Is there a cashmere sweater among your Christmas gifts ?

If there was a cashmere sweater among your Christmas gifts, you may now be enjoying its tactile warmth, or perhaps wondering at what cost this luxurious garment was produced.

Strong, light, and incredibly soft, quality cashmere is a downy underfleece grown by a specific breed of goat for extra insulation in winter. Known in China as the “diamond fibre”, it can be eight times as warm as sheep wool, yet modulates its insulating capacity according to humidity so you’re never too wam. Good cashmere won’t pill or crease, keeps its shape and even grows softer with wear.

It ought to be the ultimate sustainable luxury fabric. It needs no dry cleaning and little washing, and can last for more than a lifetime if properly cared for. Natural and biodegradable, it is best harvested by gently grooming the moulting animal, which is traditionally allowed to roam free. The square pashmina scarf has been hand woven for centuries from cashmere produced by nomadic herders – in fact the name originates from 16th-century Kashmiri artisans spinning shawls from material arriving from China, Afghanistan or Persia via the Silk Road. Because of its rarity and natural high performance, decent cashmere yarn is routinely recycled by Scottish mills.

What went wrong?

After a 19th century Scottish mill owner mechanised cashmere processing, for decades China and Mongolia would export the best of their cashmere raw to mills in Scotland or Italy to be spun, dyed and knitted into classic sweaters and cardigans with prestige labels like Pringle or Loro Piana. China has always dominated this market, contributing 70% of the world’s around 16,000 ton annual crop. Neighbouring Mongolia (aka Outer Mongolia) produces much of the remainder, often then smuggled into China for international export.

In the 1980s China’s new market-led garment industry exploded, and hundreds of cashmere companies sprang up. The country now exports around 20bn finished cashmere garments a year, with a total value approaching £700m, many to high-volume US or European retailers. 2,000 Chinese firms together control 93 per cent of global production, and can export to America for a quarter of the price of the Scottish equivalent.

In the mid-1990s designers like Clements Ribeiro put cashmere on the catwalk, while Pringle broadened its range beyond heritage styles and colours. But by the start of the century, the Scottish industry was already feeling the effects of Chinese competition. It’s now possible to buy a vast range of cashmere garments including hoodies, jogging suits, baby clothes and even bikinis.

With the mass market came a decline in quality. The very finest cashmere is the whitest, longest, finest hair of the goat’s underfleece, combed out and cleared of any stray outer hairs. Premium cashmere has hairs of 36mm or longer. Luxury knitwear designer Brunello Cucinelli claims to use only the fur from a very limited area of the animal’s throat.

By combing, one goat produces only a few ounces of this fine cashmere in a year, and would take five to produce enough for a quality sweater. After Mongolia’s cashmere industry was privatised in 1990, breeders began crossbreeding their goats with Russian breeds to boost production volumes, resulting in shorter, coarser fibres. Increased demand has led also to the use of inadequately dehaired fleece or shorter, coarser hairs from other parts of the goat, to blending with other materials and even to fakes made from yak, rabbit or even rat hair. Goats are routinely sheared rather than combed, producing a mixture of the fine hairs with the coarser outer fleece. Cheaper cashmere garments also tend to be loosely knitted, often from weak singly ply yarn, making them feel softer and helping the yarn go further.

A 100% cashmere sweater costing £20 at the supermarket won’t deliver decades of stylish wear. Shorter hairs mean it’s likely to pill, and the thinner, weaker fabric will stretch out of shape, quickly adding to the 14-15m tons of consumer generated textile waste produced every year in the US and UK.

Environmental destruction

Sustainability in fashion is about more than the lifespan of the finished product, of course. Perhaps surprisingly, concerns have been raised by climate scientists over the polluting impact on the entire planet of the rapid growth of cashmere production in the Mongolia region.

Once one of the world’s least-inhabited places, the chilly Alashan Plateau on the border of China with Mongolia was for centuries roamed by farmers of camels, sheep, cattle and goats. Their nomadic lifestyle meant the land was allowed to recover between grazings. The area was also home to now endangered snow leopards, wild horses, and Tibetan antelopes.

Farmers began to favour goats because of the prices available for cashmere, and to expand herds to meet demand. Ironically, they also tend to favour the hardier goat when the land becomes less hospitable. The number of cashmere goats in the Gobi had soared from 2.4m in the early nineties to nearly 26m by 2004.

The particular problem with goats is that their sharp hooves pierce the protective topsoil, while they can eat 10% of their body weight daily, nibbling close to roots and stripping the bark from seedlings, effectively killing off plants which would otherwise hold the dunes together. There is no longer space to rest the devastated land between onslaughts.

Enormous herds, combined with climate change and overuse of water by a range of businesses caused desertification at a rate of around 400 square miles a year. The resulting severe dust storms across Beijing and other urban areas join plumes of city pollution which have been seen to travel to the US and even as far as Africa. Attempts to repair the land have largely failed.

Animal welfare

The large unsustainable herds in Alashan, having reduced the area to a dustbowl, are now starving. When hungry, goats will eat the fur of their neighbors, down to the skin. Life expectancy is halved and the birthrate is plumetting. Beneficial combing has given way to shearing in many cases, which leads goats to then injure each other as they huddle together for warmth.

For cashmere production in the area to be environmentally sustainable, the goats must be farmed in enclosures and fed to prevent them grazing. Depending on where you stand on man’s relationship with the animal kingdom, you may regard this as equally unacceptable, I certainly do.

The human cost

China’s economic revolution raised living standards and lifted 400 million people from poverty, but cashmere farmers, who could be paid as little as $2.30 for a kilo of fleece which would eventually sell for up to $75 on the international market, quickly realised their business was unsustainable.

Unlike, say, cotton, cashmere is a very limited natural resource. Yet global demand led manufacturers to get into debt building new factories and buying more expensive equipment, while the glut pushed prices down.

Chinese authorities were forced to ration water in Alashan, closing factories for days at a time. Climate change, to which the cashmere market arguably contributes, has also been blamed for some exceptionally harsh winters which decimated herds, lowering yields and impairing the value of the fleece. Extreme winter weather in 2010 killed 8.8m animals across Mongolia, severely impacting herders’ incomes. Hundreds of farmers across the region have been forced to give up their nomadic lives altogether.

With Chinese clothing manufacture also comes the suspicion of sweatshop-style working conditions. Scottish cashmere workers command wages up to 36 times those in China, only in part due to exchange rates. Garment workers in China are often migrants from impoverished rural areas, typically living in dormitories and vulnerable to exploitation and mistreatment in deference to the bottom line. Unless there’s evidence to the contrary, it’s safest to assume a ridiculously cheap new 100% cashmere sweater was made by someone who was paid shockingly little for their time and expertise, particularly if you can’t see where corners were cut on quality.

What you can do

Cheap cashmere is officially over. Even the Cashmere World trade fair, held annually in Hong Kong, has broadened its scope to encompass other luxury fibres including alpaca, angora, vicuna, baby yak and chinchilla. The most valuable cashmere now comes from Italy, where it’s successfully farmed using humane methods based on clever selective breeding.

Haute couture is responding. Luxury brands like New Yorkers The Row are producing American manufactured, responsibly sourced cashmere knitwear in classic styles with price tags reflecting their ‘diamond’ value. One cream cable knit, which took 90 person-hours to create from Italian produced cashmere and wool, has a price tag of $4,490.

Other designers are steering consumers away from this over-plundered resource by promoting more plentiful and sustainable alpaca. Louis Vuitton and Versace have already presented the Peruvian fibre on this year’s Paris and Milan catwalks.

If you want to own cashmere, buy quality to last. Choose at least a 2-ply yarn and a knitted fabric that’s dense and regains its shape when stretched, and look for yarn quality details on the label. Lucy Siegle, author of To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out The World?, suggests a good, traditionally made garment will realistically cost around £200 in the UK.

Prestige Scottish labels like Brora make a point of buying their cashmere direct from herders using cash. Processing and manufacture takes place under responsible supervision and UK labour regulations. Other companies like Pure Collection, FTC and N Peal choose to support Chinese businesses by closely working vertically with every aspect of a China-based supply chain.

Transparent sustainability adds value for the conscious consumer, so if your garment was made by a company respecting people, animals and the planet, they’re likely to share this information, if not on labels, at least on their websites.

If you already own a valuable cashmere garment, take care of it.

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