To understand the realities of what makes cashmere unsustainable, we first have to look at our own expectations of the clothes we buy and the rate at which we buy them (...and throw them away!).
Like many other industries that supply the fashion industry, overconsumption has wreaked havoc in the cashmere sector and while a lot of people might consider the fibre to sit above the influence of fast fashion, unfortunately, cashmere too has fallen prey to its destructive nature.
Cashmere used to be the stuff of luxury daydreams, akin to Andrea Sachs’s luxury fashion glow up sequence in the Devil Wears Prada. However, these days you can live your best luxury life in Tesco, where you can get your hands on 100% cashmere garments at ‘bargain’ prices. While I firmly believe that stylish and beautiful clothing should be inclusive of a variety of budgets, there are some components of cashmere production that mean cashmere can’t quite fit into that mould without significant environmental and ethical challenges.
Cashmere is a low-yield crop
It takes around four goats one year to grow enough cashmere to produce one lightweight cashmere jumper, with one goat growing around 200 grams of cashmere a year. While that might not mean much to most people, if you compare cashmere to wool, some breeds of sheep can grow around 3 kilos of wool every year, enough to produce four or five jumpers. So if you were to produce the same amount of cashmere you’d need more goats and significantly more land, food and water to support them. This is just one factor as to why cashmere is and should always be more expensive.
The increased availability of cashmere in cheaper retailers means that goat numbers have already grown and the consumption of such resources has increased. This has led to widespread environmental damage and biodiversity loss in cashmere producing countries such as China and Mongolia because to put it simply, the environment can’t keep up. Learn more >
Cashmere Harvesting Takes Time
Cashmere is harvested once a year in spring and involves combing or shearing goats to remove their winter coats to ready them for the summer months. While shearing doesn’t take much time, combing is the industry preferred method. If done correctly, combing gently pulls the cashmere fibres away from the goat in one long piece instead of cutting it, which is better when it comes to spinning yarn (longer, uncut fibres make stronger yarn). It takes 10 to 15 minutes to comb just one goat and when you take into account the fact that Mongolia alone has around 30 million cashmere goats, that’s a lot of work for a time frame of just a few months.
Such pressure could lead to cut corners, with the welfare of the goats coming into question as those harvesting need to work harder to meet increasing targets and quantities of goats to meet the demands of mass production. It could be suggested that cashmere harvesting, at the rate it’s going now, should increasingly involve shearing, to cut down on time, but it could also be argued that shearing creates lesser quality yarn (as the fibres are shorter), which in turn would create lower quality garments which could add to our ever-growing textile waste problems. What is the right balance? Who knows!
The Human Cost
The human cost of the fashion industry is undeniable, with the overconsumption and under-appreciation of our clothes taking a significant toll on the people whose livelihoods are reliant on their production. The cashmere industry is no different. To use one example, due to the democratisation of cashmere, the value of cashmere in its raw fibre state (the fibre that’s just been harvested from a goat) has shrunk as push prices down to feed the demand. With herders earning less from their cashmere, herd sizes have to grow to make the same income, placing more pressure on grazing lands and ecosystems.
In Mongolia, cashmere herding is a big part of a wider nomadic cultural context, with over one million people living rurally in the country, making an income from herding goats, along with other animals. Pushed down prices and increased environmental pressure threatens such communities, as their land struggles with overgrazing. This has already led to culture loss, with herders moving to urban areas to seek employment and increased economic opportunities. Climate change also plays a significant role in this shift (more on that another time!).