herders. Additionally, despite this tax there will still be too many goats roaming the Mongolian meadows. Therefore, the herders soon won’t be able to survive there anymore due to the impact on nature.The water scarcity and sand storms will drive them away from their homes. On top of that, the Mongolian cashmere which is often produced more traditionally is usually mixed with Chinese cashmere because it is simply cheaper. Many herders find it unfortunate that they cannot proudly sell their high-quality cashmere as their own. There are also a lot of concerns about the working conditions because of many herders being overworked and underpaid.
Does sustainable and cruelty-free cashmere exist?
There are factories and companies that want to ensure a safer practice for the animals and only work with the nomads of Mongolia or other countries who value the traditional practice and the animals’ lives. It is important to check who you are buying cashmere from as fast fashion brands usually don’t ensure cruelty free garments. Cruelty free products are more expensive. A high-quality, cruelty-free cashmere jumper costs at least 100 Euros, often more.
Some experts are advocating for more traceability, so that 100% traditional Mongolian wool can be sold as premium cashmere. There has already been an app introduced to the herders so they can register their cashmere. This app was created by a tech company working with the UN to ensure a decline of overgrazed areas in Mongolia. Now that more information regarding the production of cashmere is coming out even the big retailer ASOS has banned cashmere from its website. It is time for companies to take a stance against this animal cruelty, but there is more that can be done.
What can we do?
So, what exactly can we do as consumers after taking in all of this information? As always we are not here to make up any rules, because we want to strive for progress not perfection. It is okay to consume animal fibres, if that is something that aligns with your personal morals. Cashmere has many benefits and it gets especially tricky when looking at cashmere as the sole income of many Mongolian herders. However, if you would like to ensure that neither animals, nature nor workers are being harmed in the process of this, purchasing high-quality cashmere is an important first step. Especially, because this will lead to a more conscious consumption of slow fashion which will hopefully result in smaller amounts of goats needed. This, however, can only be achieved if more brands are transparent about their supply chains and allow for more traceability – remember: we can demand this as consumers.
Another option is to purchase clothes made from recycled cashmere which more and more bigger sustainable brands are offering. There are definitely some alternatives out there!