Environmental degradation, pollution, and starving animals are not usually the words associated with a fabric as exclusive and luxurious as cashmere. However, cashmere products have recently fallen victim to China’s “big box retail revolution”. Previously a luxury afforded only by the elite, present-day consumers can now find cashmere garments as cheap as 19.99 (USD) in stores like Wal-Mart. While this may seem great for the consumer, there are many other factors that are affected by the recent mass production of low-cost cashmere.
Quality vs. Price
Even though China and Mongolia supply most of the world’s cashmere even for the most expensive brands, the difference in quality come from manufacturing. Scotland and Italy are well known traditional centers of excellence when it comes to spinning and knitting cashmere. In these countries cashmere production is a centuries old trade. Companies in China often lack the design capabilities of high-end luxury mills that produce the world’s finest cashmere.
It takes a Mongolian goat roughly 4 years to shed enough hair to make one cashmere sweater. The hair has to be washed and sorted by hand, and once the raw material is harvested it must be spun into yarn and made into a garment. Traditionally this process is all carried out by hand, but in the new factories that are springing up all over China, they are mass producing this garment with machinery.
Cashmere is eight times warmer and significantly lighter than wool so cutting corners in production will no doubt have an adverse effect on its quality. The less expensive cashmere sold at big box retailers will wear out faster and lack the lavish, soft feel that makes cashmere so highly desired. (Not All Cashmere is Created Equal)
Reaching the Limit
“People forget that cashmere is not like cotton, it’s a very limited natural resource.” –Ma Feng of Lingwu Zhogyin Cashmere (Your Cheap Sweater’s Real Cost)
The increase in consumption and demand for cashmere all over the world has contributed to the desertification of the Alashan Plateau in China’s Gobi Desert, transcontinental pollution, and a decreased quality of life for both goats and their herders. Over the last 20 years goat populations have more than quadrupled, creating an enormous amount of stress on the environment around them.
Cashmere goats have grazed the grasslands of the Alashan Plateau down to nothing. This over-grazing has caused some of the worst dust-borne pollution on record. Dust from the barren lands of the Alashan are taken up by the wind and carried east towards North America where it combines with local pollution putting the quality of air at risk. In the worst cases, these enormous plumes of pollution have made it all the way over to the west coast of Africa.
In addition, the exhaustion of once plentiful land is transforming the Alashan Plateau into a desert, and as a result their food supply is decreasing exponentially. Starving goats are costing more than what they are making in profit, their birth rates are low, and the quality of the cashmere coats that they are able to produce is compromised.
Finding a Balance
Because production involves the use of limited natural resources, there will probably never be a way of making cashmere a 100 percent sustainable product. However there are alternatives as well as companies who are trying to make as little impact as possible. Chianti Cashmere in Italy uses goats from local farms where they are raised with respect to natural instinct and social patterns, and are not susceptible to grazing on untreated or unusable farmland so that they are healthy and can provide the highest quality of fibers. (Sustainable Cashmere)
The Peruvian Connection only gets its cashmere fibers from Alpacas and Vicuñas which are indigenous to the South American Landscape. Because the Vicuña is so small in population, they have come up with a system for carefully managed, limited commercial harvesting. This system guarantees that the animal was captured, sheared alive, returned to the wild and cannot be sheared again for another two years. Garments made from these two animals sell out very quickly and once they are gone The Peruvian Connection will not produce new ones until their next production cycle with respect towards the animals and the farmers who harvest them. (The Peruvian Connection)
As for the situation in China, one solution is to use camels as an alternative to cashmere goats. They are much more eco-friendly than goats and their grazing patterns complement those of goats which help with the ecological balance of the region. (Ecologia)
The current situation in China is having a reverse effect on the market that it created. Goats that were once profitable are now costing a fortune to keep alive, and with the decrease in supply, prices are starting to rise. This in combination with the severe environmental impacts that it has caused shows that soon the “big-box” production of cashmere production will soon have to come to an end. There simply aren’t enough resources.